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Lawyers make final points in arson case

After six days of testimony, lawyers laid out final arguments Tuesday over whether the former owner of an Ashland Little Caesars conspired with his handyman set fire to his business.

In closing arguments against Mark Alan McAlister Tuesday afternoon, Deputy District Attorney Nick Geil drew from the testimony of witness Brian Vernon Morris, who pleaded guilty to felony attempted first-degree arson and claimed he was following McAlister's orders when he tried to burn down the pizza shop.

Morris testified he opened and damaged natural gas lines and then lighted candles on Feb. 12, 13 and 14. He testified against McAlister as part of a plea agreement sentencing him to probation.

Geil highlighted phone records to the jury showing that McAlister and Morris communicated 19 times on the dates Morris attempted to set fire to the Little Caesars franchise near the Market of Choice, off of Ashland Street. The defense had argued Morris was a "knucklehead," whom McAlister hired for odd jobs.

"That's a lot of communication for people who aren't friends," Geil said.

Geil said each day the fire didn't ignite, McAlister told Morris to loosen the valve farther. On the third day he damaged the gas line because he was frustrated with McAlister and was "making a point," Geil said.

McAlister's attorney, Peter Carini, argued Morris' difficulty with the natural gas lines, including using only one wrench when two are necessary to loosen the pipe, was evidence that McAlister, a former army engineer, wasn't involved in the crime.

Carini also criticized Ashland police detective John Perrone, who he said had thin evidence tying McAlister to the crime.

"This case started off with them having a theory," Carini said. He said that in developing the theory McAlister was going to get rich burning the business, investigators failed to check on how little McAlister's insurance policy would pay.

Carini played back Ashland police recordings with Morris, and said they didn't cross-check Morris' claims before taking his testimony.

"We don't even have enough to get a warrant," Carini said of the information obtained from Morris.

In recordings, Perrone made it clear to Morris he wanted McAlister, Carini said, offering Morris obvious signals of what he wanted to hear.

"You don't have to guess," Carini said. "He's telling you."

Geil said Morris cooperated with authorities only after he'd heard McAlister wasn't going to help him.

"Mark tells him, to 'rot in hell,'" Geil said. "He checks with his boss first (before cooperating with police)." 

Geil argued that McAlister's motivation wasn't to get rich, but to get out of a money-losing business with costs including $15,000 a year and 6 percent of profits paid to corporate, plus $3,000 rent and payroll. Because the parent company was in control of promotion, he said, McAlister was left with few ways to drum up business.

"The question is, what do you do when you can't sell it?" Geil asked. 

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