wwwabc7ny.com, Joe Torres, December 8, 2021
NEWBURGH, New York (WABC) -- A restaurant owner and his nephew's wife could serve up to 25 years to life behind bars for allegedly setting their Newburgh restaurant on fire in 2017.
Spyros Varnavides remembers the day well, when a 3-alarm fire in September of 2017 destroyed Andiamo's Restaurant right next to his diner on Route 9W in the town of Newburgh.
"There were firetrucks all over the place. And I mean the concern was there was smoke coming into the diner. So, we tried to take care of that," Varnavides said.
On Wednesday, the Orange County Distict Attorney said that fire was intentionally set.
A four-year investigation by federal, state, county and local authorities resulted in the arrest and indictment of the restaurant owner, 59-year-old Zef Gjurashaj and his 37-year-old niece Marina Gjurashaj. Prosecutors charged them with first degree arson and insurance fraud.
"Marina actually set the building on fire after conspiring with Zef to gain the insurance money for pecuniary gain for the both of them," Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler said.
That insurance money, according to the DA, totaled $1.6 million.
At the time of the fire, Zef Gjurashaj offered this explanation to one TV reporter:
"She walks in, she saw some explosion fire in the kitchen ... I feel heartbroken for me, myself and my family," he said in 2017.
Investigators on Wednesday said suspicious burn patterns and the use of an accelerant suggested arson.
Priscilla Johnson still works next door to the former restaurant. She had to evacuate as firefighters worked to extinguish the flames.
This afternoon she shared with Eyewitness News one telling memory from four years ago.
"The fire guy when he came in, he told us that, you know how they have um - what do you call it - the fire extinguisher? That the pin was never pulled. The pin was still in it," Johnson said.
Investigators arrested the Ghurashaj's on November 27 and they remain in police custody.
They have a court appearance tentatively scheduled for Thursday.
If convicted, they face a sentence of up to 25 years to life behind bars. Article