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Sting Nabs Arsonist-for-hire Who Torched Cars for Insurance Money


TALLAHASSEE – An Orlando man known to law enforcement as "The Torch" was arrested in a sting operation Saturday for accepting a contract to burn a sports utility vehicle so that its owner could collect the insurance settlement money.

The 1992 Ford Explorer, however, belonged to the National Insurance Crime Bureau and was part of Operation Firestorm, a sting operation that included the Office of State Fire Marshal, the Florida Highway Patrol, the Orlando Police Department, the Orange County Sheriff's Office, the Volusia County Sheriff's Office, and the Deltona Fire Department.

Pedro A. Bentancourt, 36, of 5500 Casablanca Ln., Orlando, faces multiple counts of fraud, arson, and conspiracy to commit arson. Also arrested was an accomplice, Edwin Soto, 32, of 8943 Great Sound Dr., Orlando.

"Apprehending this serial arsonist will help us close other cases," Florida Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshal Tom Gallagher said. "Arson is not a victimless crime. It costs the consumers whose premiums go up, and it costs the taxpayers who foot the bill for these investigations."

Sixty-five percent of the 1,782 vehicular fires reported to the State Fire Marshal's office in 2001 were deliberately set, according to Gallagher.

Bentancourt became a suspect in January, after State Fire Marshal investigator Alan Kaye found a Honda partially burned in Volusia County. The car's owner, who had reported it stolen in Orlando, confessed to Kaye that he had paid to dispose of the vehicle for insurance recovery purposes.

On Thursday, investigators recorded Betancourt agreeing by phone to meet with a vehicle owner who wished to have her vehicle destroyed in order to collect the insurance. The disgruntled vehicle owner was actually an undercover officer, employed by the Orlando Police Department. At 8 p.m. Saturday, the officer met with Bentancourt and gave him the keys to the Explorer and $200 – on camera -- with a promise to pay more after collecting on the insurance. In fact, the Florida Highway Patrol and the Orange County Sheriff's Department were conducting aerial surveillance throughout the operation, and the Explorer contained a video camera, mounted discreetly to avoid detection. Firefighters from Deltona Fire Department stood by to respond.

Officers involved in the surveillance watched Bentancourt pick up the Explorer from a predetermined location in Orlando, drive it to a side road in Volusia County and pour gasoline throughout the vehicle. For unknown reasons, Bentancourt did not ignite the vehicle. His accomplice, Edwin Soto, had followed Bentancourt to the area and provided the getaway vehicle. Betancourt and Soto were followed to Seminole County, where they were stopped and arrested.

Investigators said more arrests are expected, and that the arrests of Betancourt and Soto may contribute to the breakup of a major auto theft and arson-for-hire ring.

The Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations is a law enforcement branch of the Division of State Fire Marshal that assists other state and local fire and law enforcement agencies in the investigation of fires of suspicious origin. Anyone with information about suspicious fires is asked to call 1-877-662-7766 (1-877-NOARSON)