Feds: Brothers who owned Old City businesses set 2018 fire that shut down neighborhood

The building was gutted by fire on Feb. 18. Adjacent buildings were damaged.

This building in Old City, Philadelphia was gutted by fire on Feb. 18, 2018. Adjacent buildings were damaged. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Two Old City business owners intentionally set the massive 2018 fire that shut down the 200 block of Chestnut Street and destroyed a historic building, federal authorities charged Thursday. 

U.S. Attorney William McSwain said that brothers Imad and Bahaa Dawara allegedly conspired to set fire to their own struggling business in order to collect a $750,000 insurance payout. 

“The U.S. Attorney’s office has unsealed a ten-count indictment charging Imad Dawara and Bahaa Dawara with planning and causing the arson of their business,” McSwain announced in Old City.

The brothers had leased space at 239 Chestnut Street for the now-closed Barra and Revolution Diner. McSwain described the brothers as presiding over a struggling enterprise and said they had faced eviction over unpaid rent. 

Brothers Imad, left, and Bahaa Dawara. (Facebook)

Just a few weeks before the four-alarm fire broke out, the Dawara brothers took out a massive insurance policy on their ailing business.

“In obtaining this new insurance policy, the charges allege that Imad asked the insurance broker repeatedly how he would be paid ‘if there was a fire,’” McSwain said.

A joint investigation involving Philadelphia Police and fire departments as well as the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives found that the blaze began in the basement of the building the two men leased and was accelerated with gasoline. The fire quickly spread to adjacent buildings, taking some nine hours to extinguish.

Although no one was injured, the resulting damage led the block of Chestnut Street to remain closed for months. Several nearby businesses subsequently closed and McSwain said some nearby residents had been permanently displaced. 

The owners of the now-defunct chain of popular gelato shops, Capogiro, blamed the blaze for the demise of their business.

The 167-year-old 239 Chestnut Street building is slated to be rebuilt into a contemporary-style condo building with an exposed steel facade. The building, recognizable by its cast-iron facade, was listed on the city’s Register of Historic Places.

The Dawaras, both Delaware County residents, were picked up by federal authorities at the Philadelphia Airport on Wednesday. Both men now face 10 felony counts ranging from conspiracy to commit arson to fraud charges. Together, the indictment carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 17 years in prison, if the duo is convicted.

McSwain said the steep charges will deter others from setting similar fires.

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