Alabama Arson Suspect Lunceford Faced Foreclosure, Federal Agents Say

January 13, 2009

Witnesses testified that businessman and former Auburn University’s punter Tommy Lunceford Jr. was in a dispute with a couple leasing his Gulf Shores (Alabama) restaurant and faced foreclosure when the building burned as the couple, sleeping upstairs, narrowly escaped injury.

Lunceford, 62, was arrested last Tuesday and charged with arson, obstruction of justice and intimidating law enforcement officers who investigated the 3:30 a.m. blaze on Nov. 8, 2007, at Nick’s restaurant.

At a detention hearing last Thursday, federal agents testified that Lunceford, if freed before trial, would be a threat to potential witnesses and Judy Kelly, described in testimony as his common-law wife.

Lunceford has pleaded not guilty to the charges. A trial date has not been set. If convicted, Lunceford faces a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years and could get up to 40 years.

U.S. Magistrate Judge William Cassady did not immediately rule on prosecutors’ detention request, but Lunceford remained in custody pending a formal order expected next week.

Nick and Cathy Cascario had leased the building and the couple lived in an apartment over the kitchen while operating the Italian restaurant on busy Highway 59. They escaped the fire, but their small dog, Duchess, died in it.

Gulf Shores attorney David Whetstone testified that he represented Cascario in litigation involving Lunceford, who was trying to evict the couple. He said Lunceford “threatened to ruin me” for seeking a delay in the court case.

Federal prosecutors called Whetstone and other witnesses to back up the government’s contention that Lunceford intimidates people and is possibly mentally unstable.

Mark Sloke of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told the judge a petroleum accelerant was used to start the restaurant fire. Prosecutors contend insurance money was a motive for the arson.

Sloke said Lunceford didn’t collect on a claim, but the mortgage-holders were paid by the insurance firm, which relieved Lunceford of a foreclosure threat from the bank. Lunceford Properties bought the property for $1.84 million in May 2005.

Sloke also testified that Lunceford sent intimidating Valentine’s Day cards to two ATF agents and the state fire marshal’s investigator on the case. He was upset that agents had searched his home and removed property. Agents used DNA to trace the cards back to Lunceford.

When confronted, Lunceford claimed he had sent the cards in jest and “thought it would be cute.”

Sloke said potential witnesses for the trial describe Lunceford’s reputation this way: “Stay away from him or he’ll get you.”

Lunceford, Auburn University’s punter in the mid-1960s, briefly operated Tommy Thunder’s Motorsports Cafe.

Chad Kelly testified that Lunceford has lived with his mother about 10 years. Kelly said his mother sleeps in a locked bedroom and is afraid of Lunceford.

“I do feel he’s mentally unstable,” Kelly told the judge.

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