A former diner owner faces 4 years in federal prison for attempting to defraud the Norfolk & Dedham Insurance Company (Norfolk & Dedham) by burning down his diner in Leominster.
On March 9, Jeffrey Cordio (50) pleaded guilty in the United States District Court in Worcester to a single-count Information charging him with conspiracy to use fire to commit mail fraud. Under the terms of the plea agreement that is subject to approval by the District Court judge, Mr. Cordio and the United States Attorney entered into a plea agreement recommending a four-year prison sentence, followed by three years of supervised release, and restitution to Norfolk & Dedham.
In the space of a little more than two months in 2013, the West End Diner (“Diner”) had two fires, that according to an accomplice to the second fire, had been set by Mr. Cordio to collect insurance proceeds so he and his wife could move to Florida and set up another Diner.
Property purchased and insurance policy placed on Diner
The Diner property at 270 West Street, Leominster consisted of a commercial dining area and kitchen on the first floor and a small apartment on the second floor and a basement. Mr. Cordio and his wife purchased the Diner for approximately $240,000.00 in January 2006 with a mortgage from the Fitchburg Savings Bank.
The Cordios placed their property insurance policy through the Dennis F. Murphy Insurance Agency with Norfolk & Dedham. They renewed this policy annually until the final policy period from March 24, 2013 through March 24, 2014.
After first fire, a quick insurance payment
On Monday, September 9, 2013 the Leominster First Department responded to the Diner upon a report of smoke in the front area. The smoke detectors in the Diner had activated and the Diner was not occupied when the emergency personnel arrived at approximately 1:20 p.m. The firefighters forced an entry to the building and determined the fire’s origin to be a wastebasket located in second-floor apartment above the restaurant. The fire was contained to that area on the second floor.
The restaurant was closed on Mondays according to the Cordios. The fire’s origin was determined to have been caused by “abandoned or discarded materials or products.”
After putting out this fire the Leominster Fire Department advised Mr. Cordio that he was lucky that the doors and windows on the second floor were closed because that contained the fire.
On September 9, 2013 Mrs. Cordio notified the Murphy Insurance Agency of the loss.
Insured gets insurance checks from first fire on Tuesday, tries to burn the Diner down again on Wednesday
The Norfolk & Dedham promptly issued payments totaling $69,948.00 for the September fire on November 6, 2013. On Tuesday, November 13, the Cordios deposited the bulk of the settlement totaling $57,929.62 into the Diner’s business account
The very next day, November 13, 2013 at approximately 4:48 p.m. the Leominster Fire Department again responded to a fire alarm at the Diner.
This time the fire started in the basement. Through quick action the fire department again was able to suppress the fire before it could engulf the building and damage little more the basement and stairway leading to the first-floor Diner.
State Police Fire and Explosion Investigation Section quickly called in by fire department
The Leominster fire lieutenant on the scene for the second time in less than two months noticed that although the fire started in the basement, the building’s second floor roof skylights were open even though the temperatures were in the low to mid 30 degrees. Also the fire lieutenant noted that several of the interior doors in the first and second floor were open.
Mr. Cordio appeared at the scene approximately one hour after the first 911 call and spoke to the lieutenant on the scene.
He said that he closed the Diner at 2 P.M. Later, he had been using a first-floor bathroom when he heard a Diner employee named “Joe” pounding on the rear door. After he let “Joe” in, he returned to the bathroom. Mr. Cordio then stated that he saw a car drive up the driveway past the bathroom window, a car which he couldn’t describe as to make or color, and then heard a loud noise and opened the door of the bathroom to find the rear of the Diner on fire.
He claimed that he retreated into the bathroom and only escaped when “Joe” came to the bathroom window and helped him through climb through the window.
He said he noticed that “Joe” had burns on his hands and he screamed at “Joe” to tell him what happened.
According to Mr. Cordio, “Joe” stated he had dropped a cigarette down the back stairs and that when he went to retrieve it the fire broke out.
Mr. Cordio denied to the fire lieutenant keeping any gas or other flammable liquids in the basement of the Diner.
His reason for allegedly not notifying the fire department of the fire was that he and Joe had supposedly left their cell phones inside the Diner when they fled the fire and that he had never been in a fire before and all he could think about was getting “Joe” to a hospital. Initially, Mr. Cordio could not give the lieutenant the full name of his employee. Towards the end of the conversation, he told the lieutenant that Joe’s full name was “Joe Plummer.”
After listening to Mr. Cordio’s story and examining the basement where the fire occurred the Lieutenant called in the Massachusetts State Police Fire and Explosion Investigation that investigates suspected arsons.
Smile! You are on candid camera
The Leominster police in conducting a search of the area adjacent to the Diner, noticed that an adjacent building maintained a security video system that captured the area behind the Diner. The owner of the building played back the video from the afternoon of November 13th for the police.
The video showed Mr. Cordio at the back of the Diner near his truck at 4:30 p.m. talking on his cell phone but then walks out of the camera’s view. At 4:38 p.m. smoke first appears at the rear of the Diner. At 4:41 p.m., Mr. Cordio appears running to the driver’s side of his truck. Another man runs to the passenger side of the truck and Mr. Cordio drives off with the other man out of view. The Leominster fire department arrives six minutes later at 4:48 p.m.
Also, as the Leominster police are obtaining the video, state police investigators find a melted plastic gas container on the basement floor and found a second, intact plastic gas container inside a rubber barrel in the basement, and a backpack that contained the identification of one “Joseph J. Phillips” of Boston along with two lighters and a bottle of lighter fluid.
“Joe” suspecting Mr. Cordio tried to kill him tells all to police
With the identification in the backpack, the police located Mr. Phillips, who had by now admitted himself to the Boston Medical Center with second and third-degree burns on his head and hands.
After questioning in the hospital Mr. Phillips admitted that Mr. Cordio had offered him $5,000.00 to burn the Diner. Mr. Phillips stated that Mr. Cordio wanted to get out of Massachusetts and open a Diner in Florida. Mr. Phillips also told the investigators Mr. Cordio had told him that he had tried to use a cigar to start a fire to burn the Diner on September 9, 2013.
On the afternoon of the fire, Mr. Phillips said he had been shown an envelope full of $100 bills for his payment. Then, the two men put gasoline in trash barrels and in two gas cans. Eventually they sprayed the area with gasoline.
As Mr. Phillips ascended the basement stairs the fire suddenly erupted and Mr. Phillips was burned on his head, face and hands. He said he did not know what actually ignited the fire but “was suspicious that [Mr.] Cordio tried to kill him.” Mr. Phillips believed “Mr. Cordio might have thrown a cigar down the stairs to the basement to intentionally start the fire.
At that point Mr. Phillips fled through the back of the Diner and Mr. Cordio was locked in the first-floor bathroom. Mr. Phillips helped Mr. Cordio pull the wire mesh from the exterior of the window and during a wild ride away to escape Mr. Cordio instructed Mr. Phillips to tell the police that a different person paid him to burn the Diner.
Search warrants show financial difficulties and moving to Florida plans
Based upon the investigation the investigators obtained a search warrant for the Diner, for Mr. Cordio’s pickup truck, and for his residence at 267 Granite Street in Leominster.
The search warrants resulted in the police seizing additional evidence including clothing with gasoline residue, two “Aim-and-Flame” lighters in the Diner’s kitchen along with the previously found gasoline containers.
At his home, the police found Mr. Cordio’s Google search for diners located in Naples, Florida, as well as financial documents establishing a financial motive for the fires including:
- The Cordios were approximately 14-months delinquent on mortgage payments at their home.
- Based on the uniform borrowers’ assistance form the Cordios had a negative cash flow of approximately $17,800.00 per year.
- A delinquent credit card had been turned over to a collection agency for $16,431.00.
- Another credit card from Bank of America charged off $21,682.00.
- The Leominster District Court had issued a judgment in the amount of $5,100.00 and had issued on November 13 a Writ of Attachment against the Cordios in the amount of $11,220.00 and
- The Cordios owed their tax preparer approximately $13,045.00 in past due payments.
Norfolk & Dedham conducts own fire cause investigation and denies second claim
The day after the fire the Cordios retained a public adjuster who made a claim through the Murphy Insurance Agency.
The Norfolk & Dedham upon receiving the claim engaged EFI Global to perform an origin and cause investigation of the fire which they did on November 15, 18 and November 26. As a result of its investigation EFI Global independently opined that the ignition of the fire resulted from the application of an open flame to ignitable liquid vapors. According to EFI Global, the circumstances of bringing an ignition source and the fuel together “include intentional human involvement.”
On April 24, 2014 Norfolk & Dedham notified the Cordios through his attorney that it was denying any liability with respect to the loss.
Criminal complaints, Superior Court indictments and federal charges
On November 26, 2013 the Leominster District Court issued a complaint at the request of the Leominster Police charging Mr. Cordio with burning a building and defrauding an insurer.
On September 19, 2014 a Worcester County grand jury issued a superseding indictment charging Mr. Cordio with burning a building, arson of a dwelling and burning a building to defraud an insurer along with intimidation of a witness.
Mr. Phillips, Mr. Cordio’s accomplice was indicted by the Worcester County grand jury on March 21, 2014 and eventually pleaded guilty as an accessory before the fact where he was given 3 years of supervised probation and a condition of which was mental health evaluations and treatment as deemed appropriate.
In November 2104, federal agents of the Treasury Departments Alcohol, Tobacco, and firearms Division arrested Mr. Cordio on federal charges involving conspiracy to commit arson to defraud an insurer.
Guilty plea to charge of conspiracy to defraud the Norfolk & Dedham Insurance Company
On March 2, 2016, Mr. Cordio agreed to plead guilty to a single-count Information charging him with “conspiracy to commit arson to defraud the Norfolk & Dedham Insurance Company” by unlawfully setting fire to the West End Diner, a business located at 270 West Street, Leominster, Massachusetts in order to collect insurance proceeds.
Under the plea agreement the United States Attorney and the defendant had an agreed disposition, which is not binding upon the federal judge, agreed that a reasonable and appropriate sentence for the judge to impose would be [a] incarceration for 48 months [b] 36 months of supervised release [c] a mandatory special assessment required to be paid of $100.00 and [d] restitution as deemed appropriate by the Court, including costs incurred by the Norfolk & Dedham Mutual Fire Insurance Company.
Sentencing is scheduled for June 1, 2016 at 3:00 p.m. in Courtroom 2 in Worcester before District Judge Timothy S. Hillman.