Wednesday, March 03, 1999

Torched shop leads to suit

Township, fire chief take heat

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — When James Estell's lawnmower repair shop was torched by two Hamilton Township firefighters a year ago, he lost everything: his business, his equipment, his life's dream.

        Now working as a handyman, he's suing to make up for it.

        Mr. Estell has filed a lawsuit claiming the township, its fire chief, firefighters who set the blaze and one of their wives were involved in a conspiracy to get pay increases for township firefighters.

        The suit claims Fire Chief Goebel Williams destroyed or concealed evidence of arson by letting the fire rage out of control so firefighters Brian Berens of Anderson Township and Earl Swader of Maineville would not get caught.

        It also alleges Chief Williams hired Mr. Swader even though he knew he had a prior arson conviction, and that the chief kept both men on the job despite suspicions they set two blazeslast year.

        Mr. Estell had recently purchased Roy's Lawn & Garden at 43 W. Fosters-Maineville Road when it burned.

        Today, it sits as it did a year ago, waiting for a jury to view the damage. Mr. Estell did not have insurance on the business or the building.

        “His dream was to have a business of his own. He had a nice, established little shop there and he was hoping to expand it in the future. We're still trying to figure out all his losses,” Mr. Estell's attorney, W. Edward Clore, said Tuesday.

        Mr. Estell's lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, lost profits, compensation for his building and equipment, the cost of cleanup and retraining in a new trade, punitive damages,

        court costs and legal fees.

        Mr. Swader and Mr. Berens each were sentenced in September to two years in prison after pleading guilty to setting the lawnmower repair shop ablaze Feb. 18, and setting fire to an abandoned house on Striker Road less than a month before.

        A judge ordered them to pay $175,000 in restitution as part of the sentence. Mr. Swader is incarcerated at Madison Correctional Institution in London; Mr. Berens is in Ross Correctional Institution in Chillicothe.

        The two were among the first firefighters to respond to the early morning fires.

        Chief Williams would not comment on the lawsuit.

        He told The Cincinnati Enquirer last year the fires apparently were set in retaliation for a Jan. 1 change in overtime policy that reduced some firefighters' earnings. The shifts were restructured after paying more than $21,000 in firefighter overtime the year before.

        Anonymous leaflets were posted in storefronts the day after the fire at Roy's Lawn & Garden, complaining about entry-level firefighters' wages and the reduced hours.

        Mr. Estell alleges that Mr. Swader, Mr. Berens and Mr. Swader's wife, Rebecca, distributed the flyers to spark an outcry by residents and push township officials into increasing firefighter pay.

        It also alleges that the three conspired to commit the arsons to further that cause. Mrs. Swader could not be reached for comment. She was not charged in the arson.


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