Longform

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

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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?"

"No."

"Did you have anyone else start the fire?"

"No."

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin