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.

More recently, State Farm doled out another $250,000 to the Johnsons, the result of a March 2010 judgment in a breach-of-contract/bad-faith lawsuit that the couple filed in 2006.

That came after State Farm countersued the couple for fraud and sought reimbursement of about $850,000 in claim payments and other payouts.

The failed State Farm countersuit led in June to yet another lawsuit by the Johnsons against the insurer, to be heard in Maricopa County Superior Court.

The 911 calls flooded in just after 6 on the morning of December 20, 2003. A big house in north Peoria was engulfed in flames.

Next door, Phoenix firefighter Pat Bolley had just risen for work. According to police reports and court documents, Bolley said he smelled smoke, looked around his own residence, and then stepped outside.

The Johnsons' home was engulfed in flames.

Firefighters from several agencies responded quickly, but the blaze was so powerful that they could only work it defensively. Thankfully, no one was injured.

It was a Saturday, and the Johnsons were planning to work on the house later that morning. They and their daughters hoped to move in within weeks.

A friend called them about the fire.

"I was in a fog after that," Betty Johnson says.

The two drove to North 87th Avenue, about eight miles away, and were overwhelmed by what they saw.

"Bad," Mike Johnson recalls. "It was bad."

The home's address is listed as Peoria, but it sits in a county island, so the case fell under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff's Office.

Deputy Jim Oliver got to the scene shortly before 7 a.m. and first spoke with some of the neighbors. A woman told him she had sold the property to the Johnsons, to the dismay of the Bolley family next door.

The Johnsons had started construction about 2½ years earlier, and the woman told the deputy there were "several incidents of the Bolleys' coming outside to harass the Johnsons, when they showed up to work on the house. "

Someone wisely asked the distraught Johnsons to sit in an ambulance, and that is where Oliver spoke with them. He wrote that the couple was "obviously devastated" and in tears.

Betty Johnson said she had called the Phoenix Fire Department months earlier to complain about the ugly situation with the Bolleys. But the couple claimed to have no idea who would have torched the place, if it were arson.

Deputy Oliver spoke with another neighbor, Kent Arnold, yet another Phoenix firefighter, who also knew about the troubles between the Johnsons and the Bolleys. He said he had learned from Pat Bolley that the Johnsons allegedly were stiffing subcontractors for work on their new house.

Arnold told the deputy that he had seen Mike Johnson carry several large metal gas cans into the garage about a month earlier.

"He immediately thought to himself, 'Man, I bet that place burns,'" Oliver wrote in a report. "I asked what that meant. He said he thought Mr. Johnson might have money problems, especially with the contractors, so he might burn it down. He also told me, when he heard the dogs barking and got up and saw the fire, 'I got a gut feeling, they burned it down.'"

Sheriff's Detective Jim McCarthy arrived about 9:30 a.m. His task was to determine the cause and origin of the fire, which authorities already saw as suspicious, especially after they learned that the electricity to the house wasn't connected.

Another sheriff's investigator, Phil Dougherty, also spoke with the Johnsons, later writing, "Michael [Johnson] said there was nothing kept at the house to cause it to catch fire."

Mike Johnson tells New Times that he didn't mean there was nothing inside the home. He says he had been referring to flammable items such as gas cans. But that statement and others like it by the Johnsons loomed large in State Farm's eventual conclusion that the couple was grossly exaggerating their personal-property-loss claim.

Pat Bolley had left for work, and the sheriff's detectives wouldn't speak with him for a few days, when Detective Dougherty called the firefighter.

Bolley told Dougherty that the Johnsons were very upset with him for telling subcontractors working on the new home to beware of getting scammed by his future neighbors.

Bolley said he knew Betty had given letters to several subcontractors supposedly written by a BankOne (now Chase) loan officer on bank stationery.

Signed by a "Lillian" (no last name), the letters addressed to Betty Johnson said the bank would not release money to pay the subs because of supposedly shoddy workmanship.

Bolley said he learned from concrete subcontractor and fellow firefighter Robert Brewster that Betty had created the fraudulent letters to avoid paying Brewster and other workers.

On December 29, Detective Dougherty met with Brewster in Peoria. Brewster provided Dougherty with one of the "bank" letters that he said Betty Johnson had given him more than a year earlier.

Brewster said the letters gave the impression that the Johnsons had a construction loan, but BankOne officials told him that no such loan existed.

"Brewster said that the Johnsons basically put him out of business, and he no longer had the concrete company," the detective wrote.

A BankOne official later told Dougherty that there was no loan officer named Lillian. She told the detective that the Johnsons did not have a construction loan or line of credit with the bank.

Still, the official said, the bank didn't consider itself a victim of a fraud.

Within days, State Farm hired private fire investigator Joe Sesniak to explore the likely cause and origin of the blaze.

An internal State Farm "activity log" dated December 29 noted that Sesniak reported to the Special Investigations Unit that he had "learned from the [sheriff's] investigator that [Betty Johnson] is a possible suspect in the [fire] due to her involvement in a prior fraudulent case."

That was an apparent reference to the murky BankOne letters.

Certainly, the spotlight was squarely on the Johnsons. It would not be the first time that financially strapped homeowners, if that's what the Johnsons were, had taken that turn.

And if Betty Johnson had gone to the extreme of inventing a phony bank loan to avoid paying the workers, didn't that suggest a desperate situation?

On December 30, 2003, private fire investigator Sesniak met a team from the Sheriff's Office that included Detective Jim McCarthy at the burned-down house.

As is often the case in arson investigations, police and insurance company personnel worked closely.

Also there were members of a construction firm that specializes in debris removal, and a sheriff's fire-accelerant-sniffing dog, Maxie.

The ashes and rubble went about six feet deep in parts of the basement. It took more than a day to sort through the mess, and then for a crane operator to lift out the debris and place it down carefully in the yard.

The investigators hosed down the cleaned-out basement floor and quickly identified irregular fire patterns indicative of ignitable liquids having been dumped on it.

Maxie alerted his handler, Detective McCarthy, to 23 locations where gasoline had been poured.

As originally suspected, this was arson.

In a 2009 deposition, McCarthy said he and Sesniak found scant signs of any personal property, charred or not, inside the structure, except for some paint cans, a generator in the garage, and a few other items.

Insurance companies usually start working on claims within days after something happens. Someone interviews the insured and inspects any property damage, in a preliminary effort to assess potential liability.

But State Farm did not speak to the Johnsons for almost three months after the fire, an unusually long gap after such a major loss.

The Johnsons' policy covered both structural damage and items inside the home. The structure was totaled. But the issue of what personal things had been in it when it burned would erupt into a war between State Farm and the couple.

On January 6, 2004, State Farm sent the Johnsons a "reservation of rights" letter, putting them on notice that it wouldn't cover certain losses, for example, if it turned out the Johnsons had been the arsonists.

The next day, State Farm special investigator Melissa Bishop heard from Patrick Bolley, the Phoenix firefighter who had gotten crossways with the Johnsons. A transcript of that phone call shows the effort Bolley made to paint the Johnsons as bad guys.

Bolley went on and on about the BankOne letters, saying Robert Brewster's concrete company "wound up going bankrupt because he didn't receive payment from [Betty Johnson]."

Bolley said Brewster and other subcontractors had given him copies of the letters "because they were pretty upset."

Apparently referring to the BankOne letters, Bolley told the investigator, "I guess my gut feeling is, I just don't like to see people get away with doing evil things to people."

Bolley later faxed over copies of some of the letters on official Phoenix Fire stationery.

A few days later, Bolley's neighbor and fellow Phoenix firefighter Kent Arnold called State Farm to repeat his damning story about Mike Johnson's supposedly toting several gas cans into the residence.

Robert Brewster himself contacted State Farm in early February 2004, explaining to investigator Bishop that the Johnsons owed him money. He was wondering whether State Farm could cover the debt.

Bishop told him that the company could not help him. Brewster mentioned the BankOne letters and offered to give an official statement, but State Farm never took him up on it.

The Johnsons had hired a public adjustor to advocate for them (for a percentage of the proceeds) during the insurance-claims process.

The Johnsons and the adjustor, Dave Skipton, finally met with State Farm's Melissa Bishop in early March 2004.

Skipton says he had tried to convince State Farm that the Johnsons were not dirty.

"They just were convinced that their insured [the Johnsons] were the arsonists, and it definitely affected the way they were handling the claim," he tells New Times.

"I told them, 'Are you serious? This was their dream house. These people saved, paid cash, built it themselves, no mortgage, were way underinsured, were three weeks away from moving in, and so on. What incentive could they possibly have had to burn it down?"

Investigator Bishop asked the couple at the recorded interview, "You had nothing in the basement other than the paint?"

"No, just the paint," Mike Johnson replied, a similar statement to what he had told sheriff's detectives as his house burned.

But Betty Johnson told Bishop that they had been moving their stuff over to the new home for weeks. She mentioned five combo TV/DVD/VCRs (Christmas presents for each of their daughters), beds, clothing, mattresses, family keepsakes, exercise equipment, computers, and other belongings.

Betty said she and Mike, with the occasional help of friends, had stowed many items in the basement. (Some of those friends later corroborated her statement. Judy Moore, a fellow school volunteer with Betty, told another State Farm investigator that she had seen a big-screen TV in the living room and unopened boxes in each of the girls' rooms that supposedly held the TV/DVD/VCR units.)

Fire investigator Sesniak already had told Melissa Bishop that very few remnants of personal property had emerged from the rubble, which led him (and Detective McCarthy) to conclude that the house had been practically empty.

But Bishop didn't confront the Johnsons about that.

Instead, the State Farm investigator asked them, "Did you start the fire?"


"Did you have anyone else start the fire?"


In order, the Johnsons listed three people whom they suspected of arson — neighbor Pat Bolley, concrete man Robert Brewster, and an ex-boyfriend of their oldest daughter.

Betty Johnson conceded that she had not paid Brewster about $10,000 of their bill from him, because he had allegedly cost them money and time by making critical construction errors.

Melissa Bishop never did raise the issue of the BankOne letters, later telling the Johnsons' attorney that the peculiar letters didn't matter in the handling of the insurance claim.

State Farm's attorneys would disagree, arguing that the letters demonstrated that Betty Johnson was fully capable of committing fraud and exaggerated the extent of what personal property had burned up in the fire.

Mike Johnson told Bishop that he hoped everything would soon be resolved.

"They always say, 'You're in good hands,'" he told the State Farm investigator.

"That's Allstate," she corrected him. "We're the 'good neighbors.'"

State Farm investigators didn't believe Betty Johnson's claim of having a significant amount of personal property at her burned-down house.

Could they have been right?

Sure, and there still was a way, after the Johnsons' March 2004 interview with Melissa Bishop, to confirm their suspicions.

Though months had passed, the burned-up rubble still was piled up in the Johnsons' yard. An analysis of it by State Farm after the March 2004 interview would have seemed the obvious next move.

Instead, in mid-April 2004, State Farm hired a firm to clear the debris off the Johnsons' property and cart it to the dump.

Later, investigator Bishop conceded that "the fire debris may have been evidence of what the contents in the home were before the house burned [and State Farm should have] had somebody sift through every single square inch of that property and look specifically to try to catalog items."

The latter never happened.

That month, unknown to the Johnsons or to State Farm, the unsolved arson case was about to break wide open, with a wild turn no one could have predicted.

On April 14, 2004, a Peoria police detective reported to his peers at the Sheriff's Office that a woman had called him with an intriguing tale.

She said her boyfriend was in jail and wanted to talk to the cops about a fire in Peoria some months earlier.

The detective already had met with the inmate, Brian Cappe, and learned this: Three Phoenix firefighters — Darryl Lanning, Joe Avey, and Chris Bishop — allegedly set a fire at a big home about a week before the previous Christmas.

A week later, sheriff's detectives Dougherty and McCarthy videotaped their own interview with Cappe.

He said he knew Darryl Lanning and was repairing the firefighter's car on a weekend night shortly before Christmas. Lanning had asked if he could borrow Cappe's police scanner, and the pair met at a gas station in west Phoenix. Cappe said Lanning grabbed a gas can out of a car trunk, and Cappe asked him what was up.

"Dirty deeds," he said Lanning replied.

Lanning asked Cappe if he wanted to make some extra money that night, but Cappe had other plans. Before leaving, he filled up another gas can and introduced Cappe to another firefighter, Chris Bishop.

The next morning around sunrise, Cappe said, Lanning, Bishop, and another firefighter, Joe Avey, showed up unexpectedly at his home.

Cappe said the three were high on meth and talkative. He said he learned that morning and in subsequent conversations with Lanning that they had torched a house for a subcontractor who hadn't been paid for his work there.

He thought the subcontractor was a Glendale firefighter by the name of Bannister, who also worked construction on the side.

Cappe told the detectives he also was aware that Avey and Lanning had teamed up on insurance and stolen-property scams involving cars, trailers, and other high-dollar items.

In a subsequent interview, Cappe told the detectives he had scribbled down information about those involved in the fire before he was jailed for violating probation for theft and forgery.

Cappe's girlfriend found the handwritten note and got it to authorities.

It turns out that "Bannister" actually was "Brewster," and "Glendale" was "Peoria," but Cappe's account was bearing up.

On May 17, 2004, sheriff's deputies served a search warrant at Darryl Lanning's home, where they recovered what they suspected was stolen property.

Lanning was taken into custody, and consented to an interview with detectives. The ex-Marine said he had resigned from Phoenix Fire a few months earlier because of his longtime meth addiction.

Lanning said his best buddies were Avey and Bishop, his former colleagues at Station 18.

Lanning soon confessed to his direct role in burning down the Johnsons' home — for $250.

He said he had broken into the place with Avey and that Bishop had been the lookout and getaway driver.

The ringleader, according to Lanning (and years later, Avey), was Robert Brewster, a pal of Avey's who worked at Peoria Fire.

Lanning agreed to call Avey at Station 18 with detectives listening in; he told his pal on tape about the search warrant for the stolen property. Lanning said he was worried something was going to come up about the fire.

"Don't say one word," onetime Army Ranger Avey told him.

As the two men spoke, sheriff's deputies prepared to swoop into the fire station at 23rd Avenue and Camelback. They soon arrested Avey and Bishop without incident.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio's public relations squad had tipped off favored media to the unique situation, and the cameras rolled as the handcuffed firefighters (their Phoenix Fire T-shirts turned inside out) were led to the county jail in downtown Phoenix.

Neither man would speak with detectives. Their mug shots, which were plastered all over the local news, made them look more like street thugs than men sworn to protect and save citizens from fire and other dangers.

The detectives went to Brewster's home in Peoria but did not arrest him, asking only to speak with him.

Brewster said it was "no secret to anybody . . . the passion I had behind it — losing my money [to the Johnsons]. I talked to my extended family at the Fire Department about it, and everybody knows the story. I got screwed, and I moved on with my life."

Brewster claimed not to know why anyone was implicating him. He said he did not recall speaking with the arson suspects immediately before or after the fire.

Actually, records show that Brewster and Avey spoke by cell phone about four hours before the December 20 fire and, again, hours afterward.

"I had nothing to do with this. So if you're accusing me of it?" Brewster said, ending the interview by asking for an attorney.

Veteran Phoenix firefighters accused of turning into arsonists was a big story. Sheriff Arpaio called a press conference, at which he strongly suggested that more arrests were forthcoming.

Peoria Fire suspended Brewster with pay pending the results of an internal investigation.

That day, State Farm sent a letter to the Johnsons revoking its earlier "reservation of rights" warning notice, later noting in an internal memo, "We no longer had a question of whether or not they set the fire."

But, privately, the insurer still the couple's personal property claim, the precise extent of which still was uncertain.

State Farm issued a check for $554,000 soon after the arrests to cover the alleged replacement value of the home itself and some temporary living costs (minus a $2,000 deductible).

"State Farm couldn't wait to pay that, after holding out for months, because they were so sure the Johnsons were the arsonists," public adjustor Dave Skipton says. "It was [the company's] way of saying, 'Please don't sue us for bad faith.'"

Any good feelings that the Johnsons may have had were short-lived.

Sheriff's Detective Phil Dougherty told Betty Johnson by phone within hours of the arrests that he still needed to talk to her about those BankOne letters.

A few days later, Betty says, she informed Dougherty that a TV reporter had knocked on her door to ask about the letters, which she says the reporter claimed to have seen.

Dougherty's police report said that Betty told him during the call that she had been approached in 2002 by "Lillian," who said she worked as a loan officer for BankOne (supposedly producing business cards to prove it).

"Lillian" wanted Betty to privately invest money in a side deal with her, but Betty told Dougherty she never did. Betty claimed that the mysterious woman helped her compose the phony "construction loan" letters on bank stationery, which Betty in turn delivered to four subcontractors, including Robert Brewster.

It sounds dubious.

But Betty Johnson's oldest child, Summer, says she recalls a well-dressed woman named Lillian coming by the house to speak privately with her mother.

"She was a real person," says Summer, now a mother of three and wife of a Phoenix police officer. "My mom would not make something like that up."

Betty tells New Times that "Lillian" disappeared for good in the fall of 2002 after Robert Brewster filed a complaint with a sheriff's deputy. A sheriff's "field report" shows that the deputy came by the Johnsons' home to sort things out and then chalked up the dispute between Brewster and the Johnsons as a civil matter.

"When I confronted Lillian after the deputy came by, that was it — never saw her again," Betty says. "I made a big mistake by dealing with her. But it wasn't like we didn't pay people. We just didn't pay Brewster any more money because he didn't make his wrongs right on the job."

Court and other records show that none of the Johnsons' subcontractors, including Brewster, filed lawsuits, liens, or other public complaints against the Johnsons.

Sheriff's deputies served a search warrant on the Johnsons' home within hours of Betty's speaking with Detective Dougherty. Among other items, investigators seized two of the couple's computers and BankOne stationery.

Betty says another reporter contacted her shortly after the raid, saying Joe Arpaio was having another press conference the next day.

She gathered some girlfriends and drove to the sheriff's downtown Phoenix headquarters, apparently talking her way in by announcing herself as "the victim."

Betty recalls, "The sheriff was up there blowing smoke. He's talking about more arrests coming and so on. Someone in the media recognizes me and lets him know who I am. [Arpaio] was ticked! [He says,] 'What are you doing here?' This is my press conference!'"

A headline in the following day's Arizona Republic read, "Investigation in Arson Taking in Homeowners."

It noted the search of the Johnsons' home and that "the web of firefighters, contractors, and homeowners" had begun to unravel.

It sounded like quite the conspiracy, especially in light of the fact that the Johnsons didn't know any of the arrested Phoenix firefighters.

That would be the last story published about the case for years.

Sheriff's detectives wanted to charge Betty Johnson with committing fraud with the BankOne letters, but county prosecutors would not cooperate.

They also did not seek a grand jury indictment against Robert Brewster, who was allowed back on his Peoria fire truck about four months after his alleged cohorts were arrested.

The criminal case against the Phoenix firefighters soon fell into limbo: For unknown reasons, prosecutors "scratched " the charges against the trio shortly after the high-profile arrests, which meant they wanted further investigation to justify the filing of formal charges.

The three were released from custody. Avey soon resigned from Phoenix Fire, and Bishop remained on administrative leave (Lanning already had quit).

That July, the Johnsons sued their State Farm insurance agent for allegedly underinsuring the burned-up home on North 87th Drive.

The following month, their adjustor, Skipton, finally submitted a personal-property inventory to the insurer — a staggering claim of $238,000 in fire losses covering hundreds of belongings that included a 60-inch TV, leather couches, a pool table, and a pinball machine.

Though State Farm investigators were highly dubious, company claims adjustors moved the case along.

Claims section manager Debbie Smith wrote that "due to the extent of damage, there was only fine unidentifiable debris in the basement."

That comports with what Patrick Andler, the Johnsons' fire expert in the subsequent lawsuit against State Farm, later concluded. Andler said temperatures in the fire exceeded 1,200 degrees and probably consumed whatever combustible products were in the home.

State Farm, in October 2004, paid the Johnsons' about $41,000 of the requested $238,000, leaving the rest of the claim unresolved.

Also that month, as if this case needed another twist, water pipes burst at the Johnsons' residence, the home they remained in because of the fire.

They said the damage by the flood ruined thousands of dollars of new personal property they had bought in the fire's aftermath.

But State Farm investigators suspected that at least some of the water-ruined items were the same as those the Johnsons claimed had burned up in the fire.

If true, that would be felony insurance fraud. But, again, proof was lacking.

In early 2005, another State Farm special investigator, Lisa Grant, picked up the Johnsons' file — the fire and the water claims.

Within just a few days, Grant asked the Arizona Department of Insurance to consider the Johnsons for criminal prosecution on fraud charges.

But a state investigator concluded that the information from State Farm "did not establish a basis to allege that criminal fraud had occurred."

Again thwarted, State Farm decided in mid-2005 to question the Johnsons in an "examination under oath," a tool used by insurers to grill their customers in contested claims cases.

Betty Johnson told an attorney for the insurer about the aftermath of the fire, "It was a very devastating time, so it was very hard to remember everything that I'd been packing up over the months before."

Nothing she said swayed State Farm, which decided internally to deny the rest of the Johnsons' personal-property claim for losses in the fire.

Also, the insurer still had not done anything about the couple's flood claim, another sum of about $40,000.

Then, in late 2005, State Farm tried to pull a fast one.

The Johnsons' insurance agent agreed to settle his lawsuit — the one that accused him of negligently underinsuring the couple — for $5,000.

State Farm sent that amount to the couple but also included a "general release" document with the other paperwork.

By signing it, the Johnsons would have released State Farm from "all liability whatsoever," including pending personal-property claims and future lawsuits that the couple might file against the company.

The Johnsons' current attorney, Steve Silverman, recently told a judge of State Farm's gambit: "At the base of it, it was a heavy-handed tactic that said, 'Take it, or we're going to bury you further.'"

Betty and Mike Johnson declined to sign the document.

The County Attorney's Office had not forgotten its stalled criminal case against the firefighters.

In November 2005, a grand jury indicted Darryl Lanning on arson and other felonies unrelated to the Johnson case, including helping torch two of his pal Joe Avey's vehicles for insurance money.

Lanning pleaded guilty to arson in March 2006 and agreed to testify against his former firefighter buddies if it came to that.

Indictments against Joe Avey and Chris Bishop followed. Like Lanning, Avey also faced several felonies other than breaking into and burning down the Johnsons' home.

Chris Bishop, too, was facing charges of arson and burglary, though no evidence suggested that he had served as anything more than the getaway driver.

Bishop went on trial in February 2008, with Darryl Lanning as the first prosecution witness.

The irony that Robert Brewster, the alleged architect of the arson plot, was getting off scot-free as Bishop faced prison time did not escape trial observers, including Betty Johnson.

Chris Bishop's trial ended with his acquittal.

Joe Avey pleaded guilty to arson a few months later.

In May 2008, Lanning and Avey each was sentenced to three years in prison. Lanning already had served most of that time in jail and was released from prison a few months later.

Avey was released last August.

State Farm's sneaky "general release" ploy had failed and, in April 2006, the company paid the Johnsons about $38,000 to cover losses claimed in the house flood.

But the company officially denied the rest of the Johnsons' claim for the property allegedly lost in the fire — by then more than $200,000.

That led the Johnsons in May 2006 to sue State Farm for bad faith and breach of contract.

State Farm responded by countersuing the couple for fraud and asking for all of its money back — more than $800,000 in all.

State Farm has very deep pockets and can wear down litigants over time. But the Johnsons stayed the course and, last March, accepted a $250,000 "offer of judgment" from State Farm, akin to a settlement.

The judgment deals with what happened before the Johnsons filed the May 2006 lawsuit against State Farm.

That didn't end matters in this protracted case. In June, the Johnsons filed a new lawsuit against State Farm, claiming, among other things, that the company had abused the legal process by filing its countersuit.

The Johnsons contend that the company tried to intimidate and ruin them financially with the countersuit, while knowing it owed the couple tens of thousands of dollars in personal-property claims.

"They're not a good neighbor," Betty Johnson says.

Onetime arson suspect Chris Bishop got his job back at Phoenix Fire after his acquittal and worked there until last April.

Then, on April 7, the divorced father of three stepped into his garage and hanged himself. In a long suicide note, Bishop took pains not to blame his agency, or anybody else, for his demise.

As for Robert Brewster, his reborn career at Peoria Fire seems to be going well.

The big guy does a good Santa Claus: A 2009 city newsletter described him as having "a jolly good time handing out candy canes and posing for holiday photographs on the picture-perfect December morning."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin