A New Mexico man will serve five years in prison for torching the landmark Hitching Post Inn in Cheyenne, Wyo., a federal judge ordered Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal also ordered Robert Rodriguez of Albuquerque to serve three years of supervised release after he gets out of prison, and she said he’s responsible for $50,000 restitution to an insurance company.
Rodriguez pleaded guilty in April to arson and conspiracy to commit wire fraud in the 2010 fire that destroyed the hotel’s main lodge building. The Hitching Post Inn had been a favorite gathering place for Wyoming lawmakers for decades before it fell on hard times in the few years before the September 2010 fire.
“This is one of the biggest mistakes that I’ve ever made,” Rodriguez told the judge. A stocky man, he stood in court wearing orange jail clothing, shackled at his wrists and ankles. He said he didn’t realize when he sparked off the blaze that his actions would affect so many people.
Investigators dubbed the fire as arson almost immediately after trained dogs picked up the smell of accelerants. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined local law enforcement and fire officials in the investigation.
Federal prosecutor Jim Anderson told Freudenthal that Rodriguez deserved consideration for cooperating with authorities. While Anderson said Rodriguez made a bad decision in lighting the fire, he said Rodriguez did so only after Ajay Jariwala, 52, of Albuquerque, put pressure on him to do it. Court documents identify Jariwala as a principal in CJM Hospitality, LLC. – the company that owned the hotel.
Anderson said Rodriguez was running his own construction company and employing about 30 people working on renovation of the Hitching Post Inn before the fire. He said Jariwala approached him and asked him to burn down the main hotel lodge building.
Prosecutors say CJM bought the Hitching Post Inn for just over $1 million in early 2010 and Jariwala took out a $13.6 million insurance policy on it. National Surety Corp., the company that had insured the Hitching Post, has refused to pay CJM’s $13.6 million claim on the grounds that the fire was arson. Freudenthal also is presiding over a civil case between the two companies.
Rodriguez built up his construction business by specializing in working on hotels owned by business people of East Indian origin, Anderson said. He said Jariwala told Rodriguez that he had to torch the building or else he would no longer get work from Jariwala or anyone in his circle of associates.
Jariwala pleaded guilty last month before Freudenthal to conspiracy to commit arson. At that May court hearing, Anderson said Jariwala had agreed to pay Rodriguez $150,000 to torch the building. Jariwala said he agreed with Anderson’s recitation of the facts.
Anderson said Thursday that Rodriguez’s willingness to testify against Jariwala was instrumental in the government’s charging Jariwala and ultimately in Jariwala’s willingness to plead guilty. Jariwala is scheduled for sentencing in September.
Another defendant, Marcus Trevino, also has pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting arson and conspiracy to commit wire fraud and is scheduled for sentencing later this month.
Anderson had asked Freudenthal to sentence Rodriguez to 70 months in prison, but she agreed with a recommendation from defense lawyer Daniel Blythe to give him 60 months instead.
The Hitching Post went through different owners after the hotel’s longtime owner Paul Smith died of cancer in 2006.
Smith had owned and operated the hotel since 1982, when he bought it from his parents. Under Smith’s watch, the hotel flourished. He incorporated large, fossil-bearing rocks into the lobby of the sprawling lodge building. It also had a steakhouse and a lounge that offered live music, with some of the same acts playing there for decades.
Freudenthal said she understood that sentencing Rodriguez didn’t lessen the loss to the Cheyenne community of the Hitching Post as an iconic hotel.
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