BALTIMORE, JUNE 1 -- Silver Spring accountant and onetime local Jewish leader Joel D. Davis was convicted today of an insurance claim scheme in which he paid a man to burn down a Jewish summer resort and paint antisemitic signs on the buildings to divert suspicion from Davis.
Davis, 47, "hid behind the curtain of supposed respectability," said prosecutor Gregg L. Bernstein, by paying oft-convicted felon Douglas L. Sanders $15,000 in 1980 to arrange the arson of the resort, called Torahtowne. Davis was the principal owner of the resort, which was about 50 miles north of New York City.
Sanders testified that Davis paid him $2,500 to set a fire in 1977 at the old Yeshiva High School on Kemp Mill Road in Wheaton. Sanders said that Davis, who was an official of the private Orthodox Jewish school, hired him to burn it after saying arson would be cheaper than renovation.
Over the years, the building had been a frequent target of antisemitic vandalism. The school has moved to a new location.
Davis was not charged in the Yeshiva fire.
He denied involvement in both fires. Defense lawyers argued that Sanders, who owned a construction company, arranged the fires on his own to get the demolition and cleanup work.
A federal jury returned the fraud and arson-related convictions after deliberating about three hours. Defense lawyers said they probably would appeal.
Davis faces up to 10 years in prison but remains free on $250,000 bond. No sentencing date is set.
Davis is scheduled to be tried July 16 in a related case in which he is charged with conspiracy to murder an Internal Revenue Service agent who was auditing his business and personal tax returns in 1981.
Davis, who has both U.S. and Israeli citizenship, lived in Israel during much of the 1980s and fought extradition on the arson and conspiracy charges until he was returned to the United States in 1989, according to investigators.
In the murder-conspiracy case, Davis is charged with hiring Sanders to kill IRS agent W. Stewart Connard. The slaying scheme was aborted, according to prosecutors, but Sanders was convicted of attempted murder in Montgomery County Circuit Court in 1982 and is serving a 25-year sentence.
The three-week arson trial turned on Sanders's credibility. A convicted thief, housebreaker and would-be killer, he testified against Davis after agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a possible reduction in his prison sentence.
He testified that Davis asked him to torch a portion of the New York resort to collect up to $400,000 in insurance claims. He said Davis told him to paint swastikas on some of the buildings to make it look like the work of antisemitic vandals.
Sanders, 51, said he hired house painter Johnny W. Zarou, 30, to do the job. Zarou testified he set fire to more than a dozen bungalows and scrawled swastikas and an obscenity directed at Jews on a wall.
Davis countered that he was planning to convert the bungalows to cooperatives and thus had no motive to burn them. Regarding the Yeshiva High School fire, Davis said he was a past president and treasurer of the school but had nothing to gain from the arson.
Defense lawyers Joshua R. Treem and Robert B. Schulman described Davis as a successful entrepreneur, family man and leader in the Orthodox Jewish community. In contrast, they said, Sanders is a liar and convicted felon who has admitted to loan-sharking and dealing in drugs, pornography and counterfeit gold coins.