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Man denies DMV firebombings

A plea of not guilty was entered Monday by a former Buffalo businessman who allegedly fled to Australia to avoid prosecution in a case involving two firebombings.

Used car dealer Robert M. Vernon, 57, appearing in federal court before U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr., denied federal arson charges filed against him by the U.S. attorney's office.

He was captured in January in the Australian state of New South Wales, where he allegedly fled in 2008 after learning he was under investigation by Buffalo fire marshals and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives.

Vernon is accused of hiring two arsonists who firebombed a state Department of Motor Vehicles office on Dingens Street on Christmas Day 2006. He also is accused of hiring them to firebomb a DMV employee's state car outside the employee's home three days earlier, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard P. Maigret said.

Authorities said the incidents stemmed from a dispute between Vernon, who ran a used car business on Elmwood Avenue, and the state agency.

The admitted arsonists -- Dennis Staufenberger of West Seneca and Nicholas Birdwell of Buffalo -- have already been sentenced to prison terms.

Schroeder scheduled a detention hearing for April 2 to determine whether Vernon will continue to be held in jail until his case goes to trial.

"We asked the judge to continue detention based on the fact that these were crimes of violence and that [Vernon] is a flight risk," Maigret said.

Family members claim that Vernon is the victim of false accusations. The businessman is represented by attorneys Herbert L. Greenman and Ralph C. Lorigo.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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