News of Riverton, Lander and Fremont County, Wyoming, from the Ranger's award winning journalists.
Criminal masterminds they aren't
May 30, 2014 - By Chris Peck
The weird case of the fire at the Hitching Post Inn
Do you ever wonder about the way people think?
Particularly after they mess up. Big time.
In this case, the big mess-up was hiring somebody to burn down a motel. A motel that you, Ajay Jariwala, had been hired to renovate.
The fire that destroyed much of The Hitching Post Inn in Cheyenne and the insurance claim that followed may well have been part of a bigger plot.
We don't know for certain. That's still in the courts to decide.
What we do know is that Ajay Jariwala claimed to be an owner of The Hitching Post Inn in Cheyenne in 2010, at a time when the old motel was falling apart, and he was the guy given the task of bringing The Hitching Post back.
For decades The Hitching Post had been a Wyoming landmark. Politicians from both parties used it as their informal convention hall. Legislators booked rooms there every year and did the people's political business at the bar and in The Hitching Post restaurant.
My dad, the late State Sen. Bob Peck, stayed there for 17 winters during his time in the Wyoming Legislature.
If you wanted to get something done, or make a connection with a Wyoming politician, you went to the Hitching Post when the Smith family owned it.
But Paul Smith died in 2006. The place when downhill after that.
By 2009, The Hitching Post was in bankrupt.
It was sold to out-of-state operators for pennies on the dollar.
The new owners promised to renovate.
That's when things got worse.
The renovations, begun in early 2010, cost more, apparently, than the new owners had expected.
The on-site manager, Ajay Jariwala, saw the problem.
He talked with the contractor about going in a different direction.
Burn it down, Jariwala, said, and I'll pay you $150,000.
The contractor agreed to do it.
On the morning of Sept. 15, 2010, contractor Robert Rodriguez sneaked into the old motel just after 5 a.m. when the night watchman goes home.
He torched the main lobby. By the time firefighters arrived, the place was reduced to charred rubble.
Days later, the new owners who had purchased The Hitching Post out of bankruptcy called their insurance company to try to collect $13.6 million on the loss.
The insurance company balked. The fire marshal called it suspicious.
A secret federal grand jury is called. Their task: get to the bottom of what happened to The Hitching Post.
It didn't take long.
Contractor Rodriguez fessed up.
Yeah, he was hired by Ajay Jariwala to renovate the Hitching Post. But Jariwala then asked Rodriguez to burn the place down instead.
You have to ask yourself, why?
Was there not some other option? Like selling the place? Or going back to the investors and explaining that it was going to be a more-expensive project?
Attorneys for the insurance company that originally wrote the policy on The Hitching Post sued the owners of the Cheyenne motel after the fire. The lawsuit claimed the owners misrepresented themselves, their finances, and their intentions.
The owners of The Hitching Post countersued, claiming that they had a valid insurance claim.
But it didn't work.
After the grand jury indicted Jariwala, after the contractor fessed up, the new owners a few months ago quietly asked that their claim for insurance money be dropped.
The Hitching Post is open again.
Except there is a final twist.
Ajay Jariwala thinks his six-year prison term is too harsh.
A few days ago he asked for a shorter jail term.
He says the guy he asked to start the fire didn't get that much jail time so why should he?
Sometimes you just have to scratch your head.