WHEELING -- Richard Casto, a key investigator in the 1997 fire that killed five Lewis County children, says he was once offered a bribe by the Williamson lawyer who tried earlier this week to destroy Casto's credibility with a federal jury.
Casto, who declared the Weston house fire an arson, testified for a second time after defense teams rested Wednesday in the federal arson and conspiracy trial of Ricky and Barbara Brown.
The couple, whose three children died in the burning house along with two others, are charged with conspiracy, use of fire to commit a felony and multiple counts of mail fraud. Prosecutors say the Browns poured gasoline in their home and set it ablaze, leaving the children behind to die so they could collect house and life insurance policies.
Defense teams contend the fire was an accident, and that gasoline found in the floor boards got there innocently, long before the fire.
Jurors could begin deliberations as early as this afternoon, when closing arguments are expected to conclude.
Casto has called the Weston fire a "textbook" case of arson, but lawyer Tim Koontz on Tuesday testified that Casto called it "one of the weakest cases he'd ever seen" in an April 1998 conversation the men had.
Koontz also told jurors that Casto said the fire scene had been so disturbed by the time he arrived, it would have been impossible to figure out what had happened.
Casto, however, said the lawyer has a grudge: Koontz lost a case when Casto refused to change his findings in an unrelated house fire.
Koontz had twice suggested that Casto change the cause of that fire, once as the two prepared for a 1998 deposition. Casto said that when he refused, Koontz began talking about his large beach house in North Carolina, describing a film library, screening room and sea kayaks.
Even though the two men had just met, "He said that my wife and I should go there free of charge for two weeks," Casto said.
"How did you take that?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob McWilliams asked.
"I took it as a bribe," Casto replied.
Later, on the eve of the civil trial, Koontz allegedly invited Casto to have a drink and consider some additional information before testifying about the cause of the fire. Casto declined but reviewed some materials that were faxed to him. He did not change his opinion in court the next day.
It was six months before Koontz paid Casto for his services.
McWilliams told U.S. District Judge Irene Keeley it's critical for jurors to determine which man is more credible.
"This is not a side issue," he said while the jury was out of earshot. "If the jury believes Casto is lying through his teeth, that's our case. Mr. Koontz's credibility and Mr. Casto's credibility are absolutely paramount."
Both defense teams wrapped up their cases before noon Wednesday, with Barbara Brown's lawyers calling six witnesses in one hour. Two others had testified Tuesday.
Those witnesses included school teachers, a social worker and a passer-by from the morning of the fire. Most offered testimony aimed at supporting the defense's contention that Barbara Brown lacked the intellectual capacity to pull off an insurance fraud scheme.
Barbara Brown wept quietly as the teachers described how she stared blankly and said nothing when they tried to discuss her children's academic performance -- a behavior they agreed was unusual for a parent.
"She rarely, if ever, spoke to me -- even when spoken to," said Jennifer Phillips, who taught Brown's 8-year-old son, Brandon Castner.
The only time Phillips ever saw Barbara Brown display emotion was at her children's funeral, when the women embraced.
Like previous witnesses, Phillips said Brandon was often dressed inappropriately for the weather: The first pair of socks he wore was a pair she gave him.
The boy was so exhausted he slept through the better part of the school day, and he slept so deeply that she regularly moved him to a bean bag chair so he didn't fall out of his desk.
Social worker Caroline Burry, meanwhile, testified that neglect of the children was not deliberate but, rather, a way of life that Barbara Brown had learned from her own mother.
Her poor hygiene, housekeeping and parenting were "the result of other factors and influences in her life," not her desire to be rid of her children, Burry said.
"Barbara was economically and intellectually deprived, raised by a mother who, herself, suffered as much deprivation as anyone I've come across," she said.