March 31--BLUEFIELD -- A Wyoming County man who was part of an arson scheme involving Mercer County codefendants and an arson case in the town of Matoaka pleaded guilty Friday in federal court.
James Keith Browning, 54, of Hanover pleaded guilty in federal court for his roles in a scheme to commit insurance fraud by arson, United States Attorney Michael B. Stuart said.
Browning pleaded guilty to a charge of arson to commit wire fraud before Senior United States District Judge David A. Faber. Stuart commended the work of the United States Postal Inspection Service, the West Virginia State Police and the West Virginia Office of the Insurance Commissioner for their joint participation in the investigation.
"Insurance fraud and arson are serious crimes," Stuart stated in a press release issued Friday. "Arson risks property and lives and insurance fraud defrauds all of us. We will prosecute those crimes every chance we get."
In the spring of 2013, Browning, along with Dudley Bledsoe and James "Punkin" Lester, both of Iaeger in McDowell County, devised a scheme to purchase a house, place it in Browning's name, obtain insurance on it and burn it to collect the proceeds, according to federal court records.
The property was located at 9068 Interstate Highway in Ikes Fork, a community in Wyoming County. Sometime during the week of August 12-16, 2013, Lester, Bledsoe and Browning manufactured an alibi they could use for when the house was burned. Sometime after the creation of the plan for the alibi, Bledsoe and Browning drove to the house in Bledsoe's vehicle to prepare the structure for burning.
The house burned on August 16, 2013, while Browning and Lester were at the West Virginia State Fair. Browning then filed a fraudulent claim with the insurance company for the loss of the house and for items purportedly contained in the house. Ultimately, Browning received $100,000 from the insurance company for the false claim. Browning then divided the proceeds with Bledsoe and Lester. Browning faces 10 years imprisonment when he is sentenced on July 25.
Bledsoe, 63, of Hanover pleaded guilty on March 14 to related charges and is awaiting sentencing. Ricky Gleason, 54, of Peach Creek also pleaded guilty on March 14 to related charges involving a similar scheme connected to a house in Huntington. The sentencing hearings for Bledsoe and Gleason is scheduled for May 30.
Windel Lester, James Edward Lester, also known as "Punkin," Georgetta Kenney, and Greg A. Lester are currently facing charges in a 40 count indictment for their respective roles in the scheme. Their trial is set for May 8 in Bluefield.
According to the federal indictment, in the spring of 2012 James Edward "Punkin" Lester and another individual met with the owner of a house on Smokeless Road in Matoaka and agreed to buy it for $38,000 , with Windel Lester providing the money for the purchase.
On Aug. 23, 2012, Georgetta Lester wrote a check from her personal bank account for the purchase of the home, according to the indictment. Court documents noted that on the next day, another party purchased an insurance policy on the house that included approximately $196,000 for the dwelling and $147,000 for contents, replacement costs, and other expenses.
According to the indictment, prior to December of 2012, James Lester and another individual "obtained unscented candle oil, which Lester's Home Center Inc. was in the business of selling."
"They planned to use the unscented candle oil to set fire to [the Matoaka property] because they believed it would be undetectable," the indictment stated.
The indictment alleges James Lester and the other individual set fires to the property in a bedroom and kitchen, and the property subsequently "burned to the ground."
A cover story was then concocted by James Lester and the second individual "to explain the fire ... as a kitchen-related incident."
Insurance claims filed in the wake of the fire resulted in nearly $300,000 in proceeds, which were subsequently shared by Windel Lester, James Lester, Georgetta Lester and a fourth party, according to the indictment
The indictment also accused Windel Lester of a similar plot to gain insurance funds from a house fire in Huntington.
The court document states that "In or about April 2013, (another individual) agreed with Windel Lester to purchase a piece of property located at 3542 Norwood Road, Huntington ... on behalf of Windel Lester for the purpose of burning the house for insurance proceeds."
More than $400,000 of fire insurance was then purchased on the house, which court documents indicate was bought for $100,000.