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Restaurant owners charged with arson

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By Diana Hefley
Herald Writer
EVERETT -- A husband and wife are now charged with setting fire to their Mexican restaurant.
Prosecutors allege that Daniel Villegas-Loeza and Dalia Villegas-Mendoza torched their failing south Everett business last year to collect the insurance money. Investigators say the couple was on the phone with a Farmers Insurance agent while firefighters were still on scene, working to extinguish the blaze.
Snohomish County Fire Marshal's Office investigators recommended the arson charges after a lengthy probe into the fire and the couple's finances. They forwarded the case to prosecutors in June.
Taqueria La Mexicana, located at 13915 Highway 99, erupted into flames shortly after the restaurant closed around 11 p.m. on Oct. 7, 2012. Firefighters from District 1, Lynnwood and Mukilteo converged on the scene. The fire was under control within about 20 minutes.
Northbound lanes of Highway 99 were shut down for about an hour for fire engines and hoses across the roadway.
The restaurant and an adjoining vacant retail space were heavily damaged.
Fire investigators quickly determined that arson likely was to blame for the damage, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Chris Dickinson wrote in court papers.
Any accidental and natural causes were ruled out by investigators with the fire marshal's office and insurance company. The investigators concluded that two separate fires were set simultaneously at both ends of the building.
The suspects likely used paper or cardboard and an open flame, such as a lighter or handheld torch, Dickinson wrote.
The man and woman denied starting the fire and claimed they were at home in Lynnwood when the blaze broke out.
Their story fell apart, however, after investigators reviewed surveillance footage from a neighboring business' security camera, Dickinson wrote. The video showed the defendants entering the restaurant for a short time and leaving minutes before flames are seen shooting out of the business.
The first call to 911 came around nine minutes after the couple was seen driving away from their restaurant, court papers said.
Investigators determined that the couple was in financial trouble. They leased the building for their restaurant. They owed back rent there and on their home. They also were late on their utilities bills, Dickinson said.
After the fire, the couple filed an insurance claim estimating the damage to the restaurant at $120,000.
"When notified that Farmers Insurance was scrutinizing their claim on the fire insurance policy, the defendants refused to cooperate further with Farmers and withdrew their claim," Dickinson wrote.
The restaurant remains closed.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463;
Story tags » EverettArsonCrimeFraudProsecution

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