Robert Schultz
Robert Schultz

December 14, 2016

Jefferson

The Pizza Ranch owner accused of conspiring to torch his restaurant in January pleaded guilty to criminal mischief and arson Tuesday but will not go to prison.

Robert Schultz, 53, of Ankeny, received a 7-year suspended prison sentence and three years of probation. He had faced a felony arson charge punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

Schultz was accused of aiding someone in setting fire to the restaurant about midnight Jan. 26.

Schultz was at home at the time the fire was reported and planned to use that alibi as a defense if the case had gone to trial.

And a judge recently ruled that suspicious text messages sent to Schultz by his brother could not be used as evidence at trial.

Those messages included “I know it didn’t work last time, but I’ll make sure it happens this time” before the fire and “Go” after the fire.

A video surveillance camera recorded the alleged arsonist, but investigators were never able to identify the person based on the footage. They were not able to interview Schultz’s brother because they couldn’t locate him.

Greene County Attorney Nicola Martino, who prosecuted the case, said a plea deal had been in the works for weeks.

“I’m satisfied based on all the facts and circumstances of the case,” Martino told the Daily Times Herald. “Some people might not be pleased, but it’s a fair resolution based on the evidence we have.”

Martino said he doubts anyone else will be arrested for the arson, which gutted the restaurant and caused smoke damage to nearby businesses.

Schultz was deeply in debt at the time, and investigators accused him of setting fire to the building to collect an big insurance payout.

Schultz declined to comment for this article.

He made so-called “Alford pleas” on Tuesday, in which he did not admit he committed the crimes but acknowledged that a jury could convict him.

Mark Clouse, the police chief for Jefferson, has said an investigation revealed that Schultz apparently doused the restaurant with gasoline in several locations inside the building the night of Jan. 26 and someone else ignited it.

Several people reported smelling gasoline in and near the restaurant in the days that led to the fire, and Schultz claimed he had accidentally spilled some of the highly flammable fuel in the restaurant’s dining area. He claimed he took the fuel inside the restaurant to give to an employee whose vehicle had run empty.

Schultz told investigators that he left the restaurant about 10:15 p.m. and arrived at his Ankeny home about 11:15 p.m.

The fire was reported just after midnight.

County records show Schultz obtained an open-ended real estate mortgage for the building in Nov. 2012 for up to $375,000. In the next two years he requested the bank increase that amount three times, most recently in June 2014 when it was raised to $450,000.

Schultz told investigators he was “behind on his mortgage payments,” according to court records.

Officers sought numerous batches of cellphone records to find Schultz’s co-conspirators, but they were unsuccessful in their search for more perpetrators.

Jack Williams, the town’s fire chief and soon-to-be county sheriff who was the first to investigate the arson, declined to comment about the outcome of Schultz’s case.

But he was critical in October of Martino’s performance as county prosecutor.

“All the work we do to put criminals in jail seems to be unrewarded at the end,” Williams said at the time. “People that we’ve arrested from Georgia and Louisiana, they all tell us, ‘We were told to come here because you can get away with more.’ ”