Three years after a New York City fire lieutenant was killed battling a blaze in Queens, the owner of a women's clothing store in the torched building and two other men were arrested yesterday and charged with setting the fire to collect insurance money.
Officials said the difficulties of following the "paper trail" and developing evidence that would stand up in court caused the delay in bringing the indictments in the Feb. 24, 1992, blaze, in which Lieut. Thomas A. Williams fell or was blown from a second-story window while trying to escape a sudden blast of hot smoke and gases.
The owner of the clothing store, Jack Ferranti, was accused in an indictment unsealed in Federal District Court in Brooklyn of having directed the two other defendants -- his brother, Mario Ferranti, and Thomas Tocco -- to set the fire in the store in Maspeth.
One of the prosecutors in the case, George Stamboulidis, declined to comment on whether there was an organized-crime link. The prosecution is being handled by the organized crime unit of the United States Attorney's office in Brooklyn.
Jack Ferranti, a Manhattan resident who the authorities say owns apartment buildings in Harlem and the Bronx, was cited by city officials in the 1980's for an extensive record of building violations, and at one point he was found in contempt of court for failing to make court-ordered repairs.
Lieutenant Williams, who had celebrated his 30th anniversary as a New York City firefighter only weeks before the fire, was buried on his 53d birthday, three years ago today.
Yesterday, his brother, a retired fire battalion chief, said he was gratified by the arrests, as did firefighters at the Woodside firehouse to which the lieutenant had been assigned.
"Let's hope they can nail them quick," the brother, Robert Williams, said. If the accused men are convicted, "hopefully it will act as a deterrent" to others contemplating arson for profit, he said.
At the firehouse, some members of Rescue Company 4 and Engine Company 292, both based there, said they had come to believe that arrests would never be made in the case.
"You'd figure a case that old would dry up and blow away," said Firefighter Ralph Williams, who is not related to Lieutenant Williams. He spoke in the mess hall, where a painting of Lieutenant Williams hangs on the wall. The painting shows him running up stairs, smoke pouring over his shoulders.
Firefighter Richard Euler said the suspects should face more serious charges. "An accident is an accident," he said. "When it's murder, it's something else. And that's what these guys should be tried for: murder, not arson.
"Tom's heart and soul were with his family and the Fire Department," Mr. Euler said.
As the three accused men awaited arraignment late yesterday afternoon in Federal Court in Brooklyn, the lawyer for Mr. Tocco, William M. Kunstler, said his 29-year-old client was not involved in setting the fire and "knows nothing" about it. Mr. Kunstler also said his client was not involved in organized crime.
Elizabeth Macedonio, a lawyer for Jack Ferranti, 42, and Marion Seltzer, the lawyer for Mr. Ferranti's 37-year-old brother, said only that their clients would plead not guilty.
The indictment charges that shortly before the fire, Jack Ferranti moved a large amount of merchandise from the store, Today's Styles, at 66-45 Grand Avenue, and after the fire he falsely claimed the goods had been destroyed in the blaze for a loss of $100,000.
Investigators said he eventually withdrew the insurance claim, though they declined to say why or whether he had collected any money before withdrawing it.
Conviction on the most serious charges, arson conspiracy and arson resulting in death, is punishable by up to life in prison. Jack Ferranti was also charged with witness tampering, a charge related to testimony a former employee at his store gave to a grand jury in the case.
Jack Ferranti also faces gun-possession charges in another case, in Federal District Court in Manhattan, and Mario Ferranti and Mr. Tocco face drug-selling charges in the Bronx.
Mr. Kunstler contended that the Bronx charges against Mr. Tocco were part of a campaign to pressure him to cooperate in the arson investigation.