By David Van Biema Sandra Hinson
July 12, 1982 12:00 PM

Hard as he tried, Peter Lemongello never quite made it to the big time. Financed by a group of Long Island businessmen, the pretty-faced, questionably talented nightclub singer presented himself to the American public in 1976 with a barrage of TV spots advertising his middle-of-the-road “mood rock” records. For a moment his Love ’76 album threatened to become a modest success, if not a best-seller. He also earned a brief turn in the limelight when Chevy Chase skewered him as “Peter Lemon Mood Ring” on Saturday Night Live. But after the promotional blitz, when millions of fan clubs did not spring up from coast to coast and the booking agents stopped calling, Lemongello took the hint. He left show business in 1977 and relocated in Florida, where he went into home building. He would have been happy, he says, “to become an unknown, go about my business and never bother anybody.”

Lemongello was destined to be no more successful at staying unknown than he was at gaining fame. He’s back in the headlines again—this time not as a performer but as a criminal defendant: Florida officials claim that he masterminded acts of arson that caused thousands of dollars’ worth of damage to two houses in the luxury community of Feather Sound, near St. Petersburg, Fla. Now free on $160,000 bond, an angry Lemongello insists: “The charges are 100 percent false. When I get into a dispute, I go and see my lawyer, I don’t burn the house down.” His trial in Pinellas County, Fla. on two charges of second-degree arson and one charge of solicitation to commit arson is scheduled to begin next month. The maximum possible penalty: 35 years.

Lemongello’s troubles began to surface on Jan. 15, when a green van roared up as he was inspecting one of his houses. According to the ex-singer, two men jumped out, roughed him up, and forced him and his brother, Mike, into the vehicle at gunpoint. Then, he says, the men took them to a local bank where the brothers maintained a safe-deposit box. Peter says they held a gun on him while Mike went inside to withdraw cash for them. Money in hand, Lemongello claims, the van drivers deposited both unwilling passengers in a nearby woods.

A week later Lemongello’s cousin, Mark, a former pitcher with the Houston Astros, turned himself in and admitted that he and a friend had been the men in the van. Their suspected motive: to recover $43,000 they claim Mark’s friend had given to Peter to invest in the building business. But the alleged abduction was not all Mark discussed with the police; he began dropping hints about Peter. Intrigued, the Pinellas County sheriff’s office began to investigate possible connections between Peter and two torchings allegedly committed that winter by workers on his construction projects.

A suspect in one case, now out of jail on his own recognizance, claimed that Lemongello had put him up to the burning, offering him $1,000 for the job. And on the night of the second arson, according to law enforcement sources, Lemongello allegedly placed a call to the man who was later arrested for the crime, saying, “If you’re gonna do it, you gotta do it now.” Police construed a motive from the fact that Lemongello’s firm had been fired as builder for one of the burned houses; a police informant claims to have heard him declare that if he couldn’t build the house, then nobody else would either.

Lemongello, who is currently living with his wife, Joan, and their two children at her parents’ Long Island home, claims that he has been “framed” by a headline-hungry Pinellas County sheriff’s office. “The police found out that I was newsworthy,” he says, “that I’d been on the Tonight show and all that, and it motivated them to go after the publicity by arresting me.” The man who fingered him, he maintains, was pressured into a false confession in return for release without bail. As for the alleged firebug in the second case, although he was an employee, Lemongello says, “I never met him. I’m furious over the injustice of it, the misuse of power and the devastation the sheriff’s office has caused me.”

Pinellas County authorities are unimpressed. “I don’t have any reason to believe there is any truth to Lemongello’s allegations,” says Assistant State Attorney Paul Meissner. A source in the sheriff’s office is more blunt. Dismissing Lemongello’s claim to having been framed because of his former renown, the official declares: “We just see him as another criminal.”