Crime

Kennewick renter charged with arson

A Kennewick renter who withdrew his homeowner's insurance claim after learning investigators suspected him of setting a recent blaze was charged Wednesday with arson.

Joseph G. Martin, 42, is scheduled to appear next Wednesday in Benton County Superior Court to enter a plea to first-degree arson.

He also has a court date set the next day in a pending stalking case involving his ex-fiancee from earlier this year.

Martin's legal woes may not stop there.

Benton County sheriff's detectives also have reopened an investigation into a 2002 fire at Martin's home. That fire, along with an earlier one at his Othello residence, were both considered suspicious.

Martin is being held in the Benton County jail without bail.

Firefighters were dispatched to 4105 S. Newport St. early Oct. 22 after Martin called 911, saying that his house was on fire.

Martin told dispatchers he was trapped in his room because he felt the door and thought it felt warm, so he had stayed where he was. He also reported having trouble breathing, according to court documents in the arson case.

Before fire crews arrived, Martin told dispatchers he thought the fire was spreading and he had to jump out a window. He was outside the Kennewick home when firefighters and police arrived, but they suspected his story.

"When he was checked by medics, there was no evidence, such as facial soot, that indicated (Martin) was in the house while it was burning," Deputy Prosecutor Scott Johnson wrote in the probable cause affidavit.

Martin "had no medical problems when he was examined," like signs of respiratory distress from being inside a smoke-filled home.

Fire investigators know the blaze started in the wall and spread through the house, but don't know if it initially was set outside or inside, said Kennewick Fire Marshal Mark Yaden.

Analysis showed the home's electrical system didn't appear to have any abnormalities that would have sparked the blaze. The cause still is unknown.

Martin moved into the Newport Street house in December 2006 and lived there for about a year before taking out a homeowner's insurance policy.

Since Martin just rented the house, the actual homeowner was unaware he had done that, court documents said. The homeowner reportedly had insurance of her own on the house.

Martin has made two prior claims under the homeowner's insurance, court documents said. He told Yaden "that he owned the home and did not have a mortgage on the home," Johnson wrote.

That's when police and fire investigators learned Martin had been the homeowner in two prior house fires - one in Benton County and one in Othello - and that he "benefited financially from both," court documents said.

Investigators labeled the December 2002 fire at Martin's 3401 S. Auburn St. home as "undetermined but suspicious."

That fire was reported around 3 p.m. when a neighbor was leaving for work and saw smoke coming out of the windows of the single-story home. No one was home at the time. Smoke and heat damaged the house.

Benton County sheriff's Detective Bob Brockman has reopened the probe into the blaze.

During Brockman's investigation six years ago, Martin said he had been home for lunch and had gone through his closets looking for something.

Martin had said that as he rifled through items in a hall closet, some construction paper fell down and he just threw it back up on the shelf. He then surmised that the construction paper could have touched a 100 watt bulb in the closet that he had forgotten to turn off and ignited, Brockman said.

The hall closet was near the door leading up to the attic, which also was left open, he said. Flames quickly spread into the attic and shot through the roof and chimney as fire crews arrived.

Martin is a contractor and was working on the house at the time. He reportedly had moved out family memorabilia just before the fire.

His home in Othello also was destroyed several years earlier from a Christmas tree fire, Brockman said.

Martin, who previously used the name Joseph Fair, filed for bankruptcy in November 1998, according to federal court records.

The Chapter 7 bankruptcy was filed jointly with his wife at the time, Jennifer Louise Fair, and in the name of Martin's business, Experiance Mobile Diesel Repair.

Martin said he had only $2,905 in assets and $367,800 in liabilities.

He had two outstanding vehicle loans of about $20,000 each, a $120,000 mortgage and several accounts that had gone to collections or had judgments issued against him.

The debt also included medical bills, nearly $9,000 in state revenue taxes and $25,000 to the state Department of Labor & Industries.

The bankruptcy was discharged in February 1999.

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