By MATTHEW REZAB
The call came in just after midnight on Jan. 27, 2016.
The Pizza Ranch in downtown Jefferson was going up in smoke.
After seeing flames in the kitchen, firefighters quickly broke the eatery’s front window to gain access to the building to squelch the fire, along with newly discovered flames in the back office and basement areas.
“The kitchen was pretty much fully engulfed,” the now-late Randy Love, Jefferson fire chief at the time, said the next morning. “We’ve been fighting it all morning through all the roof levels.”
By mid-morning, the blaze was contained and extinguished without injury, but the interior of the building was a loss, and neighboring businesses sustained damage.
Now, one year, hundreds of investigative man hours and a plea deal later, the building stands as an empty eyesore in the soon-to-be-renovated downtown district.
And Ankeny resident Robert Duane Schultz — Pizza Ranch owner since 2009 and defendant — walks free.
It didn’t take investigators long to declare the fire a case of arson.
“I would say we knew in the first half-hour,” said current Fire Chief Jack Williams, also in his first term as Greene County sheriff. “Once we got the smoke cleared and saw the way the burn patterns were. There were two completely separate areas of fire.”
Law enforcement first shined a light on an employee with a troubled past.
The restaurant’s manager, now 44, initially was targeted as a suspect after officers learned she is a felon who admitted to stealing more than $12,000 worth of bank deposits from the Jefferson Subway in 2011.
For that, she served three years probation.
In February, Schultz told The Jefferson Herald there was about $800 in the cash-register drawers on the night of the blaze.
“The office was pretty well destroyed,” he said. “But I found the one (drawer) sitting there. ... There was some change in there, but there were no bills.”
The manager was later cleared as more evidence came to light.
“A lot of people say he probably used me as a scapegoat,” manager Melinda Marie Wood said. “I really don’t know what to say about it.
“I put a lot of trust in him.”
Around the same time, police obtained text messages from the night of the fire to and from Schultz with his brother, Andrew, now 53, of Boone.
Investigators said after closing the restaurant around 10:15 p.m. the night of the fire, Robert Schultz allegedly was back in his Ankeny home about an hour later before the fire started.
But he was still active on his phone that night.
“I know it didn’t work last time, I will try to make sure it happens this time,” read a text from Andrew before the fire.
The single word “Go” was messaged from Andrew to Robert about an hour after the fire.
In the hour that preceded the fire, Andrew Schultz called two cellphone numbers out of Boone and Cedar Rapids, court records show. After the fire, about 1:45 a.m., he called an Ames landline while in Johnston.
Investigators obtained a video surveillance recording of the alleged arsonist, but were never able to identify the person based on the footage.
Even though investigators made multiple attempts to locate and speak with him, Andrew Schultz was never found or interviewed for the case.
Court records from a divorce show he must pay his ex-wife $650 each month.
The day of the restaurant fire, he was ordered by a judge to pay more than $2,700 to Nebraska Furniture Mart for outstanding debt he had at the Omaha store.
“Based on my training and experience, it is common for crimes to be ‘subcontracted’ and a third party commits the crime,” an officer wrote in a July request for the phone data.
By the end of March, investigators were ready to charge Robert Schultz with three felonies, including arson in the first degree with a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.
Schultz posted $25,000 bail April 6 and agreed to appear in district court two weeks later.
The trial that never was
Trial by jury was originally set for May 23 after Schultz pleaded not guilty at his May 19 arraignment.
But after a series of continuances, subpoenas and motions to resist evidence, a plea agreement was reached between County Attorney Nicola Martino and Schultz’ lawyer, Roger P. Owens, on Dec. 13.
Suppressed evidence included the phone records and a police-made video contradicting statements made by the defendant about spilling a gallon-and-a-half of gasoline on the Pizza Ranch floor and carpet a few weeks before the fire.
Martino this week said he was first to approach the defense about a plea deal.
“I wouldn’t say (a conviction by jury was) impossible,” Martino said. “Proving to 12 people beyond a reasonable doubt may have been difficult because we were pretty sure he wasn’t the guy who set the match.
“We never identified the person in the video of the back door. Never interviewed the brother because he was hiding.”
According to court documents, Robert Schultz was more than $400,000 in debt to Home State Bank at the time of the fire.
Under Iowa Code, one can be convicted of arson for simply being part of the crime, even if the individual didn’t start the fire themselves.
Martino added that he believed the state had a case were it to advance to trial.
“If we hadn’t been able to reach an agreement, I think it was triable,” he said. “I’m just saying there’s no guarantee once you take it to trial.”
After what Martino described as a “back-and-forth negotiation,” Schultz took an Alford plea — a guilty plea in which the criminal does not admit to the criminal act and asserts innocence.
In the end, Schultz pleaded guilty to second-degree criminal mischief, a class-D felony, and third-degree arson, an aggravated misdemeanor. He was sentenced to seven-years 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 ordered to pay $8,460.12 in fines and was recently ordered to pay neighboring businesses Greene Bean Coffee $2,270.42 for its insurance deducible and non-covered expenses, and H&R Block $1,000 for its insurance deductible.
Martino said the insurance companies may choose to come after Schultz for the full amount of damages caused to his neighbors by the fire.
Most recently, Schultz filed an application to the court asking to travel out of the country for a family vacation Jan. 29 through Feb. 13.
According to court documents, he plans to take a trip to Miami before embarking on a five-day cruise with stops in the Caribbean, including the Bahamas, and then head for a vacation house in Davenport, Fla., before returning home.
Schultz appeared for a hearing on the matter with Martino and Owens present. Schultz told the court he put a down payment on the trip in December 2015 and paid the balance in monthly installments through August 2016.
During pre-trial proceedings last year, Schultz had asked the state pay for a private investigator at a cost of about $4,000, claiming he had no funds to pay an investigator without disclosing that funds from his bank account were being used to pay for a Caribbean cruise.
Part of Schultz’ sentencing ordered him to pay the probation enrollment fee of $300. The court also ordered a $125 law enforcement initiative surcharge and that he pay restitution to Greene Bean Coffee and H&R Block in the total amount of $3,270.
The court has ruled Schultz may leave the country on the condition he “pays the $300 enrollment fee, pays the clerk of court the $125, reimburses the state public defender $3,953.45 for the investigator and pays the victim restitution of $3,270.42.”
As of Wednesday, court records indicate none of those fines have been paid.
‘It makes you feel like the job is pointless at times’
Jefferson Police Chief Mark Clouse says when news of the plea bargain was reported, it was a hit to investigators.
“My lead investigator, Capt. Heath Enns, spent at least 100 hours working on this case alone,” Clouse said. “It’s safe to say hundreds of man hours were spent on the case between all the agencies.
Jefferson police, the Jefferson Fire Department and the Greene County Sheriff’s Office worked together on the case in hope of gathering enough evidence for a conviction.
“Heath (Enns) and Jack (Williams) hit it hard,” Clouse said. “We flipped every stone we could flip. We knew we could never put the match in (Schultz’) hand, but felt we had overwhelming evidence against him.”
Williams said he’s frustrated with the outcome of the plea agreement as well.
“It makes you feel like the job is pointless at times,” he said. “It’s just really frustrating.”
Martino said he’s spoken with investigators to explain why he decided to accept the plea deal.
“I told them this was the best deal,” he said. “There was no guarantee of a conviction.”
Williams had been critical in October of Martino’s performance as county prosecutor in an interview with the Herald.
“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.’ ”
Schultz is still owner of the property, and the structure has been deemed sound by inspectors.
Nick Sorensen, Jefferson code enforcement officer, says the city doesn’t want the building to sit vacant, but for now there’s not much it can do.
“What it boils down to is if there’s no violation of property maintenance code,” he said. “The building has been remediated for mold, and as long as he gets a few windows put in place of the plywood, he can let it sit as long as the taxes are paid and up to date.”
It’s unclear whether Schultz, who has claimed he plans to reopen the restaurant, has the funds to fix the interior of the building.
It’s believed Schultz has been unable to collect any insurance money for the damages because of the guilty plea.
“We don’t want another empty building downtown,” Sorensen said. “It’s unfortunate. I’ll do whatever I can from my office to make sure maintenance is taken care of and code is followed.”
The city has already shown interest in rehabilitating downtown property with its Acquisition and Rehabilitation Program.
“If the circumstances are right, it could be a possibility,” City Administrator Mike Palmer said of the Pizza Ranch building. “Right now, it’s still his to do with as he pleases.”