Grocery-store arson wrecks building, incinerates tenant

Jamal Abu Samak blew up a New Orleans grocery store, firing up an insurance arson that went tragically wrong and incinerated a tenant living upstairs.

Samak has lodged unappealing appeals for years in Hail Mary efforts to reduce his life sentence in federal prison.

A federal court denied Samak’s latest bid in January 2017 after years in jail. He launched the botched scam in 1991. Still, that decades-old case reveals the chilling potential of insurance arsons.

The arsonists often botch attempts to burn down homes or businesses for insurance paydays. Think napalm strike: Unstable gas fumes explode, or clumsily set fires simply race out of control. Nearby homes and businesses are gutted. Innocent people are maimed or burned alive.

The owners of the Community Grocery Store hired Samak and his sidekick Samuel Joseph Lee to torch the place. The owners raised their insurance on the store’s contents to $75,000 from $50,000 just two months before the fire.

Filled gasoline containers

Samak and Lee filled four grey plastic containers of gasoline on the fatal night. The containers were lethal munitions — each held fully five gallons of gas.

The pair entered through an unlocked side door. They emptied two containers inside the store, and the other two in an upstairs apartment.

Samak plotted to make Lee take the fall. They stashed the empty containers in the getaway car’s trunk, and Samak sent Lee back inside to turn off a store light. Lee knew something was wrong just as he stepped inside. Samak had followed him, tossed a lit match inside and slammed the door shut — trapping Lee inside.

The building exploded, throwing Lee back outside the store and blowing out the store windows. Still, he survived. Samak received third-degree burns over much of his body. Neighbors thought a bomb went off.

A man sleeping in an apartment above the store was incinerated. Tenants James Quincy Whitehead and Melanie Williams were blown down the stairs, yet barely escaped the flames by crawling through a small hole in the wall.

Fire starter’s appeal denied

Lee pleaded guilty early on and gladly cooperated with prosecutors to finger the man who betrayed him. Samak was handed life in federal prison.

Samak was rehabilitated, he claimed in his latest appeal for early freedom. The court disagreed, sending Samak back to finish his life term.

In another bungled insurance fire, Bob Leonard helped open a natural-gas line in an Indianapolis home. A timer rigged to a microwave triggered the unstable fumes. It was a $300,000 insurance plot. The house detonated. A thunderous explosion burned next-door neighbors Jennifer and Dion Longworth alive, collapsing their house.

Much of the neighborhood was leveled, traumatizing families up and down the tree-lined streets. Leonard received life without parole in federal prison — and a coveted spot in the Insurance Fraud Hall of Shame.