Rick Lamb Jr. says there’s no chance he’ll be convicted of committing arson and insurance fraud. He says when the dust of a trial finally settles his tarnished name will be cleared.
“There’s not even a possibility to be found guilty. I am innocent,” he declared in a phone conversation.
On July 20, a Fulton County grand jury handed down a seven-count indictment against Lamb in connection with a Jan. 3 fire that gutted a Lyons house he was renting. He is accused of one count of arson, two counts of aggravated arson, one count of insurance fraud, one count of grand theft, one count of telecommunications fraud, and one count of falsification in a theft offense. All are felony offenses.
A warrant for his arrest has been issued by Fulton County Common Pleas Court through the sheriff’s office. Lamb has since vacated a house he was renting from Lytton Zion United Church of Christ in Delta.
Lyons Fire Chief Matt Smithmyer said inconsistencies revealed during investigations by the fire department and the state fire marshal’s office led to the indictments. He said personal items Lamb listed in his $65,000 Nationwide Insurance claim as burned in the multi-alarm blaze were not found when investigators sifted through the damage.
Remains of property recovered from the house at 104 Ash St. were sent to state labs for analysis, and interviews were conducted before Fire Marshal Frank Reitmeier ruled the case arson. Smithmyer said the fire marshal couldn’t pinpoint how the fire ignited but found sufficient evidence that it was deliberately set.
Bill Krugh, a spokesperson for the State Fire Marshal’s Office, declined to comment, saying the investigation remains open.
A Lyons Royalton Fire Department crew was dispatched to the house about 5:30 p.m. Jan. 3, shortly after Lamb, his wife Desteny, and their three young children left in the family Jeep to meet relatives at the Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Holland. Neighbors reported smoke, and fire leaping five feet high out of the house’s windows not long after their departure
The Lyons fire crew and those from Wauseon, Morenci, Mich., and Fairfield Township, Mich., knocked down the blaze in 15 minutes, but the house was a complete loss. Damage was estimated at $100,000.
The grand theft and telecommunications fraud charges Lamb faces stem from his acceptance of multiple donations of clothing, toys, and other items that poured in after the fire. Lamb reported at the time that Lyons firefighters donated 10 bags of clothing and four bags of toys, and community donations of clothing and furniture filled a 10-foot by 30-foot storage unit, which also was donated. Aaron’s Rent To Own in Wauseon also collected donations for the family.
In addition, Lamb’s mother, Melissa, established the “Lamb Fire Victim Fund” at First Federal Bank in Wauseon. Andrea Brown, a corporate spokesperson for the bank, said it does not divulge information regarding accounts.
Lamb said his family’s liability insurance did not cover property the family lost in the fire.
In an interview last Thursday, Lamb would not disclose his location. He planned to surrender to authorities through his attorney, but wouldn’t say when.
He learned of the indictments through the Expositor website. Lamb said he has solicited the advice of several local defense attorneys and six prosecuting attorneys throughout the state. He quoted one attorney as saying, “(You) could indict a ham sandwich, the purpose for the pun being that it’s not hard to indict anything as long as you have reasonable cause.”
He added, “There is no way whatsoever that I set that fire. I have multiple witnesses, but Chief Smithmyer is discrediting all of them.” His witnesses include family members who left the house with him before the fire, and those he met at the restaurant.
Lamb is especially upset over being accused of aggravated arson, which implies he intentionally set a fire to injure someone. As for the theory he set up conditions to delay the fire from starting until after the family left, “There was no opportunity to do that,” he said.
The fire investigation was flawed from the beginning, Lamb asserted. He cited the fact that in the aftermath of the fire the house was not sealed off from the public by the landlord’s insurance company until mid-February.
“You have a house that’s fully exposed. Anyone could have gone in,” he said. “If it was a proper investigation, within 24 to 48 hours that house should have been boarded up to preserve evidence, not a month later.”
In that time, scavengers could easily have carried off the items he claimed for insurance but investigators couldn’t locate in the ruins, Lamb said.
He also takes issue with the fire investigators. He said Smithmyer, who is both the Lyons fire chief and a Fulton County sheriff’s deputy, acted as the independent investigator for both departments, a conflict of interests.
Lamb insinuated a biased investigation as well by claiming Smithmyer and Nationwide Insurance investigator Chris Lease appeared chummy when they met at the fire location. “It was obvious they knew each other personally,” he said.
Smithmyer denied both implications, saying the state fire marshal conducted the main investigation after local investigators shared their observations, and that he had never met Lease prior to the investigation.
He stopped cooperating with authorities after Smithmyer told his family he was a criminal, Lamb said. “He said he’d do anything to get the evidence he needs to incriminate me. I’ve been open, I’ve been honest from the beginning, until they started making accusations. I’m not going to listen to a bunch of accusations.”
He added, “There are a lot of incorrect facts coming from the sheriff’s department,” but wouldn’t elaborate.
An independent contractor, Lamb said he has nothing to hide “because everything that we own is because I have worked my ass off to rebuild my family.”
As part of that process, he pledged to re-donate everything his family has received from well-wishers. He does admit to selling a couple of items early on, when his family needed money.
Lamb said if the charges against him are pursued he’ll insist on a trial. And when he’s found not guilty he’ll file lawsuits against the sheriff’s office, the state fire marshal, and Nationwide Insurance.
Smithmyer said the sheriff’s office will let the proceedings speak for themselves.
“Everybody has the right to go to the justice system and let them do their thing,” he said.
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.