by: Vern Uyetake, The fire last August at Manzana Rotisserie Grill apparently was started by a former employee trying to cover his tracks.

A former restaurant manager pleaded no contest Jan. 3 to charges he set fire to Manzana Rotisserie Grill last summer to cover his tracks after stealing from customers.

The single-alarm fire Aug. 12 forced the evacuation of about 300 people from the popular Lake View Village restaurant on a Saturday night. There were no injuries.

Keith Mason, 38, admitted no guilt in the incident, which caused $220,000 in damage to the Lake Oswego eatery. His record will be cleared of reckless burning and fraudulent use of a credit card in 18 months.

In the arrangement, Mason paid roughly $500 to Pacific Coast Restaurants, which owns Manzana, toward the insurance deductible for fire damages. He also paid about $1,400 to customers from whom he allegedly stole money.

Police say the fire occurred while the restaurant was investigating fraud on the credit cards of its patrons. In the scheme, cash transactions were pocketed while the meals were charged to the credit cards of other customers.

'These are add-on amounts to credit cards and, of course, the cash disappeared,' said Capt. Don Forman of the Lake Oswego Police.

'We are convinced that this fire occurred with intentions of covering up thefts that had occurred at Manzana's. There isn't anything in our investigation that we have learned that would convince us otherwise. It wasn't an accident,' he said.

The fire was intentionally set, Forman said, in a box of financial documents that burned in an attic of the restaurant the day of the fire. The box included hard copies of guest checks, service tickets, receipts and daily reports.

'This would be the easiest place to start an investigation so clearly that would be valuable for a suspect to destroy,' Forman said.

Police did verify roughly $1,400 in thefts in which a Manzana employee made 15 fraudulent transactions against the credit cards of 10 different victims.

Forman said they had only circumstantial evidence against Mason in the case.

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