U.S. Justice Department press release…
PHILADELPHIA – United States Attorney William M. McSwain announced that Imad Dawara, 39, of Swathmore, PA and Bahaa Dawara, 31, of Woodlyn, PA, who are brothers originally from Syria but now American citizens, were arrested and charged by Indictment on October 16, 2019. During a news conference held today, U.S. Attorney McSwain announced that his Office had unsealed the 10-count Indictment charging the defendants with planning and causing the arson of their business, RCL Management LLC, at 239-241 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia on February 18, 2018 in order to receive insurance proceeds from the destruction.
Specifically, the defendants have been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit arson, one count of conspiracy to use fire to commit a federal felony, one count of malicious damage by means of fire of a building used in interstate commerce, one count of using fire to commit a federal felony, four counts of wire fraud, and two counts of mail fraud. The defendants were arrested yesterday evening at Philadelphia International Airport and are scheduled to appear in U.S. Magistrate Court before Chief Magistrate Judge Linda K. Caracappa at 1:30pm today.
The Indictment alleges that from around December 2012 until February 18, 2018, the defendants owned and operated various restaurants and entertainment establishments in Philadelphia, including a restaurant and hookah lounge at 239-241 Chestnut Street. As the charges lay out, the Dawara brothers were struggling in their Chestnut Street business and had a history of fighting with their landlord. By October 2015, the landlord sent the Dawara brothers a Notice of Default and Breach of Lease, citing numerous violations which included 26 citations from the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement. In response, the charges note that Imad Dawara threatened the landlord that he would destroy the place if the landlord attempted to evict the brothers from the premises.
In November 2015, the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County prohibited the defendants from engaging the services of a disc jockey, providing live entertainment, and allowing the use of tobacco products (including hookah) on the premises unless they had the proper permits. Also in November 2015, their landlord sent the defendants a Notice of Intent to terminate their lease. By October 2017, the Dawara brothers had ceased all business operations for RCL Management at 239-241 Chestnut Street. The brothers attempted to sell their business, but as they had failed to renew their lease or pay rent, no one would buy it. On January 31, 2018, their landlord directed the defendants to vacate the premises by February 2, 2018 and advised the defendants that they owed over $64,000 in overdue payments.
On the same day that the defendants were ordered to vacate the premises, the Indictment alleges that despite no longer doing any business at that location, Imad Dawara contacted an insurance broker to inquire about purchasing insurance for 239-241 Chestnut Street. The Dawara brothers had not held an insurance policy on their business at the Chestnut Street location for over a year, but 16 days before the fire, Imad Dawara purchased insurance. In obtaining this new insurance policy, the charges allege that Imad Dawara asked the insurance broker repeatedly how he would be paid “if there was a fire.” The insurance policy purchased on February 2, 2018 provided coverage in the event of an accidental fire at 239-41 Chestnut Street in the amount of $750,000, which consisted of $500,000 for property damage and $250,000 for business interruption.
On February 18, 2018, at approximately 3:11am, the Indictment alleges that a fire was intentionally started with gasoline in the basement of 239 Chestnut Street, which destroyed the entire building, displaced approximately 160 people – some of whom have never been able to return – closed the 200 block of Chestnut Street for months, and closed numerous businesses, including The Best Western, The Little Lion, Gina’s 45, and Capofitto Pizza & Gelato.
According to the Indictment, both Dawara brothers lied under oath about their whereabouts and activities on the night of the arson. Imad Dawara remained in the office at another business he owns (the B-Side Complex located at 939 N. Delaware Avenue in Philadelphia), while defendant Bahaa Dawara traveled to 239 Chestnut Street to start the fire in the basement.
“No one in Old City will forget when this arson lit up the night sky,” said U.S. Attorney McSwain. “This impacted the heart of our nation’s most historic square mile, which includes Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Pavilion just blocks away. Many people’s lives were permanently altered, losing their homes and livelihoods. If not for the heroism of the Philadelphia Fire Department, the devastation from that night would have been unthinkable. The City is forever in their debt.”
“Acts of arson are violent crimes that threaten the community. ATF is committed to keeping the public safe from those who maliciously set these fires,” said Special Agent in Charge Donald Robinson. “We appreciate the dedication of the Arson and Explosives Task Force, which includes ATF, the Philadelphia Fire Marshal’s Office, and the Philadelphia Police and Fire Department personnel, who all worked tirelessly from the early morning hours of the arson on February 18, 2018, through the Indictment of the Dawara brothers and right up to yesterday’s arrests.
These investigators will continue to tirelessly work this investigation in order to provide justice for the victims, and to hold those who are responsible, accountable for their actions. I would also like to thank the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Customs and Border Protection for their assistance with the arrests at the Philadelphia International Airport, along with the Taxi and Limousine Enforcement Division of the Philadelphia Parking Authority for their assistance.”
If convicted, the defendants face a maximum possible sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment.