BY JUSTIN GEORGE
TAMPA — Receipts on fire. A buffet burner lit for destruction. Arson and insurance bucks. Brother against brother.
Tampa fire marshal investigator Al Alcala has spent months trying to sort out the stories of the Lovely brothers, locked in a family quarrel.
Two brothers say another orchestrated arson twice in 2005 for insurance payouts at his business, Potbellies Family Restaurant, Alcala said. The two also implicated a fourth brother.
"They all hate each other," Alcala said. "And there's a history of lying on behalf of all four brothers that limits the veracity of what they said."
In four years, the S Himes Avenue building has caught fire three times.
The latest, March 22, resulted in the death of a 48-year-old woman. The day after the fatal fire, Tampa Fire Rescue said it did not appear to be suspicious. The fire marshal has not closed an investigation. No one has been charged in any of the fires.
Alcala is trying to corroborate the two brothers' stories with records such as loans and liens that might show a motive, he said. He must do so before October, when a statute of limitations runs out on the 2005 fires.
Sam Lovely, Potbellies' owner, denies wrongdoing and blames all the mudslinging on a spat between twins Roger and Rodney Lovely.
Rodney Lovely, who used to work at Sam Lovely's restaurant, recently was awarded an $83,000 court judgment against his twin, Roger. The two had fought over which of them owned a house.
"I just think it's sick," Sam Lovely said of the arson allegations.
Potbellies' last fire erupted in the apartments above the restaurant. Three adults and two children reached safety.
Kathy Alm, a manager for Circle K, screamed for help before she died of smoke inhalation, according to Tampa Fire Rescue.
Alcala said the fire originated in a common area outside the two upstairs apartments. It was closest to Alm's home. The fire blocked stairs that would have been her main route of escape, he said.
Days later, Roger Lovely, who owns a restaurant in Brandon, approached fire investigators. He didn't have information on the fatal fire.
But he told Alcala that another brother, Richard Lovely, claimed to have participated in setting the first of the 2005 fires.
Roger Lovely also claimed that the second fire was intentionally set.
Both fires had been ruled accidents.
The Fire Marshal's Office took sworn depositions from Roger and Richard Lovely, in which they shared details of the 2005 fires, Alcala said. Alcala reopened both investigations.
Roger Lovely repeated his allegations for the St. Petersburg Times. Investigator Alcala confirmed that Roger and Richard Lovely made these claims:
Sam Lovely wanted an insurance settlement, they said. And so, on Sept. 11, 2005, the owner had Richard Lovely set a table on fire using a Sterno buffet burner. It burned only the table cover.
Rodney Lovely, who was also there, threw the burner against the restaurant wall to spread the blaze, according to the account. Richard Lovely got scared, left and called the fire department, Roger Lovely said.
Firefighters extinguished the fire, which caused little damage.
On Oct. 17, 2005, brothers Sam and Rodney Lovely tried again, Roger Lovely alleges.
Rodney Lovely put a bunch of receipts by a breaker box and air conditioning fan. He set the receipts on fire, by this account, and then joined Brenda Lovely — at the time, Sam's wife — at the Dinosaur World theme park in Plant City as an alibi.
Sam Lovely remained at the front of the restaurant, where he met with a salesman. Smoke billowed from the back of the restaurant, driving them outside. An insurance settlement followed. Rodney earned a Ford truck as payment for starting the fire, Roger says.
Richard Lovely did not return two phone messages for this story, and Rodney Lovely could not be located.
Alcala said most of what Richard and Roger Lovely told him would not be admissible in court, because they didn't witness the events. The exception: Richard's account of the first fire, the one he claimed he help set.
"He was there," Alcala said. "He witnessed it."
In the second fire, which destroyed Potbellies' sports bar, firefighters tore down the restaurant's ceiling as they searched for hot spots after they put down the blaze. If physical evidence of arson had been present, Alcala said, it was destroyed.
In an interview with the Times, Sam Lovely called his brothers' scenarios ridiculous.
The buffet burner lit a paper tablecloth on fire accidentally in the first fire, and an insurance company ruled that an air conditioning problem caused the second, he said.
"This is the first time I've heard this story," he said, "but I've heard enough of them that I'm sick of them at this point."
Neither Richard nor Roger Lovely allege arson in the blaze that killed Alm.
Family awaits word
Alcala has left that investigation open until he resolves the building's fire history, he said.
That leaves Alm's family without answers.
"This happened in March and it's June now and I don't know anything," the victim's daughter, Jessica Alm, 26, said. "It's not fair to me. It's not fair for my family."
Alcala, a 26-year veteran, said he is moving meticulously, conducting interviews and examining records. He has not been able to interview Sam or Rodney Lovely.
Sam, in a brief conversation with Alcala, denied his brothers' scenarios but would not submit to more questioning, Alcala said.
"Anytime you're looking into a death, you want to make sure your i's are dotted and t's are crossed," he said. "We're truth seekers and not case makers. In our job, it's more important to protect the innocent than to convict the guilty."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]