Longform

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

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"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.'"

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin