Struggling NJ Bowling Alley Owner Torches Better-Run Competitor

When bowling alley manager Steven Smink was asked by thePress of Atlantic Cityabout a fire that engulfed his rival Loyle Lanes Bowling Center of Vineland, N.J., outside of Atlantic City, he sounded sympathetic.

"These things happen," he told the paper. "You have wires all over the place and no sprinkler systems. You just pray that nothing shorts out and that no people are in the building if a fire breaks out."According to law enforcement officials, Smink, a one-time Philadelphia police officer, was behind the Jan. 11 blaze at Loyle, which caused $4 million in damage. The reason for the crime was simple: he wanted to eliminate a better-run competitor. Smink's alley, Pike Lanes in Bridgeton, was a dump with out-of-date equipment. It was losing business to the more modern Loyle Lanes, according to a source who wished to remain anonymous. The Philadelphia resident was in danger of losing his business because he did not have the capital he needed.

"Smink advertised for about a year on a billboard near Loyle Lanes -- the billboard describing how the short drive to Pike could save a family $32 on a bowling outing," the paper said.

Smink, a fixture in South Jersey bowling alleys, was charged with arson fire hire, two counts of aggravated arson and conspiracy to commit arson, according to the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office. Felix Antoni, 21, of Philadelphia, and a 17-year-old juvenile, also from Philadelphia, were also charged. All of the suspects were arrested in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

Stories like this are becoming more commonplace as people slog through the Great Recession. A woman less than a mile from my house torched her residence, which was on the verge of foreclosure. The numbers ofsuspicious insurance claims including arson referred to the National Insurance Crime Bureau during the first half of 2009 rose compared with 2008. How serious of an epidemic these crimes are is not clear.

"It's not that difficult to identify a fire as arson," says Frank Scafidi, an NCIB spokesman. Figuring out the culprit, of course, is the tricky part.

Bowling calls itself the number one participatory sport. Alleys can be goldmines if they are in a good locations, attracting patrons of all ages and economic backgrounds. Center operators sometime falter when they think that if they are good at the sport they will be good at business as well.

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