Cape Girardeau car dealer convicted of arson, mail fraud

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Gregory Sparkman was accused of torching two vehicles in December 2000.

A federal jury late Friday night convicted a Cape Girardeau car dealer on 15 counts of arson and mail fraud for setting fires that destroyed the offices of a car dealership and two vehicles.

Gregory A. Sparkman was immediately taken into custody after the jury of 12 women delivered its verdict. Sparkman, owner of Sparkman Auto Sales, faces a minimum federal prison term of 15 years. U.S. district judge Henry Autrey set sentencing for Jan. 24.

The verdict was a devastating blow to Sparkman and his family. His wife, Lisa Sparkman, burst forth in gasping sobs that became more intense as she watched federal marshals lead her husband away. Among the gathered family and friends, a shattered look prevailed where just hours before they had bubbled with confidence.

Sparkman himself, while waiting for the verdict, spoke with obvious enjoyment in anticipation of two fishing tournaments he was helping to organize.

Sparkman was accused of torching a van and a GMC Yukon at a deserted spot on South Sprigg Street in December 2000. He was also accused of setting the fire that destroyed the offices of West Park Motors Inc., a company he owned with partner Tom Wilson.

The mail fraud charges stemmed from using the mail to obtain insurance money for the damaged vehicles and building.

Witness' motive questioned

The federal case hinged on whether the jury believed the testimony of Scott Smith, an admitted methamphetamine maker who once worked for Sparkman. Smith won a reduction in his federal prison term for his testimony.

The jury believed federal prosecutor Michael Price's theory that Sparkman wanted out of a business that was failing and rejected defense attorney John Cook's contention that the case sprung from Smith's desire to win release from prison.

Price, tired from the four-day trial, said he was pleased. "Arson cases are difficult to prove beyond a reaonable doubt," he said.

Appeals will start immediately, Cook said, with the first appeal an attempt to win release for Sparkman on bond.

Federal rules required Sparkman to be placed in custody immediately, Price said.

"This is a tragedy for the community," Cook said. "Greg is involved in ramrodding so many good community things, including the annual rodeo that benefits the Shriners hospital."

Smith testified that he accompanied Sparkman when the two vehicles were taken from the car lot to a remote location on South Sprigg Street near Dutchtown road in December 2000.

Sparkman didn't deny he was with Smith the evening of the fires, but claims he and Smith were painting a steel banister for Sparkman's home in a workshop behind Smith's residence on Timon Way.

Under questioning from Price, Smith testified that he followed while Sparkman drove the vehicles away from the car lot. First they took a Dodge van and then a GMC Yukon SUV from the lot at West Park Motors. Then, Smith testified, Sparkman doused the interior of both vehicles with a flammable liquid and, borrowing a lighter from Smith, lit some paper and threw it into the vehicles.

The van was torched first, Smith testified. The Yukon was more difficult to set ablaze, he said. As Sparkman made several attempts to light it, he said he became increasingly nervous.

"I was pretty excited," Smith testified. "I was ready to get out of there."

Timeline discrepencies

Smith originally received a four-year term in July 2003 for making meth at his home on Timon Way. In exchange for the testimony, that sentence was reduced and he will be set free on Dec. 1.

During cross-examination of Smith, Cook focused on apparent discrepencies in the timeline for the arson and Smith's willingness to testify in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Cook's questions about Smith's dealings with federal law enforcement officers and prosecutors brought objections from Price. Asked how long that line of questioning would go on, Cook replied: "I am only going into every minute of every day of his lifetime that he has spent rehearsing his testimony with the government."

Cook also questioned Smith about statements made by his meth-making partner, Jim Furr, that Smith had said he, not Sparkman, took the vehicles and set the fire. Smith denied making those statements.

Cook also questioned Smith about how the fire was set. Smith testified under questioning from Price that Sparkman first tried to light paper with matches, but could not because of the wind. Sparkman then borrowed a lighter, he testified.

That seemed odd, Cook noted. "He goes out to burn up all this stuff and he asks to borrow your lighter?"

The trial began with jury selection Tuesday. Jurors began deliberating just after 3 p.m. Friday, delivering their verdict at about 10:30 p.m.

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