- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - A federal trial has begun for an Omaha businessman accused of paying someone more than six years ago to set fire to his manufacturing plant in eastern Nebraska.

A prosecutor said in his opening statement Tuesday that Thomas Schropp hoped to gain around $4 million in insurance proceeds for the destruction of his PK Manufacturing plant near Fort Calhoun.

Defense attorney Alan Stoler said the government can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Schropp was involved with the Nov. 20, 2008, blaze.

Schropp’s business was ailing, having lost its largest customer in late 2007, the prosecutor said.

“PK Manufacturing was in the financial dumpster in November 2008,” Mayer said, adding that Schropp owed nearly $5 million to banks at that time. Schropp co-owned the business with his uncle.

Mayer said Schropp promised a painter, Billy Richards, $20,000 if he’d torch the plant, according to the Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/1xxJMfR ).

Richards has since pleaded guilty to malicious destruction of a building. He’s expected to testify against Schropp, as is Richards’ live-in girlfriend at the time, Julie Winkelbauer. She has said she drove Richards to PK Manufacturing the night of the fire and that she received some of the $8,000 Richards got from Schropp. Mayer said Schropp never paid Richards the remaining $12,000.

Schropp’s attorney said Richards is hoping to receive a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony. Winkelbauer agreed to testify only if the government would not prosecute her.

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Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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