A couple accused of burning down their downtown Merced business for insurance claims in 2016 will have to face trial.
Merced County Deputy District Attorney Scott Drexler on Friday during a preliminary court hearing played surveillance video recovered from inside the UC Oriental Market at 630 W. Main St. on Dec. 18, 2016, the day it went up in flames.
No one was injured in the blaze, which took firefighters about five hours to control due to the threats the building’s structure posed to the crews. The 7,500-square-foot building and the contents inside were deemed a loss of at least $1.8 million, that included insurance payouts to Moua and staff time for investigators, officials said.
Business owner Mai Moua and her partner, Zang Her, were arrested last year and charged with arson and making a false insurance claim. They had purchased the business just months before the fire. Both have pleaded not guilty.
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In the surveillance footage, which was reportedly recovered from a damaged hard drive, a woman and man resembling business owner 45-year-old Mai Moua and her partner, 50-year-old Zang Her, enter the store, which Moua originally told fire investigators was closed for the day due to the Hmong New Year.
In a series of security camera shots, the woman is seen taking a space heater to the second floor mezzanine of the business, while the man stays in the front of the business, at one point appearing to disconnect and take a hard drive.
The woman later appears to retrieve some candles and incense from one of the store’s shelves and heads back up to the mezzanine, the video shows.
During the roughly half-hour visit, the couple tends to a customer before leaving the building, according to the video.
But just before they lock up, lead investigator Capt. Morgan Madruga with the Merced City Fire Department pointed out to the court a flickering light in the video he believed was a reflection of a developing fire. Minutes after the couple leaves, the video shows flames and smoke starting to fill the room before the cameras stop recording.
Other evidence pointed to a motive behind the couple starting the fire: insurance fraud.
Moua reportedly received several insurance payments, said Sheri Carpenter, an investigator with the district attorney’s office.
A business associate of Moua and Her who was operating a cell phone business out of the market, Chan Wang Ku, also testified Friday that he noticed shelves seemed to not get restocked as it came closer to the date of the fire.
But while the woman presumed to be Moua is seen taking a space heater to the location where fire investigators believe was the origin of the destructive blaze, neither Madruga nor Drexler confirmed that’s how the fire started.
“I can’t really comment on it until we go to trial,” Drexler said. “You can interpret the video how you want. It shows Ms. Moua going upstairs multiple times, and it actually shows fire starting. It’s something we’ll have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.”
Moua’s attorney, Dan Chambers, and Her’s attorney, Darryl Young, said there were several problems with the prosecution’s theory and the fire investigation.
“The prosecutor’s case is entirely circumstantial,” Chambers said. “Nobody really knows what happened, how this fire was caused.”
Both attorneys questioned the investigation report filed by Madruga. And Young asked Madruga why he didn’t question homeless individuals in the area and vet the testimony of a person who was suspiciously taking photos of the burnt building.
Madruga, who was testifying in court as an expert witness for the first time, said he didn’t consider the individual with the photos as a credible person of interest, based on his extensive experience investigating fires.
The video and other evidence presented in court convinced Merced County Judge Jeanne Schechter that there was enough probable cause to head to trial for both defendants on both charges.
Moua and Her are scheduled to enter pleas to the charges on Jan. 28.