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Sifting the ashes 

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.

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