Burning Sensei-tion: A Cadre of Karate Instructors Make the Stupidest Decision of Their Lives and Wind Up Dead or Facing Prison Time

Twenty gallons of gasoline were poured into a 400-square-foot room.

The pungent liquid soaked the floor, desk, and computer inside the small office. It was about 12:30 a.m. on the cool Sunday morning of June 14, and the room was dark. Josh Robinson stood amid the puddles, awash in fumes. One of his partners in crime waited outside the second-floor window on top of a wooden, latticework awning. Two others had climbed down already.

The 28-year-old Robinson then made the mistake that would cost him his life. He struck a match.

The detonation briefly turned night into day. A fireball engulfed the room and the man inside. A surveillance camera hooked up to a motion detector down the hall blinked on and off in the moments after the ignition, recording slightly more than four seconds of video.

Across the street, a group of women stood and stared. They had been chatting in the driveway of a house a moment earlier when the crinkle of broken glass caught their attention. The mixed residential-and-business neighborhood near 40th Street and Baseline Road in Phoenix was usually quiet at that time of night. A minute later, they heard more breaking glass and an alarm. The homeowner, her daughter, and a friend moved to get a better view of the two-story structure, which they mistook for an apartment complex in the dim light. Actually, it was the headquarters of Young Champions of America, a national business that teaches such activities as karate, soccer, and cheerleading to kids.

As they watched, flames erupted from the structure. One of the women called 911.

The flashover fire spread quickly across the second floor and up to the roof. To their horror, the women saw the figure of a man stumble out of the inferno.

"They could see the whole body was in flames, and he was kind of waving his hands around," a police report of the incident states. He began rolling over and over on top of the awning for what seemed like "forever" to the witnesses.

The homeowner's daughter grabbed a T-shirt from her mother and dashed across 40th Street to the raging fire.

Another section of the erratic video shows two of the burning man's buddies trying to pat out the flames just before he falls from the platform. The camera didn't record much else.

Robinson's head smacked the ground hard, but it didn't matter much by then. His hair and clothing had been mostly seared off his charred body, and he'd inhaled a fatal amount of smoke.

As the building fire raged, the young woman approached the arsonist's body, which was still burning. She used the T-shirt to dab at the flames on the victim. Before the first fire truck arrived, she saw a "redheaded woman" standing by her side, recounts Phoenix Fire Department Captain Marika McCue, who helped conduct the investigation.

"Do something!" the redhead screamed hysterically.

"I am doing something!" the homeowner's daughter shouted.

The first firefighters at the scene, records state, saw two women — neither of them a redhead — patting flames on the victim. The burned man was dead. Firefighters broke through a first-floor door that led into a warehouse space, thinking they could save one side of the structure. "However, the fire traveled exceedingly fast, and they were forced to abandon the interior of the building," the report states.

The fire gutted the company's offices and warehouse, ruining equipment and destroying many years' worth of memorabilia.

The witness never saw the redhead again, and McCue was unable to find any trace of her during months of investigation.

McCue's best guess is that the traumatic events distorted the witness' memory. The "redheaded woman," McCue believes, was actually 20-year-old Jonathan Antonucci, one of Robinson's known accomplices in the fire.

Antonucci pleaded guilty in October to arson and manslaughter, which allowed him to escape getting tried for first-degree murder (anyone helping to carry out a crime in which a death occurs is subject to Arizona's felony-murder rule). But in a jailhouse interview with New Times, Antonucci denied he was at the scene as Robinson lay dying. He didn't know what happened to his best friend, he claims, because he ran away from him and the other arsonists seconds after "the incident" began.

His version is hard to believe, based on the evidence. And, as his former employers note, he's got a reputation as a liar and a cheat.

To dozens of Valley kids, he was "Sensei Jon": tall, lean, ambitious, and charismatic, the eldest son of a Baptist preacher, a talented and popular karate instructor.

But Sensei Jon, even as he preached about Jesus and the ethics that went along with martial arts, had joined the dark side. He would become a thief and a schemer. It doesn't seem a stretch to imagine that the plan to torch the building was hatched by Antonucci, who had been stealing thousands of dollars from Young Champions and already had started his own karate company for kids.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.