New Mexico pleads not guilty in Cheyenne fire

BEN NEARY, Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- A New Mexico man pleaded not guilty Tuesday to federal charges in a 2010 fire that destroyed a landmark Wyoming hotel.

Robert Rodriguez, 44, wore shackles and jail clothing when he appeared before U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal in Cheyenne.

Rodriguez pleaded not guilty to charges of arson and using fire to commit mail or wire fraud in the fire that destroyed the Hitching Post Inn. The establishment had been a favorite lodge and watering hole for Wyoming lawmakers for decades.

Freudenthal told Rodriguez that he faces a possible penalty, if convicted of both counts, of 15 to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000.

Rodriguez's trial was set for Dec. 3. Court records indicate he was arrested in Sandoval County, N.M., but documents that might describe what led investigators to him have been sealed.

Prosecutor Eric J. Heimann asked Freudenthal to forbid the release of printed materials in the case file to Rodriguez with the exception of an interview Heimann said Rodriguez had given.

David Weiss, with the federal public defender's office, represents Rodriguez. Weiss declined comment after the hearing.

A civil lawsuit is pending between the owners of the hotel and an insurance company, which has refused to pay a $13.6 million claim on the grounds that the fire was arson.

Freudenthal also presides over the civil lawsuit between the hotel owner, CJM Hospitality LLC, and the insurance company, National Surety Corp. Attempts to reach lawyers on both sides of the civil case were unsuccessful after Rodriguez's arraignment.