Hot legal battling preceded Richmond Hill blaze; arson suspected

Five months before a devastating March 19 fire destroyed the historic Richmond Hill Inn, legal battles had been heating up between the current and former owners of the property. Investigators believe the blaze was intentionally set.

A landmark lost: A devastating early morning fire March 19 destroyed the Richmond Hill Inn’s historic main building. Investigators suspect arson. Photo by Jason Sandford

William Gray bought the property from Albert and Marge Michel of Greensboro in 2005 for $10.4 million. The couple had purchased the ramshackle structure, built in 1889 for Congressman Richmond Pearson, from the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County in the mid-1980s.

The Michels pumped millions into the mansion, converting it into an upscale bed-and-breakfast. With its commanding view above the French Broad River and its fine dining, the Richmond Hill Inn became a destination for well-heeled tourists, brides looking for a stunning wedding backdrop, and foodies craving a four-star dining experience.

But Gray fell behind on an owner-financed, $8.8 million deed of trust, and the Michels initiated foreclosure proceedings. According to a notice filed in Buncombe County District Court Oct. 29, 2008, Gray still owed $6.9 million.

The day before, however—Oct. 28, 2008—Gray had filed his own civil lawsuit against the Michels, alleging fraud. The Michels, claimed Gray, hadn’t disclosed that there’d been hundreds of leaks in the plumbing system for the mansion and guest cottages, even though the problems were discovered in 2006. The defendants denied the allegations.

Meanwhile, county officials are seeking $64,000 in unpaid property taxes for 2008, said Buncombe County Tax Director Gary Roberts.

On March 16, three days before the blaze, another court notice announced that the property would be sold on the steps of the Buncombe County Courthouse to the highest bidder on April 16.

During the mansion’s heyday, the Pearsons played host to poets, writers and even Teddy Roosevelt, but over the years, the property had fallen into disrepair. In the early 1980s, the Preservation Society bought the home for $1, moved it and sold it to the Michels. After a $3 million restoration, the couple opened the inn in 1989.

After sifting through the smoldering remains, investigators say they found evidence of arson. Buddy Thompson, head of the Asheville-Buncombe Arson Task Force, said the evidence has been sent to a lab for testing.

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