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United States v. Starnes

decided: March 20, 1981.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Illinois, Benton Division. No. 78-Cr-02018 -- James L. Foreman, Judge .

Before Cummings and Wood, Circuit Judges, and Campbell, Senior District Judge.*fn*

Author: Wood

Defendants Noble Starnes and Clifford Roland appeal from a jury verdict that found them guilty of violating 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d), a provision of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The indictment charged that Starnes and Roland violated RICO by conspiring to engage in a pattern of racketeering in connection with a scheme to commit arson with intent to defraud an insurer, in violation of Illinois law. The arson consisted of setting fire to a building that housed Tri-No Enterprises, Inc., a business of which Starnes was president. In addition, the jury found Roland guilty on a separate count of violating the Travel Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1952(a), by travelling across state lines to commit the arson.*fn1

Defendants do not contest that they arranged to set the fire and that Starnes filed a claim for the resulting damage with Tri-No's insurer. Instead, Starnes and Roland argue that the evidence is insufficient to establish the intent necessary to sustain their convictions. Alternatively, they contend that if the requisite intent existed a RICO prosecution cannot be brought in connection with a single instance of arson. Defendants also argue that their rights were violated when the prosecution failed to procure for them handwritten notes allegedly taken by an FBI agent while questioning a witness. In addition, Starnes and Roland claim that the district judge was unfairly biased against them, and Starnes asserts that he failed to receive effective assistance of counsel. We affirm.


In 1977, Roland operated a tavern in Gary, Indiana, and also conducted a legitimate demolition business. During December of that year, Roland told Gerald Shurman about a friend of Roland's who wanted to set fire to an office in Illinois in order to destroy records contained in the office. Shurman is a former policeman who was convicted of a felony prior to the events in this case. He had on occasion worked with Roland in the latter's demolition business. Roland offered Shurman approximately two thousand dollars in return for his services in setting the fire. Shurman enlisted the aid of an acquaintance, Donald Murphy,*fn2 and the two men met with Roland at the latter's tavern to work out the details for the destruction of the office. During the conversation at the tavern, Roland received and made telephone calls purportedly to the individual who wanted the office burned. Telephone toll records introduced at trial showed that the calls were made to and from a telephone subscribed by Starnes in Texas.

As a result of the meeting, Shurman, Murphy and Roland agreed to travel to southern Illinois where they would set the fire as discussed. They anticipated that the fire would be blamed on the United Mine Workers who were on strike in southern Illinois at the time. The union members worked for some of Tri-No's suppliers, but not directly for Tri-No. It was agreed that the fire had to be set soon, since there was news that the strike would end within a few days.

The three men purchased thirty gallons of flammable lacquer thinner with money supplied by Roland, and set out from Gary at dawn for their destination,*fn3 a building in the Royal Oaks business complex in Herrin, Illinois. Starnes greeted them when they arrived at the building. Shurman recognized Starnes as a person he had seen before with Roland at Roland's bar.

Starnes informed them that he wanted the entire building destroyed rather than just a single office. The men removed a number of items from the building and obtained additional flammable liquids. They delayed igniting the fire until darkness, leaving Starnes the opportunity to board an airplane flight out of state in order to establish an alibi. The fire then was set.

Starnes had increased his insurance coverage on the building shortly before the fire. Two of Tri-No's creditors testified that Tri-No was not paying its bills to them and that the creditors had filed suit to recover the money due.


A. Roland first argues that his actions did not constitute a crime because, he says, the government did not prove that he helped set the fire with the intent to defraud an insurer, as required under relevant Illinois law. Ill.Rev.Stat. Chap. 38, § 20-1(b).*fn4 Starnes contends that he also did not have the requisite intent, and that even if he did he cannot be convicted of conspiracy since none of the others thought that the office fire was started for the purpose of defrauding Starnes's insurer. He argues that he cannot be convicted for conspiring to defraud an insurer with people who do not possess the requisite intent to commit the crime. Defendants' contentions thus depend on whether or not they possessed the intent required by law.

Circumstantial evidence may be used to prove a defendant's intent; indeed, that usually is the only evidence available to show intent. United States v. Haldeman, 181 U.S. App. D.C. 254, 559 F.2d 31 (D.C.Cir.1976), cert. denied, 431 U.S. 933, 97 S. Ct. 2641, 53 L. Ed. 2d 250 (1977); People v. Berland, 74 Ill.2d 286, 308, 24 Ill.Dec. 508, 385 N.E.2d 649 (1978) (arson case).

There was sufficient evidence to show Starnes's intent to defraud the insurance company. His business was in need of cash to pay its bills. Starnes, who was president of Tri-No, was well aware that the building was insured and that he recently had increased the insurance coverage. A successful fire was a convenient solution to his financial problems. He had an adjuster file a claim with the insurer after the fire, even though he was aware he had no basis for the claim under the policy since he was responsible for the fire being set. Taken together, this was ample evidence from which the jury ...

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