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Lawyer for owners of Salisbury’s Market files for dismissal of fire case

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Posted: Tuesday, July 9, 2013 12:00 am

An attorney for the owners of Lodi’s Salisbury’s Market, who have been accused of arson, insurance fraud and other charges related to a fire at the store, has filed a motion to have the case dismissed.

Attorney Michael Farley sharply questions how the Lodi police and fire departments handled their investigation of the October 2011 fire at the market.

Farley also disputed evidence presented by San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney J.C. Weydert, including the cause of the fire, the credibility of witnesses, and the notion that the market’s owners couldn’t pay their rent and needed insurance money to make ends meet.

“This gives us an opportunity to really examine what evidence (the prosecution) presented and what evidence they did not,” Farley said in an interview.

Farley filed the 44-page document Friday in San Joaquin County Superior Court.

Elk Grove residents Prem Basuta, 47, his wife Kulwinder “Kelly” Basuta, 48, and Lodi resident Gurmail “Gary” Singh, 55, were arrested in May 2012, several months after fires severely damaged the interior of Salisbury’s Market, located at 2401 W. Turner Road.

The motion offers a detailed chronology of the fire and aftermath.

According to the motion, Lodi firefighters arrived at Salisbury’s Market at around 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 15, 2011 to extinguish a small fire caused by a gas line with an open spigot, investigators said.

By 7:55 a.m., fire crews had left the scene. But less than an hour later they returned to reactivate the fire alarm and sprinkler system, which were set off during the fire.

As fire crews arrived at the market, Susan Batty, the property manager, was standing outside and waving frantically, trying to get their attention, according to the motion.

A second fire had broken out.

Smoke was rising from the roof, so firefighters went inside and quickly extinguished the flames.

Investigator David Rabara of the Lodi Fire Department examined the building and soon found that the fire originated from a cardboard box, which store owners said contained charcoal and lighter fluid. Rabara later testified that it appeared “as if somebody sprayed ignitable liquid in the area and lit it.”

During a cross examination, Rabara, whose first commercial fire investigation was at Salisbury’s Market, according to the motion, revealed that he never performed tests to determine how long the lighter fluid had been on the ground. He also stated that he never calculated how much liquid in the area was water from the earlier fire. He did not find a container of lighter fluid, and assumed that it had melted.

Detective Steve Maynard of the Lodi Police Department, who assisted in the investigation, testified that Prem lied about his whereabouts during an interview shortly after the second fire.

Investigators said that Prem Basuta's whereabouts were unclear after the first fire, and they believe he may have started the second fire.

But Farley’s motion says investigators misunderstood Prem Basuta during an initial interview and never clarified his statements, which Farley contends was a crucial oversight.

Maynard also stated based on an interview with Linda Salisbury, who sold the market with her husband, Bruce Salisbury, in 2005, that the Basutas and Singh were constantly late making rental and several other payments.

However, during the January hearing, Bruce Salisbury said that the market’s owners never made payments more than a few days late, and he never applied any late fees.

In addition, Maynard stated that equipment at the market was breaking down shortly before the fire and in need of repairs estimated at $75,000 to $95,000.

But Farley argued that any necessary repairs weren’t significant, and would only cost between $2,000 and $20,000.

The motion cites comments by Judge Bernard Garber of San Joaquin County Superior Court, who ruled in January there was enough evidence to proceed to trial, though he questioned the likelihood of a jury convicting the defendants.

“Can you imagine arguing this to a jury?” Garber said during a preliminary hearing. “They’d be mad, because they’d be sitting here for three or four weeks listening to this stuff ... be hard to look them straight in the eye.”

Farley and Weydert will present their arguments to a judge on Aug. 19 in San Joaquin County Superior Court. Following the hearing, the judge will either side with Farley and dismiss the accusations or determine there is still enough evidence to proceed to trial.

“I think we demonstrated that the circumstantial evidence presented at the preliminary hearing is ineffective and should be disregarded,” Farley said.

Weydert and Lodi Fire Chief Larry Rooney did not wish to comment on the motion filed Friday. Lodi Police Chief Mark Helms could not be reached for comment.

Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at krisa@lodinews.com.

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