Atwater busts arson mastermind in ‘Operation Christmas Tree’

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Christmas trees are responsible for hundreds of fires annually; but according to a series of arrests made in Marion County, at least some of these fires are the result of arson and insurance fraud.

In what has been dubbed “Operation Christmas Tree”, CFO and State Fire Marshal Jeff Atwater, together with Marion County Sheriff Chris Blair and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, announced Tuesday the arrest of eight people who committed arson with the intent to defraud.

At the center of the operation was Rocky Edward Williams, 55, who masterminded agreements with homeowners to start fires and split the insurance proceeds.

One homeowner, Wayne Eugene Breier, admitted that he was approached by Williams with a plan to purchase a home and divide the insurance proceeds. Breier and his live-in girlfriend agreed. Breier set his Christmas tree on fire, waited 10 to 15 minutes so they would smell like smoke, and left the building.  Following the fire, Breier received greater than $91,000 from the insurer.  This pattern was repeated in at least two other Marion County residences, and other fires are still suspected to be related.

“Last year alone, arson cost Floridians more than $69 million in property damage and endangered the lives of honest, hard-working individuals,” CFO Atwater said. “I am proud of the diligent, collaborative efforts across state and local law enforcement. Our efforts together led to the arrests of these criminals.”

“We are elated over the outcome of this investigation and proud of our agency partnerships in Operation Christmas Tree,” said Sheriff Blair.

Moral of the story: keep your Christmas trees well-watered and away from heat sources.  And don’t set your house on fire.