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Saturday, August 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Attorneys: Owner set store's fire to collect insurance

By Christopher Schwarzen and Jennifer Sullivan
Times Snohomish County bureau

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Mounting financial losses led a Pakistani man to stage an arson at the Everett grocery he managed and then attempt to make it look like a hate crime, U.S. attorneys said yesterday in federal court.

Gross sales at the Continental Spices Cash & Carry at 315 E. Casino Road dropped from almost $11,000 a month in 2003 to less than $3,000 a month just prior to the fire that caused $50,000 damage to the building.

Initially, investigators were looking into whether the fire was a hate crime since white crosses and an epithet directed at Arabs had been spray-painted on the walls. Owner Mirza Akram also had told police he had been harassed.

But Akram, 37, who was in the process of purchasing the store, was formally charged yesterday with one federal count of arson. Akram is being tried in federal court because his store operated in interstate and foreign commerce by importing goods from other states and countries.

Akram's gross revenues plummeted this year, possibly making it difficult to make monthly payments of at least $640 to the Z.A. Trading Corp., which owned the Continental Spices store, according to financial records obtained by federal investigators. Akram also was responsible for a $1,200 monthly rent payment.

Believing he was covered by Z.A. Trading Corp.'s insurance policy, Akram conspired to burn the place with a friend, prosecutors allege in charging papers. As it turned out, Akram was not on the policy.

Federal investigators claim Akram had planned for months to set fire to the store, finally deciding to act on the evening of July 8. Akram met with a friend at his home and told the second man he'd already poured gasoline inside the store and lit incense above the gasoline, believing it would burn down and eventually ignite the gasoline.

Akram asked his friend to drive back to the store to make sure it was on fire, court documents read. The friend later called Akram from outside the store to say it had not yet ignited.

The friend told investigators he entered the store about 4 a.m. on July 9, attempted to knock over the cash register and then dropped the incense into the puddle of gasoline on the floor.

The fire immediately flared and the man's pant leg caught on fire as he ran from the store.
 
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The man, a sailor stationed at Naval Station Everett, returned to the base, charging papers claim. He was not injured. Investigators believe Akram spray-painted the racial epithet and crosses in the store in an attempt to make the fire appear to be a hate crime.

Investigators have said they immediately suspected Akram of setting the fire, but did not say why. Phone records obtained by investigators show 11 calls between Akram and his friend between midnight and 4 a.m. on the day of the fire.

Federal agents arrested Akram at the store on Thursday.

Akram, who made his first appearance in court yesterday, is being held in federal detention as a potential flight risk. He was not asked to make a plea.

U.S. attorney Carl Blackstone said a recent trip Akram made to Pakistan, where his wife lives, his lack of a job and few ties in this state made him a potential flight risk. Blackstone also said Akram has threatened his friend, who is cooperating with the U.S. Attorney's Office. The friend has not been charged in connection with the arson.

If convicted, Akram faces up to 20 years in federal prison.

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or cschwarzen@seattletimes.com

Jennifer Sullivan: 425-783-0604 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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