Feds Say MAGA-Aligned Mogul Had “Opportunity and Motive to Start” Apartment Fire

The Sherry-Netherland Hotel, where a fire broke out in March 2023 following the arrest of Chinese mogul Guo Wengui.Anthony Behar/AP

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Federal prosecutors on Tuesday revealed evidence they said shows fugitive Chinese mogul Guo Wengui—as well as an unnamed person who was living with him—had the “opportunity and motive to start” a fire that severely damaged Guo’s lavish penthouse apartment hours after his March 2023 arrest.

Prosecutors shared the incendiary new information about the mysterious blaze, which erupted in the iconic Sherry Netherland building just off Central Park, the day before jury selection is set to start in Guo’s trial for allegedly executing a massive fraud scheme.

The fire reportedly broke out hours after Guo’s arrest at 6 am on March 15, 2023, while FBI agents were still searching the penthouse, causing severe damage to the property. Guo—a patron and ally of Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon who claims to be a leading critic of the Chinese Communist Party—has a devoted following made up of Chinese emigres. His supporters have alleged that FBI agents, or possibly Chinese agents, started the blaze.

In a filing Tuesday, prosecutors argued Guo’s lawyers should be barred from bringing up such claims at trial. If they do, the feds said, prosecutors would respond with evidence suggesting Guo and “Individual-1,” who lived in the apartment with the mogul, were to blame. (Guo is married, but the court filing does not say if this person was his wife.) Prosecutors argue that if the matter is allowed to come up in court, it will lead to a “confusing and time-consuming mini-trial” to assess whether Guo “committed arson.”

This would be a “potentially inflammatory sideshow,” the feds say.

According to the government’s filing, an investigation by the New York Fire Department and ATF found the fire began “in a closet next to the den, near Individual-1’s bedroom, at the floor level, in combustible material which was stored in that closet. From there the fire extended into several rooms.” The investigation concluded that the cause of the blaze was undetermined.

But prosecutors in their filing note that after the FBI arrested Guo, Individual-1 asked “to remove a necklace from their bedroom because it had sentimental value. That bedroom was next to the origin of the fire. Hours later, a fire burned half of Guo’s apartment.”

Prosecutors also cited a series of videos and social media posts, previously reported by Mother Jones, in which Guo urged followers to launch a “Flame Movement” or “Flame Revolution.”

“When you have nothing, what can you do?” Guo asked in a December 2, 2022, video, shot on the balcony of his Sherry-Netherland residence. “The only weapon you have is fire.” Pointing at a red hat he had on, Guo then said: “Fire. Fire. Fire. Fire. Fire.” 

Though Guo appeared to urging fans to start fires to combat the Chinese Communist Party, federal prosecutors argue his repeated allusions to arson could be relevant to the blaze at his apartment.

“The defendant and Individual-1 had, at minimum, opportunity and motive to start the fire that threatened the lives of several FBI agents executing court-authorized arrest and search warrants—not to mention the numerous civilians who live and work in the Sherry Netherland and its vicinity, and the firefighters who had to risk their lives to stop the fire from spreading further,” the filing says.

The federal judge presiding in the case, Analisa Torres, has not yet ruled on the motion. An attorney representing Guo did not respond to requests for comment.