Ansonia cop guilty of setting fire to own car to collect insurance 
Wednesday, September 13, 2000

BRIDGEPORT - An Ansonia police officer pleaded guilty Tuesday to setting fire to his own car at a highway rest stop in Fairfield to collect the insurance money.

Richard Zavalko, a nine-year veteran of the police force and its former union head, stood next to his lawyer with his head bowed as he pleaded guilty, under the Alford Doctrine, to one count of reckless endangerment in the first degree.

He was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Eddie Rodriguez Jr. to a six-year suspended term, with three years of probation.

A condition of the probation is that Zavalko immediately resign from the Police Department and not seek employment as a police officer for three years.

A plea made under the Alford Doctrine means the defendant does not admit his guilt, but concedes he could be found guilty if he went to trial.

Zavalko was about to be retried on charges of first-degree arson, conspiracy to commit first-degree arson, manufacture of bombs, conspiracy to manufacture bombs and criminal attempt to commit insurance fraud when he decided to accept a plea bargain.

A first trial in February ended in a mistrial when some of the state's evidence disappeared from the courtroom.  It was later found.

Assistant State's Attorney Robert Brennan said he believes the sentence Tuesday was a "reasonable disposition.

"He is no longer going to be a police officer and that is the important thing," he added.

Zavalko's lawyer, Norman Pattis, said he would have preferred to try the case again.  "But this allows Mr. Zavalko to put this all behind him.  Unfortunately, it also hands the Ansonia Police Department a victory they didn't deserve and silences a once outspoken member of the Police Department," he said. 

Zavalko was accused of parking his 1988 Chevrolet Camaro in the northbound rest area of Interstate 95 in Fairfield on Nov. 24, 1996, and rigging two bottles of gasoline to ignite in the car.

Fairfield firefighters put out the blaze before it consumed the car.

According to the arrest warrant affidavit, Fairfield firefighters arrived on the scene to find the car smoldering and then found the two bottles of gasoline set up to ignite.

The license plates were missing from the car along with any paperwork indicating ownership. 

The affidavit continues that police were able to trace the car to Zavalko, who initially refused to meet police because he said he had been drinking. 

When police finally got to talk to Zavalko that night, they stated he appeared very nervous.  He claimed he had left his car in his driveway and had been out drinking with a friend, the affidavit states. 

On Jan. 7, police searched Zavalko's home in Ansonia and found the license plate and registration that had been missing. 

Before the fire, Zavalko had been mentioned as a suspect in the 1997 theft of more than $28,000 and 364 small bags of cocaine from the Ansonia Police Department. 

Last year, he was called as a witness in that case before a one-man grand jury investigating the crime, but invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self- incrimination. 

The grand jury completed the investigation without reaching a conclusion.