A fired shift manager at Qdoba Mexican Grill faces a federal arson charge in the April 25 fire that gutted the East Tiverton Way restaurant in Lexington, according to unsealed court documents.
Bennie C. Davis, 20, admitted to federal investigators that he entered the Qdoba off Nicholasville Road after it closed but denied that he stole cash from a safe and denied that he set the fire, according to an affidavit filed by a special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
But a roommate told investigators that Davis admitted that he took the money from the safe and burned the restaurant. As a former shift manager, Davis remembered the code numbers needed to be entered into a keypad to unlock the safe, according to the affidavit filed by ATF special agent Sarah Decker. The affidavit was unsealed and was available to public inspection Thursday.
Fire investigators determined when the two fires were started, and by his own statement to investigators, Davis was the only person in the restaurant at the time.
This is not the first time Davis has been in trouble with the law. In May 2014, shortly before he turned 18, Davis was accused of taking a Lexington police cruiser on a joyride with two other juveniles, and then after a pursuit on Interstate 64 was stopped by police in Franklin County. A grand jury there indicted him as an adult on charges of receiving stolen property, fleeing or evading police, wanton endangerment and criminal mischief.
The case didn’t go to trial because the prosecution was suspended for four years as long as Davis completed college and did not commit another offense. But he didn’t complete studies at Eastern Kentucky University and Franklin County Commonwealth’s Attorney Larry Cleveland said Thursday he will ask a judge to allow him to resume prosecution of the 2014 case in light of the latest charge.
In the arson case, Lexington firefighters were called to Qdoba at 1:15 a.m. April 25. The building was heavily damaged, but there were no injuries. No one was in the building when firefighters arrived.
The building, which remains closed, was a total loss, and damage was estimated at $750,000, Decker’s affidavit says.
One fire was started on a shelving unit under the dining room cash register, and the other was started at the manager’s desk and cubicle area, the affidavit says. The remnants of the safe, which was found open and its contents removed, was in the debris of the manager’s cubicle.
After determining that the cause was arson, investigators interviewed the current restaurant manager, who said the restaurant key is normally retrieved and locks are normally changed upon the dismissal of a shift manager.
In this case, however, the locks on the doors weren’t changed after Davis was dismissed in February, nor had the safe’s combination been changed. Also, “the alarm system had not been used for some time due to a change in alarm company,” according to the affidavit.
The shift manager who closed the Qdoba on the night of April 24, the day before the fire, told investigators that Davis came into the restaurant that night “looking for free food.”
ATF agents interviewed Davis, who told them he was unemployed. Davis acknowledged that he went to the Qdoba about five minutes before it closed at 11 p.m. April 24. Davis said he was denied free food and left, drove around and then parked at Porter Memorial Baptist Church on Nicholasville Road, about a half-mile south of the restaurant, to smoke marijuana. Davis said he then went to his home in Nicholasville about 2 a.m. April 25.
But investigators then learned that Davis had confided to a roommate that “he burned the Qdoba and took money from the safe,” the affidavit said. Investigators later discovered a cash drawer containing rolled coins and a bank money bag about 200 yards from Davis’ home, where several current and former Qdoba employees live.
In his interview with ATF special agents, Davis admitted that he entered the Qdoba and that he was “prepared to ‘rob’ the store. Davis stated he used a roommate’s key, which he took without permission, to access the building,” the affidavit says.
“Davis stated he had access to the money safe while he was a shift leader and, as such, remembers the electronic keypad safe code number sequence used to unlock the safe and accurately described the keypad sequence to do so,” the affidavit says. “Davis denied stealing any money from the safe at Qdoba and denied setting the business on fire.”
Nevertheless, agents wrote, Davis “had motive to commit the arson of Qdoba, as he was angry with Qdoba for his termination as manager. Additionally, Bennie Davis retained the access to the safe code and subsequently opened the safe and removed cash, coins and currency before or during the arson,” the affidavit says.
Davis was taken into federal custody Tuesday after he was charged in a criminal complaint on a charge of “malicious arson of a building involved in interstate commerce.” Qdoba is a subsidiary of the San Diego-based chain Jack in the Box, so investigators concluded that the “building destroyed by fire was utilized in interstate commerce and in activities affecting interstate commerce.”
Davis appeared Wednesday afternoon in federal court in Lexington before U.S. Magistrate Judge Edward Atkins.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Monday in Lexington. At that time, Atkins will hear evidence to determine whether there is probable cause for the case to proceed.
If convicted, Davis could face a prison sentence of five to 20 years.