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Pizza shop owner on trial in arson case

A former Little Caesars owner on trial for plotting to blow up his struggling Ashland pizza franchise will contradict his former employee's testimony by arguing he had no involvement in the crime.

Mark Alan McAlister is on trial this week in Jackson County Circuit Court on three felony counts of conspiracy to commit first-degree arson.

In opening remarks, McAlister's lawyer, Peter Carini, told jurors that alleged co-conspirator Brian Vernon Morris acted alone when Morris attempted to damage the Little Caesars Pizza franchise at 561 Walker Ave. by setting a candle near an intentionally damaged natural gas line in February 2014.

"He (McAlister) didn't do anything," Carini said.

Morris, who worked odd jobs for McAlister, pleaded guilty in October to damaging a natural gas line that fed into a water heater in the hopes that the candle would ignite the gas and destroy the business. In exchange for a sentence reduced to probation, Morris will testify against McAlister this week.

Deputy District Attorney Nick Geil said he will argue Morris was following McAlister's instructions, and that the prosecution will show the business was failing.

"What you have here is someone who wanted out of his business," Geil said.

According to police affidavits, McAlister gave Morris access to the building on Feb. 13. Morris broke an Avista natural gas line inside the building, lit a candle and left the flame burning "in close proximity to the gas leak in an attempt to destroy the building," police alleged in the affidavits.

Carini said he plans to argue that McAlister knew setting fire to the business wouldn't pencil out. He said franchises sell the mandatory equipment at a markup, and the insurance policies pay out only market value. 

"There's absolutely no financial gain for burning your own business," Carini said. "There's nothing extraneous there."

The defense will argue that McAlister knew Little Caesars had measures to keep workers safe, such as triple the necessary ventilation. Avista workers, who were called to the scene when employees smelled gas, said the gas levels were too low to have caused an explosion, he said.

"You couldn't burn this building if you tried," Carini said. "It's virtually, like, idiot-proof."

Geil said he will draw from Avista experts about the potential harm to nearby homes and businesses had the plan succeeded. Shrapnel would have flown to a nearby mobile home park and neighboring businesses such as Market of Choice, he said.

McAlister wasn't helpful to police investigating the case, Geil said, and when officers needed access to surveillance footage, McAlister said he didn't have a key on him. When police picked the office lock, McAlister told them he didn't know the surveillance system passcode.

The machine had to be sent to Sony to access the hard drive, and when they opened it they found that Feb. 11 and 12 were missing from the hard drive, days Morris was seen on Market of Choice surveillance cameras entering the restaurant after hours.

Carini said the password was the default in the manual, and that McAlister's technical knowledge of the surveillance system was limited. As the installer, Morris knew how to disable the system. It was because Morris forgot to set the time correctly in the system that he was caught on the store's security footage, Carini said.

"If it hadn't been off by 16 hours, Mr. Morris would never have been seen on video," Carini said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.