In search of a crime guaranteed to fuel
the rumor mill, one could do worse than to consider the fire that
ravaged the Chenal Valley home of Aaron Jones, a 32-year-old
Benton-based developer, in the small hours of May 30.

The blaze, an obvious arson, was hardly
noticed by the neighborhood until after the dawn of the same morning;
many neighbors said they slept through it. But when the fire finally
subsided, after heavily damaging the multimillion-dollar house at 43
Chenal Circle, a jaw-dropping story emerged. His home was not the only
intended target of the attack, Jones said; the operation appeared to be
a set up to take his life.

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In interviews with the police and
reporters in the following days, Jones told a chilling account of that
night’s events: A man had entered the room where Jones was sleeping,
pointed a gun in his face, covered his mouth and eyes with duct tape,
bound his hands and feet, and left him as he torched the house. Jones’
salvation was that a set of French doors leading to the backyard was
unlocked; through these he was able to hop, he said, onward around the
house and across the street, where he collapsed in the front lawn of a
neighbor.

That the operation was alleged to be a
botched killing was not the only aspect of the crime that stirred
fascination. The loss of the house itself was a major occurrence. In a
neighborhood of large, architecturally diverse homes bordering the
Chenal Country Club, the Jones residence was noteworthy for its
imposing air. Unlike most of the houses on the street, it was protected
by a gate; its peach-colored façade, the charred remnants of which
still stand, incorporates a stone set of stairs and an arched entryway
crested by a regal seal. Pictures taken before the fire show an
interior that is equally upper-crust  — Oriental rugs, elaborate
upholstery and antique accessories. The building speaks of wealth and
Jones had certainly paid — at $1.6 million, the 4,685-square-foot
behemoth was the 10th most expensive home sold in Pulaski County in
2005.

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Jones didn’t pay that from his own
ready cash. In the days after the fire, reporting by Arkansas Business
showed that he still owed a significant debt on the house: Outstanding
were two mortgages, one for $1.206 million and a second for $245,000.
There was also a $431,000 debt to the property’s previous owners, Mark
S. Brockington, an insurance agent, and his wife, Kim, an interior
designer.

Leveraged ownership of the home was not
surprising, but the coincidental timing of the fire and the due date of
one debt drew reporters’ attention. Records showed that, though the two
mortgages had not come due, the money owed to the Brockingtons was
supposed to be paid by May 5, three weeks before the blaze. In an
interview with KTHV soon after the fire, Jones said that the debt had
been covered. Several days later, however, a document appeared in
Pulaski County records extending the deadline for repayment to 2009 and
requiring Jones to immediately give the Brockingtons $50,000.

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Though Jones told Arkansas Business
that he had miscommunicated the status of the $431,000 debt — during
the KTHV interview, he said, he had meant to convey that payment had
been arranged, not completed — the discrepancy added a suspicious
detail to an already eyebrow-raising situation. Some circumstances of
the case seemed awfully fortuitous — Jones’ wife and children were
staying in Florida at the time of the fire. Some were trifling but odd
— on the day before the arson, Jones reported to Benton Police that a
Kubota L3430 tractor had been stolen from him in Saline County. And
some were downright mysterious — in a television interview, Jones said
he could think of no one he was involved with who would hold a
blood-grudge against him. But none pointed in any obvious direction to
who the perpetrator might be. There were no reports of anything stolen
from the house.

Jones told reporters that his debt on
the home was no motive — he could easily settle the matter with money
from his businesses. He professed a belief that he was the victim of a
random crime. But for many who heard reports of this story, that
explanation strained credulity. The skeptical pointed to other
circumstantial clues for an explanation. After 359 days on the market,
the listed price of the home had dropped from $2.2 million in July 2007
to $1.85 million last May. Fire insurance — which a source familiar
with the case told the Times was $2.3 million for the structure
and $1.7 million for the contents — would be more than enough to cover
the debt on a house whose bubble had apparently burst. The house still
stands in shambles behind a padlocked fence. Since no one is talking,
including the insurance company, it’s impossible to know if the lack of
repair work means the insurance claim remains in limbo.

Jones was widely condemned in the
coffee shop courts of public opinion. As I told people I was working on
an article about Jones, the most common response went something like
this: “Oh, you mean the guy who burned his house down?” Shortly after
the crime, Jones directly addressed and denied this accusation in
multiple interviews. He is declining interview opportunities today.
Whatever the full story might be, investigators are hard at work trying
to pin it down. The Times has learned that the scope has grown
from the Little Rock Police Department to include the FBI and the U.S.
attorney’s office. 

 

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The arson was ripe for the headlines
for reasons other than its criminal overtones. For one, it was a
dramatic variation on the broader housing-crisis narrative that has
dominated the national media. What more symbolic story than the tale of
an indebted builder whose overpriced house was ravaged by fire? Jones
himself also became a figure of interest. Though a busy developer in
Saline County, he didn’t have a high public profile in Little Rock, his
city of residence.

As a residential builder, Jones has
created a small Central Arkansas business empire with imaginative as
well as fiscal promise. He has not been reserved about his abilities —
he told Arkansas Business in 2006 that he could develop 600 lots at a
time, and his website claims he reaped more than $17 million in gross
revenues in two years alone. (Expenses are not listed.) And while some
of his houses are standard subdivision fare, he also has managed unique
projects that some have called forward-thinking and innovative.  

Involved in real estate since his law
school days at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Jones, who
holds an undergraduate degree from UALR, comes from a Benton family
that has a history of profitable property development. His grandfather,
W.A. Jones, made a small fortune by buying land on the boundary of
Pulaski and Saline Counties and turning it into the K Mobile Home Park;
in February, a company led by Aaron Jones’ uncle sold the Pulaski
County section of the park for $4 million. While it is unclear whether
Aaron Jones profited from this sale, he worked on the trailer park as a
teen and has spoken in the past about the influence of the experience
on his real estate career.

That career came to encompass many
facets other than home-building. Jones owns a sewer utility, Central
Arkansas Utility Service, which serves three subdivisions, one run by
Jones, that are outside the range of municipal systems. He sits on an
advisory board for Summit Bank that examines the financials of the
Benton branch and plans community events. He has served as a special
judge in Saline County. By age 30, Jones had two young children and had
moved into the multimillion-dollar West Little Rock home, all while
maintaining his ties to his hometown, where he operates a title
services firm with attorney Don Spears.

The bulk of Jones’ business has been in
Saline County, where he developed a number of residential subdivisions
with names like Centennial Village, Wildwood and Pleasant Forest. 

There is no sign of trouble with these
ventures. True, there have been legal and regulatory disputes — he
settled with a man named Daniel Wade in a lawsuit over a
boundary spat, and he agreed to pay the Arkansas Department of
Environmental Quality a $13,000 fine for violations in several of his
subdivisions. Earlier this month, one of his companies — he has several
— was among a number of parties sued by the Saline County Property
Owners Improvement District over a sewer fee dispute. All of these
problems could be shrugged off as the occupational hazards of running a
development business, however. None seems serious enough to suggest a
man with enemies.

None of Jones’ acquaintances with whom
I spoke had anything negative to say about him. He wasn’t well known in
his Chenal Valley neighborhood. A person who lived directly behind them
before the incident said that she never met Aaron, and that she only
met his wife, Abigail, once. The neighbor from whom Jones sought help
the night of the fire has said she didn’t recognize him and closed the
door on him when she called the police.

Scott Smith, an architect who has
worked with Jones for two years and known him through St. Margaret’s
Episcopal Church for five, said that he thought Jones was telling the
truth about the incident. “I take Aaron at his word,” Smith said. “I
know him and he’s an honest guy. I wouldn’t be working with him if I
felt otherwise.”

Work on Jones’ current projects hasn’t
slowed. Marsha Guffey, director of community development in Benton,
said that in her two-and-a-half years on the job she has never had a
problem with Jones. He’s currently working on an 80-plot subdivision
called the Woodlands Chalet, a neighborhood of upscale townhouses.
There have been no setbacks on that development, and it is expected to
be completed in a year or so, Guffey said.

All Jones’ previous building pales in
comparison to what he’s lined up next: a comprehensive
new-urbanism–style neighborhood in Bryant called Midtown. Tagged
“Southern Lifestyle Reborn,” the 188-acre project is to encompass
homes, retail and parks, all in an attempt to centralize residential
and commercial space within walking distance. The neighborhood is being
designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ), a Miami-based firm that created
Seaside, Fla., a community from which Jones has said he’s taken
inspiration. (DPZ also designed the Hendrix Village in Conway.) 

“All of these places are called cities
— the City of Bryant, the City of Benton, the City of Conway — but
they’ve all been suburbanized and destroyed by the planning practices
of recent years,” said Galina Tahchieva, DPZ’s director for Midtown.
“Bryant is basically a collection of big box retailers, parking lots
and highways. So we took it as a chance to have a model development of
this sort.”

Midtown is somewhat behind schedule —
though its website lists the date for residential construction as July
2008, streets have only now begun to go in — but Tahchieva said that
there haven’t been any hitches so far. Though DPZ was shocked to hear
of the house fire, she said, it has had no impact on construction.

“We haven’t had any problems,” she
said, adding of Jones: “I think that he’s a very forward-looking
person. He has seen the possibility of doing something in his
community.”

 

Though most of the associates of Jones
with whom I spoke were warmly supportive of him, several people
declined to return phone calls. Among these were Kim and Mark
Brockington, who previously owned the Chenal house and whom Jones owes
money, and the across-the-street neighbor awakened by Jones after the
fire. Nor did Jones speak with me. He is living in Benton now and
apparently is hard at work. 

As it tends to do, rumor has spread to
fill the void left by a lack of investigative findings. For many, the
debt Jones owed on the house has been enough to put him under
suspicion. The case has also spawned a variety of other theories and
rumors. One has Jones as the owner of an old Benton warehouse that
burned in June. (He’s not.) Another has Jones falling in with rough
businessmen in Florida. (It also appears to have no basis in known
facts.)

In the meantime, investigators are mum
about what their inquiries have found. The effort has expanded beyond
city authorities. Besides the Little Rock Police and the Little Rock
Fire Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the
FBI are on the case. The U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern
District of Arkansas has instructed the Little Rock Police Department
to remain quiet. Neither U.S. Attorney Jane Duke nor FBI area spokesman
Steve Frazier could comment on the role of federal authorities.

If there’s been a similar crime in the
area — a victim left to burn to death by parties unknown for reasons
unknown — no law enforcement official can recall it.

The crime, then, remains a mystery.
Until authorities say otherwise, Jones remains, officially, the victim
of an attempted murder and expensive arson, motives unknown.
Unofficially, unfairly or not, many remain likely to remember him as
the guy who burned his house down.