Sprinklers splash doomed pizzeria insurance arson

Owner muffs blaze ineptly planned to look like a grease fire

If Mustafa Zabana cooked pizza with the skill he used to fry his pizza shop, he should be selling furniture or shoes instead.

The Iraqi national owned Bruno’s Pizza in a strip mall in Enfield, Conn. Zabana was ambitious. He wanted to build a bigger and better pizza emporium. Insurance money was his meal ticket, literally.

So Zabana decided to torch the place and use the insurance money to build a fancier eatery. Except Zabana had little idea how to burn anything more than a pizza crust.

A grease fire accidentally broke out in an oven at Bruno’s one evening. Zabana doused it with a fire extinguisher. Two workers left the building, and one stayed behind. Zabana seized the moment and told the employee he wanted to start another grease fire. That would make it seem like the first fire had re-ignited. He figured he’d steal a tidy pile of insurance cash for his pizzeria rebuild.

Bought lighter fluid

The employee tried to convince Zabana this was a bad idea. Zabana wouldn’t listen, and told his worker to buy some lighter fluid at a nearby convenience store. The guy reluctantly agreed, and bought the lighter fluid using Zabana’s credit card.

Zabana then went to the rear of the store. He wanted to ignite several fires around the place. He first lit up a pile of restaurant menus he’d placed on the floor near the pizza oven. Why burned menus would look like a grease fire was pretty muddled thinking, though Zabana gamely plowed ahead.

He lit the first blaze, and smoke quickly spewed around the room. Gasping for air, Zabana had no chance to light more fires. He and the worker dashed outside while they still could. Zabana locked the door behind them, and told his employee to report to work the next morning as if nothing had happened.

Meanwhile, the arson fire tried its best to spark up. In addition to screwing up the grease fire, Zabana overlooked a second flaw in his arson plan: He started the fire right beneath the pizzeria’s interior fire sprinklers. The water drowned the flames — and Zabana’s insurance plot.

“Luck” prevents deaths

Even so, the smoke badly damaged a neighboring Edible Arrangements store, and ruined its inventory. Fire fighters were grateful they didn’t have to duel a full-on arson blaze in the pizzeria’s small space. Only pure “luck” kept Zabana’s insurance fire from killing anyone, federal prosecutor Natasha M. Freismuth said.

That was Zabana’s last dose of good luck. He received only an initial $5,000 check from his insurer before investigators discovered the insurance plot. Zabana then was handed 18 months in federal prison, and could be deported back to war-torn Iraq.

“Thankfully, this sprinkler functioned properly and saved the building from almost certain ruin,” Freismuth agreed.