- Associated Press - Friday, January 24, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - A lawyer for a New Mexico man serving six years in prison for commissioning the arson that destroyed a landmark Cheyenne hotel told a federal appeals court this week he sees no legal grounds for his client to appeal but still wants the court to consider whether the sentence was fair.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal, of Cheyenne, sentenced Ajay Jariwala, of Albuquerque, in September following his guilty plea to conspiracy to commit arson.

Jariwala was a principal in the company that owned the hotel, CJM Hospitality LLC. Prosecutors say he commissioned the arson to try to defraud an insurance company, National Surety Corp., of more than $13 million.

Jeffrey Michael Brandt, who represents Jariwala, alerted the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week that he sees no legal issues to raise for Jariwala’s appeal, but he asked the court to review the conviction anyway with an eye toward determining whether it was fair that Jariwala got 72 months in prison while two men prosecutors say he retained to set the blaze received sentences of 60 months and 24 months.

Brandt also asked the appeals court for permission to withdraw from the case.

An attempt to reach Brandt for comment Friday was unsuccessful.

John Powell, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Cheyenne, said Friday his office had no comment.

Following the arson, National Surety sued CJM claiming it incurred substantial costs in investigating a fraudulent $13 million claim. Shortly before the fire, CJM had bought the Hitching Post from a bankruptcy proceeding for $1 million.

Freudenthal earlier this month approved a request from National Surety and CJM Hospitality to halt action in a civil lawsuit between them until October. The two sides said they needed the time to perform unspecified obligations in a settlement agreement they had reached.

At Jariwala’s sentencing hearing in September, lawyer Pat Murphy, who represented National Surety, told Freudenthal that the company was out more than $1.1 million in expenses from the fire.

Freudenthal ordered Jariwala to reimburse National Surety the $50,000 the company paid immediately to CJM after the fire. She also ordered him to pay a $10,000 fine.

Before falling on hard times in the years before the arson, the Hitching Post Inn for years had been an important gathering spot in Cheyenne. It had a steakhouse and a bar and quartered many state lawmakers during their winter legislative sessions.

The Hitching Post went through different owners after longtime owner Paul Smith died of cancer in 2006. Smith had owned and operated the hotel since 1982, when he bought it from his parents.

The hotel had flourished under Smith’s watch. He improved the lobby of the sprawling lodge building and hired live music acts, some of which played there for decades.

In sentencing Jariwala, Freudenthal said the Hitching Post was the gateway facility to Cheyenne.

“Now, sadly, we have a field of weeds and a blighted environment. When it was in its heyday, we had a magnificent hotel,” she said.

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