Two brothers pleaded guilty to intentionally setting their Philadelphia hookah lounge on fire in order to collect the insurance payout, sparking a blaze that required hundreds of firefighters to put out in 2018, federal authorities announced Thursday.
Imad Dawara, 40, and Bahaa Dawara, 32, entered their pleas in U.S. District court, where they admitted to setting the fire at the lounge on the 200 block of Chestnut Street in Old City, the Justice Department announced in a press release. The fire spread to neighboring businesses and homes, causing millions in damages and uprooting lives.
The pair owned several businesses in Philadelphia from 2012-2018, but their hookah lounge was struggling and Dawaras had a yearslong history of fighting with their landlord, the DOJ said. By October 2017, they tried to sell off the lounge, but no one would buy it because they failed to renew their lease or pay rent.
At the end of January 2018, the landlord told them to be gone by Feb. 2 and that they owned more than $64,000 in overdue payments, according to the DOJ. Instead, the brothers refused to leave and on Feb. 2 took out a $750,000 insurance policy that covered accidental fires.
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On Feb. 18, the Dawaras set the fire that shut down the block, displaced some 160 people and burned down businesses and homes, federal prosecutors said.
Pets died, around 400 firefighters were called in, the entire area where the flames spread was considered a potential collapse zone for weeks and for months the block surrounding 239 Chestnut Street was closed to traffic.
“If not for the heroism of the Philadelphia Fire Department, the devastation from that night would have been unthinkable and much more extensive,” Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams said in the press release. “Even though many victims of this fire can never be made completely whole, I hope that today’s admission of guilt by the defendants gives these individuals and the City of Philadelphia at large some sense of relief and justice.”
Both brothers also admitted to evading taxes from 2015 to 2017, while Imad Dawara admitted to also fraudulently collecting health care and other government benefits, including Medicaid, SNAP and TANF, prosecutors said.