A 58-year-old Sausalito, Calif., man has been arrested and charged with arson in connection with the massive Oct. 12, 2005, warehouse fire in Vallejo, Calif., that destroyed what was estimated at the time to be around 6 million bottles of wine worth about $100 million.
Mark Anderson was arrested on March 16 at his home after a grand jury in Sacramento indicted him on the previous day on 19 felony counts, including arson, mail fraud, tax evasion, interstate transportation of fraudulently obtained property and use of a fictitious name. The indictment was sealed until today when Anderson appeared in front of a U.S. Magistrate judge; his detention hearing is scheduled for this Thursday at the federal court in San Francisco.
U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott said Anderson, who owned Sausalito Cellars, which was billed as a professional wine-inventory management company for collectors from around the world, started the fire to cover up another crime—embezzlement, for which he is already facing charges in Marin County.
The indictment charges that Anderson sold his clients' wine without their permission and burned down the warehouse, where he had been storing some of the bottles, to hide both the theft and the taxable income generated by the wine sales. "Mr. Anderson engaged in reckless and dangerous conduct in an attempt to conceal the brazen embezzlement of his clients' valuable wine," said Scott.
|Ash-covered bottles at the Wines Central warehouse.|
Anderson rented space for his wine clients at Wines Central warehouse in Vallejo, 10 miles south of Napa and across the bay from Anderson's Sausalito residence. The facility stored wine for some 40 private collectors as well as barrels and case lots for nearly 100 wineries in Northern California, ranging from prominent estates such as Whitehall Lane and Justin and Viader, to boutique start-ups. After they had time to assess the damages, some wineries—including Long Meadow Ranch, Relic, Tres Sabores and Von Strasser—learned that they had lost entire vintages, even debut vintages, or entire collections. Saintsbury, for example, lost its wine library.
"The fire at Wines Central impacted numerous lives and businesses. Arson is a violent crime and these victims deserve to see justice served," said ATF special agent in charge Stephen Martin.
Since 2002, Northern California winemakers had been storing wine inside the warehouse, a former bunker at the decommissioned Mare Island Naval Base. It was thought to not only provide perfect insulation, but to be largely fireproof because of its 3-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls. But the building did not have sprinklers and the fire spread quickly, cooking the wines in their bottles. Two firefighters sustained minor injuries, but no one else was hurt.
Soon after, investigators declared that the evidence pointed to arson. Anderson was suspected early on, because he had been at the facility that day.
In September 2005, prior to the blaze, Anderson was charged with 10 counts of embezzlement in Marin County in a case involving missing wines; the district attorney's office had first filed charges against him in March 2004, and new victims were uncovered as the investigation progressed. At the time the story was reported, Anderson's court date in that case was set for Oct. 18—just a few days after the warehouse fire occurred. The Marin County case is still pending.
If convicted of arson in federal court, Anderson faces up to seven to 20 years in prison. For the other charges, the maximum penalties are 10 years for each count of interstate transportation of fraudulently obtained property, 20 years for each count of mail fraud, five years for the use of a fictitious name and five years for each count of tax evasion.