CHEYENNE, Wyoming — A New Mexico man pleaded guilty on Friday to conspiracy to commit arson in the 2010 fire that destroyed the main building of the Hitching Post Inn, a landmark hotel in Cheyenne.
Ajay Jariwala, 52 of Albuquerque, entered the plea early Friday evening before U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal in Cheyenne.
Jariwala faces between five to six years in prison under an agreement with federal prosecutors, who will drop five other felony counts at sentencing. He had been set to stand trial later this month.
Freudenthal deferred acceptance of Jariwala's guilty plea until she can review a presentence report. She set sentencing for Sept. 9.
Jariwala, a New Mexico hotelier, was a principal in CJM Hospitality LLC, the company that owned the hotel.
Prosecutors say CJM bought the Hitching Post Inn for just over $1 million in early 2010 and say Jariwala took out a $13.6 million insurance policy on it. The fire in September 2010 destroyed the main lodge building while other buildings that hold hotel rooms survived.
The Hitching Post was closed for renovation at the time of the fire. For decades before it fell on hard times, it had served as a favorite lodge and watering hole for Wyoming lawmakers during the state's winter legislative sessions.
Investigators dubbed the fire arson almost immediately after trained dogs alerted to the smell of accelerants.
"We can positively say that this fire was intentionally set, and we will continue to investigate it as an arson," Douglas Dawson, assistant special agent in charge at the Denver office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told reporters some days after the fire.
The BATFE led the investigation into the arson with assistance from the Cheyenne police and fire departments.
Jariwala was the last defendant in the case. Two others already have pleaded guilty to related charges.
Robert Rodriguez, 44, also of New Mexico, pleaded guilty earlier this year to torching the main hotel building.
Rodriguez told Freudenthal at his plea hearing that Jariwala had hired him to set the fire after costs of the hotel renovation costs got too high. Rodriguez said Jariwala left a back door to the hotel open with gasoline cans inside.
Another defendant, Marcus Trevino, also has pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting arson and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Jim Anderson, federal prosecutor in Cheyenne, told Freudenthal on Friday that Jariwala had agreed to pay Rodriguez $150,000 to torch the building. Jariwala said he agreed with Anderson's recitation of the facts.
National Surety Corp., the company that had insured the Hitching Post, had refused to pay CJM's $13.6 million claim on the grounds that the fire was arson. Freudenthal also has presided over a civil case between the two companies.
As part of his plea agreement, Jariwala agreed to pay $50,000 restitution to the insurance company for its expenses.