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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Suspicious blaze at center of dispute over residence

Siblings tried to swindle homeowner, she says

A brother and sister are charged with hatching an elaborate plan to swindle a woman out of her home, then turning to arson as the brother’s eviction from the home drew near.

Shannon R. Czako, 30, and Stephen J. Czako, 24, have pleaded not guilty to felony charges related to the fire at Joanne Tucker’s 4621 N. Post St. home last October and charges that they tried to steal it.

The home is nearly remodeled, and Tucker, 49, said she plans to move in by the end of the summer.

Defense lawyers Tracy Collins and Christian Phelps say they intend to fight the charges.

Stephen Czako is charged with attempted first-degree theft and first-degree arson; Shannon Czako is charged with attempted first-degree theft and official misconduct, accused of using a notary on a document she knew was forged.

The case took months for fire and police to investigate and hinges on the authenticity of documents and handwriting samples. That evidence, along with bank records that showed the Czakos never made a down payment on the home or paid for repairs as they’d claimed, helped drive Spokane police Detective Stacy Carr’s investigation, she said.

“(Tucker) was having a hard time getting them evicted, and then the house burned down,” Carr said. “I don’t know if they thought she’d have the tenacity to fight it.”

Shannon Czako denied the charges in an interview and said handwriting analysis will help prove her innocence.

One key document in the case is a sales agreement between Stephen Czako and Tucker dated Sept. 15, 2005, court papers show.

Tucker said her signature was forged. She wrote to the Czakos asking them to move out, court papers show.

“The issue is which contract is valid, when things were signed and who actually did the signing,” Collins said. “Obviously someone isn’t being accurate.”

Court papers show Tucker met the Czakos through her boyfriend, Jack Fishburn, who opened a small engine repair business with their father, Stephen L. Czako.

The younger Stephen Czako soon moved into the Post Street house, papers show. His father had already inquired about buying the home, but Tucker told police she never followed up on the offer, documents show.

A year after Czako moved in, Tucker evicted him, citing late rent payments and unauthorized work on the property.

He responded with a letter “stating that he was purchasing the house from her, not renting it,” according to a statement of facts prepared by Carr.

That began a long series of legal filings and correspondence that ended when the house burned Oct. 1, 2008, records show.

Fire investigators were immediately suspicious. The home smelled of gasoline, and the fire spread quickly, according to a statement by Deputy Fire Marshal Thomas Oliver that’s included in Carr’s paperwork. A gasoline container and match box wrapper were found at the scene.

Deputy Prosecutor Steve Garvin filed charges against the Czakos more than five months later, on March 13.

The Spokane Fire Department declined to comment on the case, citing the pending charges.

Trials in Spokane County Superior Court are scheduled for August.