Father and son’s mistake brings down Va. arson ring

HENRICO COUNTY, Va.  -- It was Veterans Day 2015 when flames engulfed an eastern Henrico home.  A fire so powerful, it almost spread into the nearby woods.

"I just couldn’t believe the amount of fire that we had," Henrico Fire Battalion Chief Doug Reynolds said. "It looked like they were well over 100 feet up in the air."

When the smoke finally cleared, the house was nearly destroyed.

Most neighbors assumed it had been some kind of accident, but that assumption quickly changed when a swarm of federal agents arrived on scene.

As it turned out, the fire was the beginning of the end to a decades old mystery. One with puzzle pieces that stretched from central Virginia to western Florida.

The mystery began May 16, 2000.

That was the day, a Cadillac owned by Vershawn Jackson caught fire on Stony Run Road in Richmond’s Fulton neighborhood.

After the fire, Jackson filed an insurance claim. About 10 days later, he received a $5,200 check.

Weeks later, in Leesburg, Florida, another fire broke out. This one was inside Verdon Taylor’s mobile home.

Taylor would receive nearly $9,000 from his insurance company.

Though these two fires were separated by about 750 miles, they were connected.

Verdon Taylor and Vershawn Jackson

Verdon Taylor and Vershawn Jackson

Father and Son

Verdon Taylor and Vershawn Jackson are father and son. And for about 15 years, they seemed like the unluckiest family in history.

February 1, 2003 – a Lincoln Continental owned by Vershawn Jackson caught fire on in Charles City County.

November 17, 2004 – a mobile home owned by Jackson burned on Maria Drive in Chester.

Three times, between February and May 2006, cars owned – or recently owned – by Verdon Taylor caught fire.

All three times, Taylor was a passenger inside the vehicle when the fires began.

There were other fires too. Houses, cars, trailers, RVs, all owned by or connected to Taylor and Jackson. All caught fire, seemingly at random.

Father and son, and sometimes their girlfriends, would then receive big checks from various insurance companies.

"We had some claims as small as $3,000, all the way up to in excess of $300,000," ATF special agent Ken Mosley said.

Often they would get more money than what they paid for the building or vehicle. In all, they received nearly $1 million after filing claims related to 34 fires.

So were Verdon Talyor and Vershawn Jackson cursed? Not quite. In fact, the federal government said the father and son were two of the most clever and cold-blooded arsonists the Richmond area had ever seen.

"The scheme was to purchase cars, mobile homes, and single family, sometimes, duplex type residences, and burn them for insurance fraud," Mosley said.

For more than 15 years, federal prosecutors said Taylor and Jackson went on an arson spree. In one case, half a duplex burned while two elderly brothers slept next door. Another fire was set inside a townhouse, right next door to where a family with a small child lived.

"That blatant, callous disregard for human life all for the sake of a profit is just unconscionable," Mosley said.

For years, investigators could not prove Taylor and Jackson had done anything wrong. Then came Veterans Day 2015.

A house fire on Casey Meadows Place in Sandston. As most of the neighborhood slept, Kelly Richardson was awake and headed to work. He said he could see the glow down the street as soon as he stepped outside his home.

Fearing that someone may be trapped inside, the Air Force veteran said his military training kicked in, and he nearly ran inside the burning home. But he paused when he saw there were no cars in the driveway. He got the feeling that nobody was home. Henrico firefighters were on the scene within minutes.

"There was so much fire, you know, made you believe nobody was gonna survive the fire if they were inside," Reynolds said.

Fortunately,  no one was inside. As it turned out, neighbors told Battalion Chief Reynolds a home's owner had just moved into the house.

His name? Vershawn Jackson.

The house was purchased and insured just eight days before it went up in flames.

"Right away we had a fire that seemed suspicious to us," Reynolds said. "You have a house that’s empty, there’s a lot of fire, it’s being destroyed, so we’re naturally going to call for the fire marshal right off the bat."

Fire marshals spent days digging through the charred remains.

When they got to the basement, they found something unusual. It looked like something had been poured on the floor. Investigators reached out to the ATF, who removed that part of the tile floor and sent it to a lab for testing.

That liquid, testing confirmed, was gasoline.

"I don't know if it was sloppy, or carelessness, or just brazenness," Mosley said.

He said the ATF began investigating Taylor and Jackson in 2014. But the evidence pulled from the rubble of Casey Meadows Place helped them to build a solid case against the father and son.

"The fact that they got away with it for so long, over such an extended period and over such a geographical area, also adds to it, but I really feel like our job was to take them out, take them off the streets so they’re not going to injure anybody," he said.

Mosley and his team went through tens of thousands of documents, follow-up interviews with insurance investigators, and started comparing dozens of fire scene photos. It was then, patterns finally started to emerge. A couch that survived one fire, was later found burned in another. And the exact same set of clothes with dry cleaning tags on them in the names of both Taylor and Jackson were found at two different fire scenes.

"A photo taken behind the residence where Vershawn Jackson was living showed a TV, and old fashioned TV set," Mosley said. "That TV, more than a year later, appears to us was the same TV found in a fire out in Jarratt, Virginia, that his father Verdon Taylor had, that TV, by the way, was facing out the window and was not plugged in. Obviously used for staging."

So how did the father and son get away with it for so long?

Mosley said Taylor and Jackson had an uncanny ability to set fires that most investigators could not tell were suspicious. But by early 2017, Mosley thought he finally had enough evidence.

He was right.

A federal grand indicted Taylor, Jackson and four female accomplices.

By August, Jackson had pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to less than five years in prison.

Three of the women pleaded guilty as well, while charges were dropped against the fourth.

But Verdon Taylor – the man investigators said was the mastermind behind a decade and a half of arson and fraud - maintained his innocence. His case went to trial that October.

It took the jury less than an hour and a half to find Taylor guilty. He was sentenced to 40 years in federal prison. At 72 years old, it's unlikely he’ll ever be released.

The scars of Taylor and Jackson’s arson spree are still visible in parts of central Virginia. More than nine years later, a home they burned on Q Street in Richmond remains boarded up. The lot on Casey Meadows Place remains vacant as well.

While Taylor and Jackson are behind bars, prosecutors cannot be sure that they’ve been punished for all of their crimes. There’s a chance, they said, the pair was responsible for arsons that date back to the 1980s. They also owe a lot of money in restitution. The ATF said anyone with information about other properties the two men may have owned should give them a call.