Updated 3 months ago
LOUISVILLE (AP) - Simon Goldbroch can recall shaking his parents as rescue workers pulled him and two siblings from a bathroom at a burning hotel. Even now, more than 17 years later, the memory of seeing Bernard Goldbroch and Claire Hallinan on the floor leaves Goldbroch shaken and on the verge of tears.
"Obviously, they didn't respond," Goldbroch said.
The elder Goldbroch and Hallinan were among four people who died during the fire at a Howard Johnson's in Bowling Green on Jan. 6, 1996. A co-owner of the hotel and an employee are serving life in prison for the blaze and the deaths. A third person, hotel co-owner Devinder Deo "Dave" Sharma, fled the country shortly after the blaze and has never been caught.
Prosecutors said the co-owners hoped to collect insurance money after the blaze to renovate a hotel that was on shaky financial ground.
But now authorities are ending their hunt for Sharma. A court filing by prosecutors seeks to dismiss the warrant for him, saying a viable case cannot be proven after nearly two decades. The dismissal leaves open the possibility that Sharma could return to the United States without facing trial. Stephanie Collins, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Louisville, declined to comment.
"It would be impossible to reconstruct that case now," said former Assistant U.S. Attorney John Caudill, who prosecuted the case. "A lot of the witnesses who were his employees, now they're gone. It was kind of transient."
Sharma and his brother-in-law, Suresh Kumar, 58, both of Nashville, Tenn., were co-owners of the hotel. Kumar and a maintenance worker, Joe A. Logan, 72, were convicted of conspiracy and arson resulting in a death.
Sharma spoke with the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the days after the fire then fled to his native India. Federal authorities sought him for years, but to no avail.
"There are a billion people in India. We never could nail him down," Caudill said in an interview.
Sharma and Kumar were partners in SMD Inc., which owned several hotels in Nashville, when they purchased the former Holidome in Bowling Green. By late 1995, the hotel was on shaky financial ground.
Prosecutors said Kumar and Sharma approached Logan about setting a small fire in the atrium of the hotel in exchange for $3,500. The goal, Caudill said, was to collect more than $4.5 million in insurance money to use in renovating the hotel. The hotel had no sprinklers, missing fire alarms, extinguishers that didn't work and mattresses piled up around the building.
When the fire broke out, thick black toxic smoke filled the atrium. Some of the 75 guests took refuge in their bathtubs. That's where Goldbroch found himself as his parents, a technician for Reuters and an editor for a company that wrote legal texts, stuffed wet towels under the bathroom door.
"We all huddled up for a real long time," Goldbroch, a 33-year-old now living in his parents' old house in Evanston, Ill., said Tuesday. "I remember it feeling like forever."
Kumar and Logan were convicted after a two-month trial in 1997 that included the testimony of 100 witnesses. Kumar is in a federal prison in Atlanta. Logan is serving his sentence in a federal prison in Greenville, Ill.
Logan's attorney, Brad Coffman of Bowling Green, hoped prosecutors would find Sharma so he could be questioned by defense attorneys.
"We always had in the back of our minds, if we could get this guy into custody, he might have some exculpatory evidence," Coffman said. "To this day, I have questions about Joe's guilt."
Caudill said the key to the convictions were a string of former employees who recounted how Kumar and Sharma approached them about setting fires at hotels in February and May of 1995. There were two blazes at a Travelodge they owned in Nashville, and one was ruled an arson while the other was ruled suspicious.
Kumar was hit with a $10,000 judgment by Travelodge in 1996 over a fire at one of his hotels in Tennessee. His family also settled a case in 1997 with Potomac Insurance Company of Illinois for an undisclosed amount.
Still, Caudill, who is now in private practice in Bowling Green, wishes Sharma could have been brought to trial.
"It's regrettable we didn't get everybody, but complete justice is a tough thing to do," Caudill said.
Goldbroch thinks the case should be left open.
"I don't want this to happen to anybody else," Goldbroch said. "I don't want the option of this guy ever returning and doing it again."
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)