State Farm Tried to Nail Its Customers for Arson, but the Bad Guys Were Firefighters

This story is about firefighters who morphed into arsonists, an insurance company that wasn't a "good neighbor," and a Peoria couple whose dream house was reduced to rubble.

It is an ongoing saga in which just about everyone involved, even arson victims Betty and Mike Johnson, have something to answer for.

It has been more than seven years since a gasoline-accelerated fire destroyed the Johnsons' nearly finished 8,000-square-foot home on North 87th Avenue in north Peoria.

But the injustices stemming from the outrageous events of December 20, 2003, hardly have faded from memory.

The wrongs include how a powerful insurance company's working in concert with Maricopa County sheriff's detectives to try to force the Johnsons — initially suspected as the arsonists — into financial submission.

On a parallel front, this story also considers the frustrating inability of law enforcement to bring to justice the alleged ringleader of the high-profile arson case.

That was Robert Brewster, a strapping Peoria firefighter whose hatred of Betty Johnson over a long-standing construction-contract dispute (Brewster ran a concrete firm on the side) was no secret.

Two Phoenix firefighters convicted and imprisoned for torching the Johnsons' home confessed to authorities that Brewster paid them a paltry $250 each for their efforts.

The pair, Joe Avey and Darryl Lanning, admitted to breaking into the empty house, pouring gasoline in its 2,000-square-foot basement, and igniting it before fleeing into the predawn darkness.

They claimed to be jacked up on methamphetamine at the time.

Another Phoenix firefighter, Chris Bishop, was the getaway driver.

The men said Brewster hired them to exact revenge on Betty Johnson, who, he later told police, had stiffed him for about $10,000, an unpaid debt that he claimed put him out of business.

But Robert Brewster, who declined to comment for this story, was able to evade the jaws of justice.

Court records show that he asserted his right against self-incrimination after the arson case broke open in April 2004. In 2008, Brewster took the Fifth during litigation brought by the Johnsons against State Farm Insurance, on the ground that his answers might be used against him in court.

On a recent Saturday morning, Betty and Mike Johnson are visiting the cavernous burned-out shell of what was supposed to be their dream home.

It is a sunny day, and the Johnsons' two youngest daughters, 15-year-old twins Krystal and Taylor, have come along on their bicycles.

Betty Johnson describes how she and her husband of 30 years saved up for the home-building project.

"No mortgage, no construction loan, everything paid for in cash," she says. "We were the general builders, and we did a lot ourselves. We knew it wasn't going to be easy, and it wasn't. But we really wanted it for us and our five daughters."

About all that is left of the structure are the concrete slabs that Robert Brewster poured years ago. The place looks like a bomb hit it. The site remains fenced in on a 2½-acre lot in a neighborhood that retains a rural feel.

A few feet from a block wall that runs along the south edge of the property is a freestanding garage built to hold the Johnsons' RV. It was undamaged in the fire.

The garage is notable because its unusual size blocked a neighbor's view of nearby Sunrise Mountain. That was one cause of the strife between the Johnsons and those would-have-been neighbors, Patrick and Linda Bolley.

Like the arsonists, Pat Bolley, is a Phoenix firefighter, but authorities never found evidence that he knew ahead of time about the arson plot.

The Johnsons gaze down into the exposed basement, where the arsonists set the intense fire with their jugs of gasoline, flares, and matches.

It wasn't a typical cellar. Rather, it was a home within a home that was to have included a second master suite and a recreation room. The house had six bedrooms, 4½ baths, and a five-car garage.

The couple operates a small firm that specializes in rehabbing other people's homes. But, for various reasons, they have not yet pulled together their own reconstruction project.

Mike Johnson, as soft-spoken as his wife is chatty, looks up from the abyss.

"This will rise out of the ashes — someday" is all he can manage.

State Farm assessed the replacement value of the residence — the actual structure — at $542,000, a figure much lower than it would have been if the Johnsons had not acted as their own builders and if the home had not been underinsured by a company agent.

State Farm issued the Johnsons a check for about that amount in mid-2004 after the company was forced to admit that the couple hadn't been involved in burning down their house.

Records suggest that both State Farm and Maricopa County sheriff's detectives had continued to suspect the Johnsons until the case took its most unexpected turn.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin