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Rod Anderson sentenced to 15 years in prison for Hereford House fire

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  • Federal trial begins in Hereford House arson case

    Federal trial begins in Hereford House arson case

    Monday, September 9 2013 4:38 PM EDT2013-09-09 20:38:04 GMT
    The downtown Hereford House was definitely torched.Federal jurors will decide whether Rod Anderson, part owner of the restaurant, hired men to torch the restaurant on Oct. 20, 2008. The restaurant at MainMore >>
    A federal trial has begun into whether the part owner of the Hereford House chain hired two men to torch the downtown Kansas City restaurant in order to get insurance money to rebuild.
    More >>
KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -

Rod Anderson, a part owner of the Hereford House restaurant chain, was sentenced on Monday to 15 years in federal prison for hiring men to torch the downtown restaurant in a bid to collect insurance money.

U.S. District Judge D. Gregory Kays issued the sentence after saying he had never seen so many supportive letters on behalf of a defendant, but Kays also said Anderson's crimes were quite serious and could not be taken lightly.

The 15 years is for all four counts on which a jury found Anderson guilty in 2012, and it was the minimum amount that Anderson could have received. Supporters had asked that he get the lightest sentence possible.

Anderson's defense attorney, J.R. Hobbs, put on testimony about Anderson's character, charitable efforts and big heart. The defense noted that this was his first criminal charge, and Hobbs still maintains his client's innocence.

Anderson is appealing the verdict. He had rejected plea deals that would have allowed him to serve a fraction of the time as he maintained his innocence.

Prosecutors had sought 19 years in prison. They said that an employee, a passer-by or a firefighter could have been killed when the explosion occurred in 2008, and it was fortunate that no one was hurt.

Vincent Pisciotta and Mark A. Sorrentino, who rigged the explosion, also faced the judge Monday. Pisciotta, who had a previous criminal history, was sentenced to 20 years in prison while Sorrentino was sentenced to 15 years.

The three men will also be ordered to pay restitution, which still must be determined by Kays. Prosecutors are seeking $1.44 million in restitution.

Anderson apparently thought the machine that recorded surveillance tape was inside the restaurant, but didn't realize the machine was stored at the corporate headquarters so it wasn't destroyed by the fire, according to testimony at the trial.

The surveillance video showed Anderson giving Pisciotta a tour of the restaurant on Sept. 27, 2008, and giving him the security code and key so that he could enter the restaurant. The men held a walk through on Oct. 12, 2008. The two men carried 14 jugs of gasoline into the restaurant and lit it with cigars and cigarettes during the early morning hours of Oct. 20, 2008. The water supply was shut off and the alarm system deactivated so firefighters wouldn't receive an early alert, prosecutors said.

A third man was also involved who has not been identified.

Last year, prosecutors said Anderson was out of options - his restaurant in Lawrence was failing, the aging landmark one at 20th and Main streets in Kansas City was struggling because of the economy and the new downtown entertainment district and he needed cash to keep afloat. They said Anderson was on the verge of personal bankruptcy and his finances were in shambles.

The defense has maintained that Anderson didn't have a reason to torch the restaurant. They said last year that the insurance money Anderson would have gotten wouldn't have been enough to turn the restaurant around. They also said he met with one of the men because he thought the man was an investor, and didn't burn his restaurant. They also argued it wasn't him on the tape.

Anderson also owned a small fraction of the business and defense attorneys said he wouldn't have collected enough money to make a difference.

Anderson did file a $2.4 million insurance claim. Anderson was found guilty of mail fraud because he signed the paperwork and collected a $300,000 advance, but the men weren't since they did not.

Employees said Anderson was too caring to be involved in criminal activity.

"There's no way I can believe this. I really can't," said Hereford House manager Gene Odell. "I think he was set up, but that's my personal opinion."

In a statement issued Monday, Anderson's attorneys maintained that he "sought to preserve it, not destroy it," in reference to the restaurant.

"The fire was a horrific and frightening event, which not only ended Mr. Anderson's dream of preserving a Kansas City landmark, but also destroyed a restaurant beloved by employees and generations of customers," the statement said. "It certainly was not an event planned or carried about by Mr. Anderson."

The attorneys said many unanswered questions remain "and justice demands that those questions be answered," and they along with Anderson and his family are working to investigate all clues and find answers.

U.S. Attorney Tammy Dickinson said the three men destroyed a landmark for greed, and she is satisfied with the sentences.

"These defendants torched a landmark restaurant in order to cheat the insurance company out of millions of dollars," she said. "They deliberately created a violent explosion and an inferno that endangered the lives of many others. Their greed and deceit easily could have been lethal, not only for innocent neighbors and passer-bys, but for firefighters and other first responders."

Anderson is 60, Pisciotta is 59 and Sorrentino is 47. None of the three are eligible for parole and have been in federal custody since their convictions last year. 

Sorrentino's wife gave pivotal testimony against her husband, saying he came home reeking of the smell of gasoline and was flushed in the face. Defense attorneys have questioned her veracity and whether she had an ax to grind against Sorrentino.

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