OH: Arson Probe Focuses on Fired RTA Driver's Property

July 20--Dayton police have reopened an investigation into a 2010 arson that destroyed a house being purchased by the fired RTA bus driver whose account of being shot by three black youths in February was found not to be credible by police.

A Dayton Daily News investigation found Rick "Rickey" Wagoner purchased four residences under land contract that have had arson fires since 2010 -- the most recent fire occurring earlier this month.

Police reopened an investigation on July 7 involving an Oct. 24, 2010, arson fire of a vacant two-story wood-frame duplex at 53 W. Mumma Ave. in Dayton's Five Oaks neighborhood. The property, now a vacant lot, was purchased by Wagoner in 2007 under land contract with Mark B. Harris, who also sold other properties to Wagoner.

Four of the properties purchased by Wagoner had fires that have been ruled arson, including a July 5 fire at 1215 W. Riverview Ave. A massive Aug. 8, 2010, fire involved two properties that were under land contract by Wagoner -- at 902 Five Oaks Ave. and 24 Bellevue Ave. Sixty firefighters were called in to fight that fire, which destroyed four homes in all.

No one has been charged in connection with any of the arson fires involving Wagoner's properties and no injuries were reported.

Contacted at his home by the Dayton Daily News and WHIO-TV, Wagoner would not respond to questions about the fires. "Did you see the no trespassing sign?" he asked. "I'm calling police. Leave."

Wagoner's attorney, Jeremiah Denslow, said that Wagoner was asked about the fire by police during their inquiry into the RTA incident.

"I was aware there were fires at Rick's properties. I have talked about it to Rick. He adamantly denies he or his relatives were involved. The fact that the Dayton Police Department is reopening at this point in time does not surprise me. They clearly want to prosecute Rick for something."

A message left at a telephone number listed as used by Mark B. Harris was not returned.

'Unknown combustible material'

Every firefighter in the city was summoned on Aug. 8, 2010, when the Five Oaks and Bellevue homes being bought by Wagoner caught fire at approximately the same time. The homes were on opposite sides of the street.

Today the structures are gone and the lots are vacant. Records released to the Dayton Daily News show the arson investigations are closed.

According to those records, the Bellevue address was fully involved when fire investigator Jason Hall arrived, "with the heaviest fire at the rear of the structure."

Directly across the street, the multi-unit 902 Five Oaks residence was also fully involved. No one was injured, but in the fire's aftermath four homes were leveled.

"Due to the two separate, vacant structures catching fire at the same time with no evidence of exposure, this fire is ruled an arson set at the rear of 24 Bellevue and (a) side of 902 Five Oaks using an unknown combustible material," the Fire Department report says.

In an interview with a fire investigator, Harris said he learned of the fires via a phone call from Wagoner.

The land contracts on the homes were four years old, Harris told the investigator. All told, Wagoner had purchased seven properties from him, all under land contracts, he said. Under land contracts, a purchaser can pay for property using installments over time while the ownership of the property stays with the seller until the properties are paid for.

Harris told the investigator that Wagoner was then paying $3,600 each month to cover all the properties. He said the properties had been insured with Ohio Mutual for 14 years.

Wagoner was not covered under the insurance policy at the time, according to information Harris provided the arson investigator.

"I asked if he knew if Mr. Wagoner was carrying any insurance on these properties. Mr. Harris states that Mr. Wagoner does not have his own policy but that as a part of his payments he was supposed to be covered as an add on to his policy," Hall wrote in his report. "Mr. Harris then stated that he had discovered that somehow Mr. Wagoner had not been added to his policy. Mr. Harris states that he lets (the insurance agent) make most of the decisions regarding his coverages."

Harris said he knew of no other insurance policies covering the properties. There were no mortgages on any of the properties, he said.

The sale of the Bellevue and Five Oaks properties was finalized on Dec. 2, 2010, according to records in the Montgomery County Auditor's Office. The sale price for 24 Bellevue, a duplex, was listed at $177,000. The other address -- 902 Five Oaks -- a stucco, triplex, sold for the same price.

Both properties today are vacant lots. The Bellevue lot carries an assessed value of $35,000 and the Five Oaks lot $5,000.

Saved by a religious book?

Wagoner was fired from his job as a driver for the Greater Dayton Transportation Authority in June following an internal RTA disciplinary hearing into his claims that three black youths shot him as he stood outside his RTA bus.

According to Wagoner, the bus had lost power that February morning, and he was saved by a religious book he carried that stopped two bullets.

Wagoner, who is white and had been a driver for 10 years, told authorities he believed the incident was part of a gang initiation.

A Dayton Police investigation said the incident could not have occurred as Wagoner described. The FBI, which investigated the incident as a possible hate crime, closed its case, too.

RTA said Wagoner was fired for violating two employee standards of conduct: dishonesty, or filing a false report, and conduct detrimental to the RTA.

The RTA says Wagoner had inquired through his union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1385, about an RTA policy regarding a monetary allowance for felonious assaults on drivers that could garner a payment of up to $100,000. The payment was never made by RTA.

Dayton's City Prosecutor, Stephanie Cook, has declined to file charges based on the police investigation. She also has declined, through a city spokesman, to explain why no charges were filed.

A cold case reopened

Wagoner's account of the shooting, which garnered national publicity, played a role in the reopening of the arson investigation involving the October 2010 fire on West Mumma Avenue.

The arson, which firefighters estimated caused a loss of $25,000, had long been considered a closed case. But on July 7, a month after Wagoner's RTA firing and two days after the fire at his property at 1215 W. Riverview Ave., police records show it was reclassified from "closed" to open.

The reclassification also was recorded five days after the Dayton Daily News filed a request to the Dayton Police Department under the Ohio Open Records Law seeking fire investigatory records on arson fires in 2010.

Assistant Fire Chief David Caudill declined to release additional details about the reopened investigation or why it was reactivated.

"The investigation was reopened as you noted but, as it is an active investigation, we cannot release any additional information at this time," he said in a written statement.

Caudill also declined to say whether the Mumma Avenue fire was referred to the Ohio Department of Insurance Fraud Unit.

Dayton Police Maj. Chris Williams, Superintendent of Investigations, said the investigation had been reopened months earlier but was only recorded on July 7. Police Detective Bradley Meeker, a former arson investigator, was assigned the case.

Williams acknowledged Wagoner's claims of being attacked prompted police to check on other contacts they'd had with him in the past.

"Sometimes we take a look at investigations and see things that bring questions to mind that we want to get answered," he said.

Smoke was pouring from the West Mumma Avenue structure when firefighters arrived about 4 a.m. on Oct. 24, 2010. A close inspection later revealed the house was set to burn.

Fires had ignited in multiple locations on the second floor. What fire investigators call a "trailer" had been rigged there, too -- a line of cloth material soaked in a flammable liquid.

This trailer "ran nearly the entire length of the structure," according to the Dayton Fire Department report. "Trailer was draped across open closet/room doors."

Numerous holes -- which have the effect of spreading fire quickly -- also had been drilled in the upstairs floors. One firefighter fell partially through one hole, but refused treatment by medics at the scene.

Police refused to release more detailed investigative records, citing its pending investigation.

Richard Whitaker, 47, who lives across the street from the Mumma address and watched it burn in 2010, said the neighborhood has had other arson fires of late.

"They've been real bad," he said. "We had a garage down the street burn in January."

Linda Anderson, 53, said she likes the neighborhood off North Main Street, but adds that the vacant homes and crime make living there difficult.

"Vacant houses on both sides of the street, gunshots in the alley once in a while. It's crazy with drugs," she said. "When I moved in six years ago, it was fine. But the houses went into foreclosure and it got bad."

Anderson, too, saw the fire on Mumma. "I watched it burn to the ground," she said. "It just flamed up."

According to county records, as of Friday Wagoner owes $110,086.43 in back property taxes to Montgomery County for 13 properties that he owns.

Another arson

The most recent suspicious fire involving a property linked to Wagoner also remains under investigation.

Last week, the interior of the house at 1215 W. Riverview Ave. was blackened and its windows broken. In the backyard was a pile of fire debris: scorched dry wall, a bed frame, a New Testament. A red plastic gasoline can sat atop the pile.

Wagoner signed a land contract with Harris for the Riverview property in 2007. At the time, a tenant lived there, the contract says.

The house was vacant at the time of the fire, which has been officially ruled an arson, according to Caudill.

He declined to say whether the department has any suspects in the blaze.

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