Homeowner faces second charge in fire
By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer
PALM HARBOR -- Two months after being charged with insurance fraud, Shawn Porter now faces a felony charge of arson in connection with a fire that destroyed his waterfront home in Crystal Beach in November.
Pinellas County Sheriff's Detective Larry McLean said that the investigation into the fire continues and that there are two other possible suspects.
Porter, 27, of Palm Harbor was arrested on the new charge Tuesday. He is a physical education teacher at Dunedin Academy, a private school, and is the son of Dale Porter, the owner and headmaster of Dunedin Academy.
"My son is innocent," Dale Porter said Wednesday. "I know that all will be shown eventually with due process."
Dale Porter said his son, though young, is "very highly thought of by thousands of people."
"He is a model young man," Dale Porter said and noted that his son is a college graduate with no prior criminal record. "There's no way he had any involvement in this. His principles are way too high to do anything like that."
Through his father, Shawn Porter declined to discuss the incident Wednesday and referred calls to one of his attorneys, Denis deVlaming.
DeVlaming said Shawn and Dale Porter, as well as a longtime friend of Shawn's, were at Shawn's house at 8 Florida Blvd. watching a Saturday afternoon football game on his large-screen television on the day of the fire. They all left the house and went to the friend's house, where they got the call about the fire, he said.
How long before the fire did they leave?
"That's a big bone of contention," deVlaming said.
But they left prior to it starting, he said.
"He (Shawn Porter) has, from the very beginning, steadfastly denied this," deVlaming said. "He had no financial interest in his house being burned."
Porter owned the house outright, deVlaming said, and had no other financial difficulties. Porter bought the home in November 1998 for $160,000. The property was assessed at $142,200 for tax purposes at the time of the fire, but the Pinellas County Property Appraiser estimated then that its value was $169,800, based on recent comparable sales from 1997 through 2000.
Some of the things burned in the fire were treasured by Shawn Porter, deVlaming said, including a removable hard top for an antique Corvette he restored, which was sitting in the living room at the time of the fire.
"That was his baby," deVlaming said.
The car itself was not damaged in the fire.
"There was no financial motive," deVlaming said.
An insurance settlement would only have replaced the house, he said. "It just gets him back to ground zero."
Today the ranch house overlooking Sutherland Bayou looks much like it did in the days after the fire in November. Although the shell of the house remains, the roof is buckled and the entire interior is charred. The house was declared a complete loss by firefighters in the days after the fire. Most of the windows and doors are now boarded, and the small front yard is overgrown with weeds.
After the fire, Porter filed a claim of more than $100,000 with Nationwide Insurance, but he lied in the claim about the contents of the home, said McLean, an arson investigator for the Sheriff's Office.
Dale Porter said his son is innocent of both the insurance fraud and arson charges. He has already pleaded not guilty to the insurance fraud.
"We're not at all concerned," Dale Porter said. "The truth will come out eventually that Shawn is innocent."
"We feel it (the fire) was an accident and my son was not involved at all in it," he said.
Due to the ongoing investigation, Dale Porter said he would not discuss the events leading up to the fire.
McLean declined to discuss the details of what led to the arson charge except to say it was "an accumulation of things that happened and statements."
"The investigation is still ongoing," McLean said. "There are still two other people we are looking at."
Porter was released from the Pinellas County Jail on Tuesday after posting $10,000 bail, McLean said.
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