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A businessman who orchestrated a scheme to burn down his own city rowhouses to collect insurance pleaded guilty to arson yesterday, admitting that he set an East Baltimore fire that accidentally killed a homeless man.

Robert "Ricky" Milligan, 33, became the sixth and final man to plead guilty in what federal authorities say was one of the biggest arson conspiracies to be prosecuted in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Prosecutors say another of the fires indirectly led to a 49-year-old woman's death.

"Their motive was money, but unfortunately, it led to not only destruction of property but two fatalities," said Stewart Allen, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for Maryland and Delaware. "That's one thing about arson: you don't know who's going to be hurt once a fire gets out of control."

Milligan owned a Greektown-based corporation called A.L.S. Inc., which bought run-down rental properties in East Baltimore. But in 1993, amid increasing financial pressures, Milligan began increasing the insurance policies on each unit and arranged with friends to have the buildings set on fire, prosecutors said.

Most of the fires did minimal to moderate damage in vacant buildings, with tenants having been evicted a few days or even hours earlier. But a July 10, 1995, fire at 1311 N. Rose St. killed a homeless heroin addict, Vernard Jones, who had gone to sleep in an upstairs room unknown to Milligan and his partners, court papers said.

Another man in the conspiracy, Thomas W. Smith III, also pleaded guilty yesterday to burning down his building at 1934 E. Lombard in an unsuccessful attempt to collect $220,000 in insurance. Smith ran a private detective agency in the building.

That fire was set July 4, 1995, by Milligan's brother, Gary Milligan, and Paul J. Bebber, a convicted felon the men hired to splash gasoline in the buildings and set them ablaze, according to the guilty pleas of Bebber and Gary Milligan.

The fire at 1934 E. Lombard also had deadly consequences. When Bebber lighted a torch to ignite gasoline he poured in the office, it triggered an explosion of gas fumes that permeated the building. The noise frightened a neighbor, Arlene Pinti, so much that she had a heart attack, according to an affidavit written by federal prosecutors Joseph L. Evans and Carmina S. Hughes.

Pinti died eight weeks later from an infection after emergency heart surgery.

Bebber was severely burned in the explosion and barely got out of the crashing debris. He went to the Johns Hopkins burn unit the next day, after spending a night soaking in a bathtub while drinking alcohol to get his mind off his pain, court papers said.

Under the terms of the plea agreements, Smith, Bebber, and both Milligans could be sentenced to life in federal prison if the court finds that their actions resulted in someone's death. Judge J. Frederick Motz will sentence the men on July 25.

Throughout the investigation, Robert Milligan contended "that the fires were most likely set by disgruntled tenants" and at one point he enlisted the help of two Baltimore police officers to cover up his trail, prosecutors said.

The officers, Gary and Ian Budny, are father and son and pleaded guilty late last year to knowing about a plan to torch some of the buildings. Although the Budnys knew of Robert Milligan's plans to burn down his buildings, they did not alert investigators, court papers said.

Robert Milligan had befriended Gary Budny at Crazy John's sub and sandwich shop in the 1300 block of Gough St., which Robert Milligan owned and is also suspected of trying to burn down. An April 20, 1995, fire at the shop caused an estimated $31,000 in damage.

In some of the fires, insurance companies refused to pay claims because the blazes were suspicious. But in all, over $157,000 in claims was paid because of the fires, either to Milligan and his associates or to third parties holding mortgages on the properties, court papers said.

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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