Yesterday's Crimes: The Carpet King of Crime

“Wild-eyed” Leon Heskett was the self-proclaimed Bay Area “carpet king” in the 1960's and 70's. He ruled his discount empire from his bright yellow Carpet Coliseum store in Oakland, which was once described as “the most horrible thing I have ever seen” by an unnamed speaker during a Burlingame Planning Commission meeting in 1973. Heskett’s newspaper ads boasted “the West’s largest carpet inventory” over a publicity photo of Heskett standing proudly next to towering shelves filled with rolls of rugs.

While business appeared to be boom through the 70's, it all went up in smoke (literally) on Feb. 17, 1982, when a six-alarm fire gutted Heskett’s flagship Oakland store. According to UPI, it took 85 Oakland firefighters to combat a blaze that was even visible from San Francisco.

“What the hell can you say?” Heskett told UPI. “When you work for 30 years to build a business, and it's gone in 30 minutes.”

[jump] Arson was suspected, and Heskett was quick to blame Cary Cheifer, “an irate customer” who, according to Heskett, threatened to kill him and run him out of business only days earlier. Cheifer was hauled in for questioning by police but was cleared as a suspect after passing a polygraph test.

It turned out that Heskett himself had set the blaze with help from two store employees. And once Heskett became a firebug, he couldn’t stop. The huckster also planted a pipe bomb in the Piedmont home of his former attorney, Robert K. Lane. Fortunately, Lane was able to stamp out the fuse before the device went off. Heskett turned himself in and was later charged in the attempted firebombing.

For whatever reason, Heskett wasn’t indicted for arson, but was instead convicted of 11 counts of mail fraud for letters he sent to the TransAmerica Insurance Co. to collect $1.2 million in claims from burning down his own store. Heskett, looking “pale and weak” according to the San Francisco Chronicle, was sentenced to eight years in prison on April 25, 1985. He was also ordered to repay his insurance company. Tyrone David, one of Heskett’s accomplices, drew a five-year sentence.

After Heskett was indicted in 1984, Cary Cheifer, the man Heskett had tried to frame two years earlier, sued the deposed carpet king for slander and malicious prosecution. Heskett didn’t show at the hearing, and Cheifer won a default judgment, receiving $250,000 in damages and $1 million in punitive damages.

Heskett later tried to appeal the ruling, stating that he couldn’t make the hearing because he was in jail at the time, but the state Court of Appeals ruled that Cheifer was still entitled to the award.

Heskett died on Dec. 17, 2006. He is buried in the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon, Calif. His gravestone reads, “I love you every day in each and every way.”

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