Home arsons are fiery family affairs in West Virginia

The Lesters were a well-known family in parts of Southern West Virginia. Especially, patriarch Windel Lester sat on the board of a local bank. He also owned a hardware store and sold mobile homes.

Windel thought big, as community pillars should. Except he slid off the railroad tracks of respectability, deciding that burning homes for insurance money would be his next business venture. The whole clan joined in, burning down three homes and trying to walk away with more than $556,000 of insurance money.

Windel had it all figured out: Buy vacant, decrepit homes for next to nothing. Install straw owners to hide their own manipulating. Then pack the homes with useless, junky old furniture they bought at flea markets or yard sales. Then they over-insured the homes, and burned them down to make bloated claims for expensive possessions they never owned.

Burn homes with candle oil

Windel’s hardware store sold unscented — and combustable — candle oil. That was the fire starter; he figured it would be untraceable. The store played another role: Windel forged receipts for home possessions to support the series of inflated claims. He also laundered insurance money through the bank he helped run.

So the Lesters got to work. One of the two Lester sons, James Edward “Punkin” Lester helped a crony buy a house for just $38,000, with Windel fronting the money. They bought a $196,000 policy on the dwelling, and $147,000 for the junky possessions. Then they soaked cardboard boxes with the candle oil in the kitchen and a bedroom and started the fire.

The house had no chance, and lit up like a roman candle. The straw owner told the insurer the fire was a kitchen-related incident, and received nearly $300,000 of insurance money to be divided up.

Claimed was at county fair

Punkin installed James Keith Browning as the straw owner of another house that soon became blackened ashes. Browning claimed he was at the county fair while the slow-building fire gained steam. Browning collected $100,000 of insurance money and the conspirators divided up the loot.

Another doomed house was bought for $100,000. It netted a tidy $280,000 of insurance money after the structure burned down.

Windel’s still prominent in these parts, though as a convicted felon. The Lester clan and fake owners were convicted or pled guilty to volumes of federal charges. Everyone faces up to dozens of years in federal prison when sentenced.

Even with unscented candle oil, the whiff of fraud was too strong for investigators to ignore.