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Sifting the ashes 

Developer Aaron Jones has gone silent about the fire that destroyed his expensive Chenal Valley home as the feds join the investigation.

click to enlarge WHAT MAKES A MAN START FIRES? Jones says he wants to know.
  • WHAT MAKES A MAN START FIRES? Jones says he wants to know.

In search of a crime guaranteed to fuel the rumor mill, one could do worse than to consider the fire that ravaged the Chenal Valley home of Aaron Jones, a 32-year-old Benton-based developer, in the small hours of May 30.

The blaze, an obvious arson, was hardly noticed by the neighborhood until after the dawn of the same morning; many neighbors said they slept through it. But when the fire finally subsided, after heavily damaging the multimillion-dollar house at 43 Chenal Circle, a jaw-dropping story emerged. His home was not the only intended target of the attack, Jones said; the operation appeared to be a set up to take his life.

In interviews with the police and reporters in the following days, Jones told a chilling account of that night's events: A man had entered the room where Jones was sleeping, pointed a gun in his face, covered his mouth and eyes with duct tape, bound his hands and feet, and left him as he torched the house. Jones' salvation was that a set of French doors leading to the backyard was unlocked; through these he was able to hop, he said, onward around the house and across the street, where he collapsed in the front lawn of a neighbor.

That the operation was alleged to be a botched killing was not the only aspect of the crime that stirred fascination. The loss of the house itself was a major occurrence. In a neighborhood of large, architecturally diverse homes bordering the Chenal Country Club, the Jones residence was noteworthy for its imposing air. Unlike most of the houses on the street, it was protected by a gate; its peach-colored façade, the charred remnants of which still stand, incorporates a stone set of stairs and an arched entryway crested by a regal seal. Pictures taken before the fire show an interior that is equally upper-crust  — Oriental rugs, elaborate upholstery and antique accessories. The building speaks of wealth and Jones had certainly paid — at $1.6 million, the 4,685-square-foot behemoth was the 10th most expensive home sold in Pulaski County in 2005.

Jones didn't pay that from his own ready cash. In the days after the fire, reporting by Arkansas Business showed that he still owed a significant debt on the house: Outstanding were two mortgages, one for $1.206 million and a second for $245,000. There was also a $431,000 debt to the property's previous owners, Mark S. Brockington, an insurance agent, and his wife, Kim, an interior designer.

Leveraged ownership of the home was not surprising, but the coincidental timing of the fire and the due date of one debt drew reporters' attention. Records showed that, though the two mortgages had not come due, the money owed to the Brockingtons was supposed to be paid by May 5, three weeks before the blaze. In an interview with KTHV soon after the fire, Jones said that the debt had been covered. Several days later, however, a document appeared in Pulaski County records extending the deadline for repayment to 2009 and requiring Jones to immediately give the Brockingtons $50,000.

Though Jones told Arkansas Business that he had miscommunicated the status of the $431,000 debt — during the KTHV interview, he said, he had meant to convey that payment had been arranged, not completed — the discrepancy added a suspicious detail to an already eyebrow-raising situation. Some circumstances of the case seemed awfully fortuitous — Jones' wife and children were staying in Florida at the time of the fire. Some were trifling but odd — on the day before the arson, Jones reported to Benton Police that a Kubota L3430 tractor had been stolen from him in Saline County. And some were downright mysterious — in a television interview, Jones said he could think of no one he was involved with who would hold a blood-grudge against him. But none pointed in any obvious direction to who the perpetrator might be. There were no reports of anything stolen from the house.

Jones told reporters that his debt on the home was no motive — he could easily settle the matter with money from his businesses. He professed a belief that he was the victim of a random crime. But for many who heard reports of this story, that explanation strained credulity. The skeptical pointed to other circumstantial clues for an explanation. After 359 days on the market, the listed price of the home had dropped from $2.2 million in July 2007 to $1.85 million last May. Fire insurance — which a source familiar with the case told the Times was $2.3 million for the structure and $1.7 million for the contents — would be more than enough to cover the debt on a house whose bubble had apparently burst. The house still stands in shambles behind a padlocked fence. Since no one is talking, including the insurance company, it's impossible to know if the lack of repair work means the insurance claim remains in limbo.

Jones was widely condemned in the coffee shop courts of public opinion. As I told people I was working on an article about Jones, the most common response went something like this: “Oh, you mean the guy who burned his house down?” Shortly after the crime, Jones directly addressed and denied this accusation in multiple interviews. He is declining interview opportunities today. Whatever the full story might be, investigators are hard at work trying to pin it down. The Times has learned that the scope has grown from the Little Rock Police Department to include the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office. 

 

The arson was ripe for the headlines for reasons other than its criminal overtones. For one, it was a dramatic variation on the broader housing-crisis narrative that has dominated the national media. What more symbolic story than the tale of an indebted builder whose overpriced house was ravaged by fire? Jones himself also became a figure of interest. Though a busy developer in Saline County, he didn't have a high public profile in Little Rock, his city of residence.

As a residential builder, Jones has created a small Central Arkansas business empire with imaginative as well as fiscal promise. He has not been reserved about his abilities — he told Arkansas Business in 2006 that he could develop 600 lots at a time, and his website claims he reaped more than $17 million in gross revenues in two years alone. (Expenses are not listed.) And while some of his houses are standard subdivision fare, he also has managed unique projects that some have called forward-thinking and innovative.  

Involved in real estate since his law school days at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Jones, who holds an undergraduate degree from UALR, comes from a Benton family that has a history of profitable property development. His grandfather, W.A. Jones, made a small fortune by buying land on the boundary of Pulaski and Saline Counties and turning it into the K Mobile Home Park; in February, a company led by Aaron Jones' uncle sold the Pulaski County section of the park for $4 million. While it is unclear whether Aaron Jones profited from this sale, he worked on the trailer park as a teen and has spoken in the past about the influence of the experience on his real estate career.

That career came to encompass many facets other than home-building. Jones owns a sewer utility, Central Arkansas Utility Service, which serves three subdivisions, one run by Jones, that are outside the range of municipal systems. He sits on an advisory board for Summit Bank that examines the financials of the Benton branch and plans community events. He has served as a special judge in Saline County. By age 30, Jones had two young children and had moved into the multimillion-dollar West Little Rock home, all while maintaining his ties to his hometown, where he operates a title services firm with attorney Don Spears.

The bulk of Jones' business has been in Saline County, where he developed a number of residential subdivisions with names like Centennial Village, Wildwood and Pleasant Forest. 

There is no sign of trouble with these ventures. True, there have been legal and regulatory disputes — he settled with a man named Daniel Wade in a lawsuit over a boundary spat, and he agreed to pay the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality a $13,000 fine for violations in several of his subdivisions. Earlier this month, one of his companies — he has several — was among a number of parties sued by the Saline County Property Owners Improvement District over a sewer fee dispute. All of these problems could be shrugged off as the occupational hazards of running a development business, however. None seems serious enough to suggest a man with enemies.

None of Jones' acquaintances with whom I spoke had anything negative to say about him. He wasn't well known in his Chenal Valley neighborhood. A person who lived directly behind them before the incident said that she never met Aaron, and that she only met his wife, Abigail, once. The neighbor from whom Jones sought help the night of the fire has said she didn't recognize him and closed the door on him when she called the police.

Scott Smith, an architect who has worked with Jones for two years and known him through St. Margaret's Episcopal Church for five, said that he thought Jones was telling the truth about the incident. “I take Aaron at his word,” Smith said. “I know him and he's an honest guy. I wouldn't be working with him if I felt otherwise.”

Work on Jones' current projects hasn't slowed. Marsha Guffey, director of community development in Benton, said that in her two-and-a-half years on the job she has never had a problem with Jones. He's currently working on an 80-plot subdivision called the Woodlands Chalet, a neighborhood of upscale townhouses. There have been no setbacks on that development, and it is expected to be completed in a year or so, Guffey said.

All Jones' previous building pales in comparison to what he's lined up next: a comprehensive new-urbanism–style neighborhood in Bryant called Midtown. Tagged “Southern Lifestyle Reborn,” the 188-acre project is to encompass homes, retail and parks, all in an attempt to centralize residential and commercial space within walking distance. The neighborhood is being designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ), a Miami-based firm that created Seaside, Fla., a community from which Jones has said he's taken inspiration. (DPZ also designed the Hendrix Village in Conway.) 

“All of these places are called cities — the City of Bryant, the City of Benton, the City of Conway — but they've all been suburbanized and destroyed by the planning practices of recent years,” said Galina Tahchieva, DPZ's director for Midtown. “Bryant is basically a collection of big box retailers, parking lots and highways. So we took it as a chance to have a model development of this sort.”

Midtown is somewhat behind schedule — though its website lists the date for residential construction as July 2008, streets have only now begun to go in — but Tahchieva said that there haven't been any hitches so far. Though DPZ was shocked to hear of the house fire, she said, it has had no impact on construction.

“We haven't had any problems,” she said, adding of Jones: “I think that he's a very forward-looking person. He has seen the possibility of doing something in his community.”

 

Though most of the associates of Jones with whom I spoke were warmly supportive of him, several people declined to return phone calls. Among these were Kim and Mark Brockington, who previously owned the Chenal house and whom Jones owes money, and the across-the-street neighbor awakened by Jones after the fire. Nor did Jones speak with me. He is living in Benton now and apparently is hard at work. 

As it tends to do, rumor has spread to fill the void left by a lack of investigative findings. For many, the debt Jones owed on the house has been enough to put him under suspicion. The case has also spawned a variety of other theories and rumors. One has Jones as the owner of an old Benton warehouse that burned in June. (He's not.) Another has Jones falling in with rough businessmen in Florida. (It also appears to have no basis in known facts.)

In the meantime, investigators are mum about what their inquiries have found. The effort has expanded beyond city authorities. Besides the Little Rock Police and the Little Rock Fire Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI are on the case. The U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of Arkansas has instructed the Little Rock Police Department to remain quiet. Neither U.S. Attorney Jane Duke nor FBI area spokesman Steve Frazier could comment on the role of federal authorities.

If there's been a similar crime in the area — a victim left to burn to death by parties unknown for reasons unknown — no law enforcement official can recall it.

The crime, then, remains a mystery. Until authorities say otherwise, Jones remains, officially, the victim of an attempted murder and expensive arson, motives unknown. Unofficially, unfairly or not, many remain likely to remember him as the guy who burned his house down.

 

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