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In Kansas City Murder And Arson Trial, Witness Reveals Pattern Of Fires In Defendant's Past

Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3 file photo
The scene the morning after the building on Independence Avenue collapsed.

The defendant in a murder and arson trial was involved in five other fires for which she collected insurance money, an expert witness testified Thursday.

Thu Hong Nguyen is accused of torching L&N Nails, an Independence Avenue nail salon that she operated, in October 2015. Prosecutors say she ignited chemicals in the salon’s back storage room, starting a fire that ripped through two floors of the apartments above. Firefighters Larry Leggio and John Mesh died when, while fighting the blaze, a brick wall collapsed on top of them.

Nicky Poirier, a senior financial auditor for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, testified that Nguyen collected over $200,000 in insurance payouts from five other “catastrophic incidents” over an eight-year period.

Poirier spent more than 1,200 hours collecting tax returns, credit reports, insurance and other financial data in assembling evidence that Nguyen reported fires at other nail salons she had operated, including PS Nails and AV Nails in Texas and Nails U.S.A. and L&N Nails in Missouri. All of the salons closed after the fires and never reopened. A fifth nail salon tied to Nguyen, Perfect Nails in Grandview, Missouri, was the subject of an alleged burglary in June 2011 and also closed permanently.

Poirier said it appeared that Nguyen was in charge of most of the day-to-day operations of the salons, even though her boyfriend Nat Pham was legally the owner. Poirier found that Nguyen paid for many personal expenses from L&N's bank account and had done the same in the past using the accounts of her other salons. 

“She seemed to be the only one benefiting from the operation of the salon,” Poirier said.

Poirier said that based on financial documents, it appeared that after her salons closed, Nguyen did not hold any other jobs and lived off their insurance payouts.

Poirier testified that PS caught fire in 2008 the same month it was insured, after operating without insurance for 16 months.

She said AV Nails operated for four months in 2009 before catching fire. The insurance payout was almost double the purchase price of the salon, which Poirier called “unusual.”

And at Perfect Nails in 2011, Nguyen bumped up the insurance from $15,000 to $30,000 shortly before it was burglarized and received $41,855 in insurance proceeds, according to Poirier. 

Poirier also said records showed a burglary at Nguyen's personal residence in Kansas City, Missouri, for which she tried to file a claim for $1,300 for stolen computer equipment. The claim was denied by the insurer because her brother was the policyholder. Poirier said that Nguyen then asked to be added as the head of household on the insurance without her brother’s knowledge. She then reported a fire at the residence and received thousands of dollars.

Poirier said that when a business is damaged in what is called a “catastrophic loss,” business owners are required to state how much they think they would have earned in the months the business was closed. She said Nguyen claimed the salon would have made over $142,000, but Poirier assessed the actual amount at $69,760.

Poirier said Nguyen overreported her salon's earnings to insurance companies but underreported them to get food stamps.

“She was able to go lengthy periods of time and subsist only off of those insurance payouts,” Poirier said, then buy a new salon that would suffer a “catastrophic loss” and “start over” again.

During Poirier's testimony, families of the two fallen firefighters were seen wiping tears from their eyes.

Nguyen's lawyer Molly Hastings, argued that many other persons of interest, including Nat Pham and the salon's landlord were quickly dismissed by Poirier as "persons of interest" without thorough vetting.

Hastings claimed Tran received a $40,000 payout from the October fire and also had a suspicious history tied to more fires and more insurance money during the same time period as Nguyen.

Hastings also argued that Poirier was unable to prove that Nguyen was the only person benefiting from the insurance payouts, pointing to Pham and Nguyen's son. She said there was no proof Nguyen was only subsisting off of insurance and that she could have subsisted from money she saved working at the salon.

The trial could wrap up as soon as today. 

Sophia Tulp is a KCUR news intern. Follow her on Twitter @sophia_tulp.

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