The man accused of starting the devastating 2005 Wines Central warehouse blaze in Vallejo, Calif., which destroyed more than $200 million worth of wine, agreed to a last-minute plea deal yesterday to avoid what could have amounted to a life sentence.
Mark Anderson, 61, pleaded guilty in the United States District Court in Sacramento, Calif., to 19 counts, including arson, mail fraud, tax evasion and interstate transportation of stolen goods. His trial was scheduled to begin today. Anderson faced as much as 24 years in prison, according to prosecutors, but the government has recommended a sentence of roughly 15 years, which includes the 2 1/2 years he has already spent in jail.
Prosecutors accused the Sausalito businessman of starting the fire to cover up a scheme that defrauded scores of clients of his wine-storage business, Sausalito Cellars. Customers believed their wines were aging in a secure, temperature-controlled environment, but authorities allege that Anderson secretly sold at least 6,700 bottles, including collections of Silver Oak, Heitz, Turley, plus an assortment of Bordeaux. In one case, Anderson sold thousands of bottles of wine through a Chicago auction house for about $74,000.
The fire was so large and intense that firefighters battled the blaze for seven hours, stymied by the 3-foot concrete walls of the building, a former Navy torpedo warehouse located about 10 miles south of Napa Valley. An estimated 6 million bottles of wine owned by 43 individual collectors and nearly 100 California wineries, including Whitehall Lane, Viader and Justin, were lost to the flames. A number of wineries lost entire vintages, including Long Meadow Ranch, von Strasser and Realm. Federal investigators concluded that the fire started in a locked storage area that Anderson leased within Wines Central.
"Speaking as a wine lover and a Californian, I think it's a devastating loss to the wine industry," federal prosecutor Steve Lapham said after the deal was signed. "I sympathize with some of the wineries like Saintsbury that lost library collections and the startup wineries and smaller wineries that lost entire vintages or, in some cases, their entire inventory."
Before the fire, Anderson was already under investigation by Sausalito and Marin County officials after numerous clients complained about missing wine. Anderson still faces charges in that case.
"There were many victims who suffered losses as a result of the Wines Central arson," said Stephen C. Herkins, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent in charge of the case. "These victims were promised a complete and thorough investigation, with a goal that justice would be served. I believe we are on course toward reaching that goal."
Formal sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 26.
Joe Lombardi — Toms River, NJ — November 17, 2009 9:48pm ET
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