GOWANUS — A long-simmering dispute over idling buses on a quiet Gowanus block sparked a conflict that led to arson, authorities say.
The FDNY this week announced the arrests of Abderraham "Abdul" Mouna and Jose "Pancho" Andujar in connection with a May 8, 2013, arson.
Fire Marshal investigators say the two men conspired to set the blaze to retaliate against neighbors who complained that Mouna's charter bus company left coaches idling for hours and parked illegally on the street. The target of the arson was a business owned by one of the people who complained.
The story sounds like a tale from old Gowanus, when mobsters settled local feuds with force and scare tactics: a blaze erupting in the middle of the night in a four-story building on the corner of Union and Nevins streets.
The building owner did not want to comment this week for fear of retaliation, but according to a criminal complaint filed with the Brooklyn District Attorney's office, a rock was tossed through a plate glass window on the building's first floor, then liquid accelerant was squeezed through the hole, followed by a book of matches and a lit cigarette.
The fire quickly went out, leaving only a scorched floor and no injuries, but locals were shocked.
They immediately suspected Mouna, neighbors told DNAinfo. He had been running his charter bus company on the block since about 2006 and had clashed with neighbors for years, said locals, who didn't want to be named.
At first, the 53-year-old Syrian immigrant seemed to be a hardworking small business owner struggling to get by, residents said. Mouna endeared himself to neighbors early on when he lent a bus to police who needed to cart away several squatters they had arrested in a nearby abandoned building.
During the past several years, though, the relationship has soured as Mouna's buses have become a constant nuisance on the block, residents said. He moved his coaches at all hours of the day and night, and turned the street into a makeshift repair shop, where he would tinker on engines for hours, neighbors said.
The oversized vehicles gobbled up dozens of street parking spots, and the idling never seemed to stop. When residents tried talking to Mouna, he was confrontational and threatening, always ready to scream or glare at neighbors, sources said.
Locals started calling 311 around 2008, giving operators the license plate numbers of Mouna's buses. By 2012, he had started removing the plates when his buses were parked on the street, or covering them with different plates, witnesses said.
In 2013, residents also asked for help from Community Board 6 and City Councilman Stephen Levin's office, and begged the 78th Precinct for assistance. Police asked Mouna to clean up his act, a law enforcement source said.
Things seemed quiet for a while, and then out of the blue, the arson happened. The building where the fire was set has apartments on the second floor, and Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said in a statement that the incident could have had a much more serious outcome.
“Arson is a crime which puts the lives of residents and firefighters in grave danger,” Cassano said, adding that Andujar and Mouna's alleged actions "clearly demonstrated a callous disregard for human life."
FDNY Fire Marshals got a break in the case when they discovered a cigarette butt in a planter next to the broken window. DNA on the cigarette matched Andujar's.
According to the criminal complaint and indictment, Mouna offered to pay Andujar $500 to "burn down" the business across from his bus depot. The two men hatched a plan that Andujar would start the fire when Mouna was in North Carolina. Mouna would leave the security cameras at his bus depot off, and stash a bottle full of accelerant for Andujar inside the depot's gate, according to the court documents.
Andujar completed the task, "saw a flash," then called Mouna to tell him the job was done, according to the criminal complaint.
Both men pleaded not guilty at their arraignments and both are now in jail. Andujar's Legal Aid attorney declined to comment.
Mouna's lawyer said her client was a father of three who was "horrified" to be arrested, and knows nothing about the fire because he was out of town when it happened. Attorney Dru Carey said Mouna told her, "All I know is, the lady across the street hates me."
Carey said the allegations against Mouna were fueled by neighborhood tensions that got out of hand. "It's the classic thing where you have residences developing in industrial neighborhood, and people aren't used to having industrial businesses around them," Carey said.
She noted that Mouna has never been arrested before, and that the allegations against him are based on the words of Andujar, who has a criminal history. Records show he was arrested in the Bronx on a grand larceny charge in 2013.
Mouna may not have prior arrests, but he has run afoul of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Inspectors shut down his bus company, Executive Charters Lines, Inc., in August 2013 after repeated safety violations, a U.S. DOT spokesman said. The order only applies to interstate travel and Mouna still keeps his bus fleet. Last fall he moved to a new location on Nevins Street.
In addition to the run-ins with local and federal authorities, residents say Mouna's bus company faces another formidable foe: gentrification.
The bus depot is about to get the new Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club as a neighbor, and 501 Social, a new members-only club aimed at young Brooklynites, is opening nearby this spring. The artisanal ice cream shop Ample Hills Creamery is replacing a former ironworks on the block soon.
"The bus depot had their days numbered," a resident said. "We always knew he wouldn't last through gentrification. [Ample Hills Creamery] wouldn’t tolerate a bus parked in front of their building. The iron workers didn’t care."