Mark Anderson: sentenced Tuesday

More than six years after a devastating fire ripped through a Vallejo warehouse, destroying 4.5 million bottles of premium wine worth more than $100 million, a man has been sentenced for the crime.

A federal judge in Sacramento on Tuesday sentenced Mark. C. Anderson, 63, who was born in Berkeley and who resided in Sausalito, to 27 years in prison for the Oct. 12, 2005 fire at Wines Central.

“This was an enormous crime,” Assistant U.S. Attorney R. Steven Lapham said after the sentencing. “He damaged so many lives. We tend to think of winery owners as rich, fat-cat types. But by and large, the people who were storing wine at this facility were doing so because they didn’t have their own storage. They were small family-owned wineries that couldn’t afford these losses.”

Ted Hall, whose Long Meadow Ranch Winery in St. Helena lost two vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon and its entire library of past vintages, gave an emotional speech telling the court this was more than just a property crime.

“This was a crime against families: those that owned the businesses and many everyday working men and women who helped up produce these irreplaceable wines,” said Hall… “It has taken us years to recover from the fire .. We nearly lost a lifetime of work… May his sentence reflect the havoc he wreaked and may it be long to reflect the lasting damage to our lives.”

The wineries who lost bottles in the fire included some of Napa Valley’s oldest and best, such as Viader Vineyards, Robert Sinskey, ZD, Saintsbury, Sterling, Beaulieu Vineyards, and many more. The flames and heat also destroyed pasta sauce made by Francis Ford Coppola and sugar owned by C & H Sugar.

While many of the wineries were insured, others were not and had to shut their doors. Sterling Vineyards lost $37 million of wine and was uninsured, Lapham revealed in court for the first time on Tuesday. In addition to lost revenue, wineries lost their placement on store shelves and on restaurant wine lists.

The prosecution and defense disagree on the monetary loss caused by the fire. An expert hired by the U.S. Attorney’s office set the loss at $277 million, but a defense expert estimated it was more like $54.2 million.

Born in Berkeley

Anderson was born in Berkeley in 1948 and grew up on Brookside Avenue, at a time when trolleys ran down Claremont Avenue. He attended John Muir Elementary School, graduated from UC Berkeley, attended San Francisco Law School (although he never passed the bar exam) and took advanced certificates from the Sorbonne in Paris and other institutions.

Assistant U.S. Attorney R. Steven Laphman, who prosecuted Mark C. Anderson

Anderson moved to Sausalito as a young man to build houseboats and eventually became a leading citizen. He served on the Arts and Parks and Recreation Commission, headed up a sister city program with Japan, and was active in the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce. At 300 pounds, usually dressed in all-black and with a graying ponytail hanging down his back, Anderson was an arresting figure.

In 1999, Anderson opened Sausalito Cellars, a wine storage facility. In 2003, Sausalito police charged him with stealing 8,000 bottles of his clients’ wine and selling it for more than $1.2 million. Those charges are still pending in Marin County Superior Court.

In 2004, Anderson moved his clients’ wines to Wines Central, a 240,000 square foot former Navy bunker on Mare Island. In 2005, a fire destroyed the warehouse and with it, the wine of 40 collectors and 90 wineries.

Charged with arson

Anderson was arrested and charged with arson in 2007. When Anderson could not pay $500,000 bail he was sent to the Sacramento County Jail and has been there since then. In November 2009, Anderson pleaded guilty to the crime in exchange for a 15-year, eight-month prison term.

But Anderson, who is in bad health with prostate cancer, diabetes, and a bad back, changed his mind. He petitioned to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming he had incompetent counsel. He also insisted in letters and court filings that he was innocent.

US. District Court Judge Lawrence K. Karlton appointed a new attorney for Anderson but ruled in late 2011 that there were no grounds to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea.

Judge Karlton apparently took a harsh view of Anderson’s legal maneuvers, referring Tuesday about all the court’s “time and money,” Anderson had used. He also suggested that no matter the length of the sentence, there was a high likelihood that Anderson would die in jail.

“Whatever I do it’s a life sentence anyhow,” said Karlton.

Anderson’s new attorney, Jan Karowsky, said he would appeal the sentence as well as the judge’s ruling prohibiting Anderson from withdrawing his guilty plea.

Anderson was also ordered to pay $70.3 million in restitution.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...