On The Job Washington State: Arson Fire Destroys Apartment Complex Under Construction

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As Engine 32 rolled out of the Pullman, WA, Fire Department’s north-area station on Sunday, July 14, 2013, Senior Firefighter Andrew Howell was striking a second and third alarm within seconds of the of the first page at 3:17 A.M.

 

“We could see the glow before we left the station,” Howell recalled.

Pullman Police Sergeant Dan Dornes radioed to Whitcom, the 9-1-1 center for the area, “Tell Fire, flames are at least 100 feet in the air.” And then Dornes reminded another police officer, Wade Winegardner, to make sure his car and body cameras were activated.

That’s the way one of the biggest fires to hit Pullman began at the Grove Apartment complex, on Northeast Brandi Way, just off of Terre View Drive. During the fire, police officers and firefighters worked separately, but made the effort to keep each other informed.

For the week that followed, police and fire personnel worked together and that collaboration resulted in the arrest of the alleged arsonist just seven days after four apartment buildings under construction, with a value in excess of $13 million, were destroyed. Both departments also used the resources of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), an accelerant dog from the Spokane Valley Fire Department, the State Fire Marshal’s office and laser mapping by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department.

Fire Captain Don Foster was in charge of Pumper-Ladder 31 as he left the downtown station that morning. “We could see the large candle in the sky. We knew it was new construction and we knew the walls hadn’t been sealed. It was kindling wood.” There were eight apartment units being constructed by College Crest of North Carolina in a site that resembled a bowl. There was a retaining wall of about 50 feet to the south of the complex and on the other side of that mound, was the fully occupied Steptoe Village apartment complex owned by Washington State University (WSU).

To the north, there was a 30-foot wall along Terre View and another 40-foot earthen wall to the east. On the other side of that wall was the fully occupied Boulder Creek apartment complex.

As the first engine came in from the west, Howell said he could see at first one building fully involved. He told Firefighter Paul Heebink to lay a line and he would do a 360-degree size-up. It was then that Howell said the fire was jumping between buildings, so he began to look at this fire as he would a large wildfire, but he said he thought, “at least here we have water.” After all, there were two hydrants on the property near the engine, but the first one they took had only a trickle of water. The second one was also dry. Investigators found later that construction crews had placed black garbage bags over the dead hydrants that were supposed to come online the next day. The intense heat melted the bags within seconds.

The deck gun drained the engine’s water supply and without a working hydrant, the crews had to reposition and then laid 500 feet of five-inch hose to a working hydrant near the property.

 

Residents evacuated

About the same time as crews were hitting the fire with deck guns and 2½-inch lines, Winegardner was evacuating residents from the Boulder Creek apartment and soliciting help from residents to make sure other occupants were out of their units. He and Fire Chief Mike Heston, from the command post on Terre View, could see that the walls on the occupied apartments were off-gassing and starting to smoke. Foster then moved the pumper-ladder into position at Boulder Creek to protect the residents and the structure. Foster dispatched two firefighters with a thermal imaging camera to see if there was any actual fire at Boulder Creek since the sides were smoking. Fortunately, there was none. Another engine, manned by Pullman reserve firefighters, took a position on a construction road between the fire and Boulder Creek apartments, poured water on the fire and cooled down the threat to the occupied units.

The third-alarm response brought three engines from Whitman County Rural District 12, an engine and a ladder truck from Moscow, ID, rural and city departments, along with an engine from the Colfax, WA, Fire Department. Altogether, there were more than 40 firefighters working the fire and its aftermath, along with 14 pieces of equipment.

Moscow set up its ladder truck on the west end of the fire that by now had spread to four apartment structures, all in various phases of construction. But there were still four buildings under construction behind and to the side of the Moscow crew. Flames had reached out, but only lightly touched the buildings so far.

Within the first half-hour of the fire, Heston was informed by WSU police that on the other side of the 50-foot retaining wall to the south, not visible from the fireground or command post, police saw the need to evacuate the occupants from Steptoe Apartments. The only entrance and exits from those units faced the earthen wall and on the other side of that wall was a raging fire. The Steptoe vinyl siding was already melting, so Heston sent a Whitman County engine to stand its ground between the wall and the apartment units. Several grass fires were put out by crews from that engine.

 

Intense heat threatens farm

To the north of the fire and across the street was the WSU Research and Technology Park. The intensity of the blaze, some 200 yards away, cracked windows and melted a nearby street sign. But, as those at the command post were checking off their threat assessments, there stood another one behind them. This city of 31,000 people is surrounded by agriculture and the principal crop is wheat. Within at least 500 yards of the fire was a standing wheat field that represented a farmer’s livelihood. Another Whitman County engine and crew was sent to stand between the fire and the wheat.

On most days there is a prevailing wind blowing from west to east, but not that morning. “We were lucky there was no wind or we could have lost more, including those apartments that were occupied,” Heston reflected.

As it turned out, firefighters protected the two occupied apartment complexes bordering The Grove and saved four other Grove apartment units in various stages of construction. Two of them were finished in time for students to start classes on Aug. 19. There were no injuries to firefighters or civilians.

Heston, who is a member of the Spokane Type 3 Incident Management All Hazards response team, said he approached the fire much like Howell’s first assessment: “The way it was jumping between buildings it was a wildfire.” Heston was quick to set up four divisions and made sure they had the resources they needed. He also called this fire one of the most complex ones the department had experienced.

Heston rapidly listed some of the complexities. There was so much fuel in the buildings and outside with stacks of lumber. Most of the buildings did not have any drywall in place, so there was very little to stop the flames from jumping between buildings. The first two hydrants the crews took that morning had no water. Later, firefighters found two working hydrants, but the intense heat prevented usage. There were life-safety issues with two occupied apartment complexes. As it turned out, there were six Steptoe buildings that showed heat damage to siding and since the fire was just on the other side of the retaining wall, the only exits from the Steptoe apartments could have been blocked by heat. There were seven buildings at Boulder Creek with vinyl siding melted. There was utility construction that could have impacted the city’s water supply needed for the fire. The other potential threat would have been embers floating from the fire to that standing wheat field.

At the command post, Dornes kept Heston informed of what police officers had observed that morning and Heston, in the first news release issued by the department, was quoted as saying the fire was “suspicious.” He said the site was under construction and there were no obvious ignition sources. In addition, he said later that police had shared some information about a couple of “interesting individuals” they had encountered that morning. Officers also were able to describe which building was the first to go up in flames. With four buildings, including one that was four stories tall, reduced to about two feet of ashes, the descriptions helped fire investigators center their work on one building rather than four.

But it was what Winegardner did that morning on routine patrol that made all the difference in solving this arson fire. “I had driven by the area before the fire and saw a car parked across the street. It was a Saturn car and I ran the plate of this unoccupied vehicle,” Winegardner recalled. He said the car stood out to him because it was not in a parking area; it was in a driveway of the research park and it was facing The Grove apartments. After he ran the plate, Winegardner said he saw a car speed by so he followed it for a brief time and then he returned to the station downtown. When fire was dispatched, he responded to the north area site to do traffic control and helped evacuate residents at Boulder Creek. “I even helped drag hose and helped man a hose line for a brief time,” he said.

“If there’s an award to given out, it goes to that observant patrol officer who saw a car…something didn’t look right, and ran a plate,” Spokane ATF Agent Lance Hart told Firehouse® Magazine. “That’s fantastic police work.”

With the chief calling the fire suspicious from the beginning, Heston wanted to get the investigation started immediately and to have police involved right from the start. Firefighters Erik Taylor and Tony Nuttman, along with Firefighter Reed McPherson from Pullman Fire, started that Sunday before Pullman’s lead fire investigator, Rich Dragoo, returned from a day off on Monday. The fire team was joined by Pullman Police Officer Chris Engle and WSU Police Officer Darren Jones. Both police officers had been trained in fire investigation and evidence collection. In addition, Jones started as a volunteer firefighter at the age of 18 and later, as a police officer, took a class on origin-and-cause investigation at the National Fire Academy.

Both Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins and WSU Executive Director of Public Safety Bill Gardner saw the need to have police officers trained in arson investigation. “We had a few cases that turned out to be arson, “Jenkins said, “and at the time we didn’t have any officer trained in arson investigation” until Engle was sent for training. Gardner said, “We needed to bridge the gap between police and fire. Fire has authority in some areas but we have officers trained in evidence collection.”

That Sunday, as the fireground was still smoldering, the fire-police task force went to work. Jones said he called Hart because Hart was the recognized expert on suspicious fires in the region. They also notified the Spokane Valley Fire Department and Assistant Fire Marshal Rick Freier so that Pullman could use “Mako,” an accelerant detection dog. Taylor worked with Assistant Chief Ryan Scharnhorst to secure the site and arranged for a 24-hour-a-day fire watch. Later, during the investigation, the apartment owners paid for two Whitman County sheriff deputies to guard the site. The owners also paid for a plane so Taylor could photograph the site from the air.

Dragoo, who has been investigating fires for 22-years, took command Monday of the task force. ATF agent Hart also joined the effort Monday for a day. Dragoo received reports on what the crews had documented Sunday. They did a hazardous materials inventory and met with the construction crews to go over the plans and identify the known accelerants on the site, such as glue used by plumbers. After reviewing comments from Foster and Dornes, they determined that Building E was fully involved and was the first building on fire – the focal point of the investigation.

Dragoo said, “We looked at all the possible sources of ignition and we were able to eliminate many. It was clear that morning and there was no rain or lightning. There was no power to the building.” By looking at timelines, Dragoo said, they were able to clear smoking or welding as possible causes. “All that’s left is arson,” Dragoo said. “Now we have to prove it.”

While the task force started going from east to west in what was left of the building, hand digging through the ashes in temperatures in the upper 80s and lower 90s, Pullman Police Sergeant Dan Hargraves was following up leads generated Sunday by his fellow officers. Police Officer Carl Bell interviewed the individual Sunday whose car was spotted by Wine-gardner. The suspect told Bell, in that initial interview, that he had “a bad feeling about the site.” Bell questioned, “What do you mean…a bad feeling?” The suspect, Bell recalled, told him “like someone might be buried up there.”

Now there was another element to investigate. Hargraves assigned officers to look for the suspect’s wife and children, who could not be located in Pullman. Could they be buried at the site? As officers starting probing the possibilities, police heard the wife might be visiting relatives in Thurston County, WA, on the west side of the state. There was another report that she might be in Oregon. Within two days, police made contact with a sister who had seen the wife and children since the fire. “Now we can eliminate that as an issue,” Hargraves said.

On the day after the fire, after collaborating with the task force including ATF, Police Officer Scott Kirk contacted the suspect again, but this time Kirk wanted his help. He asked the suspect if he would assist the investigators on the site. The suspect was employed by one of the sub-contractors at The Grove as a plumber’s assistant. They told the suspect that he could help the crews by telling them what the site was like before the fire. He agreed and even drove his own car to the scene to assist the team. Police now have been able to talk to him twice – on Sunday at his home and now Monday at the fire site.

With two interviews recorded by officers on their body-worn cameras, Hargraves said officers compared what the suspect said on Sunday with what he told Kirk the next day. And there were discrepancies. One was where he parked his car; another was how he saw his way around the site at night. At one time, he said he used his cell phone and then later said he used a lighter.

On Tuesday, “Mako,” the accelerant dog, arrived in Pullman. The dog got six hits, but as Dragoo noted, “those hits could be glue or something else.” The “hits” were marked and the police officers collected the evidence, identified the location, and each time took marked evidence and secured it. The evidence was sent later to a crime laboratory. Areas where “Mako” hit on an accelerant were hand cleared; elsewhere, construction crews operating a scoop cleared the area as the fire investigators watched.

 

Closing in on a suspect

By Friday evening, investigators had wrapped up clearing Building E and now the pressure was coming from law enforcement for Dragoo to write a booking summary. They wanted to keep the momentum going and get a step closer to an arrest. Dragoo said the summary was roughly about the condition of the fire. Then he summarized the conclusions – no natural causes, no power or natural gas. “It was arson.” He also included the observations of Dornes, who pinpointed the building of origin.

On Saturday, deputies from the Spokane County Sheriff’s department arrived at 6 A.M. to do a total station 3-D mapping of the building. It’s the same type of equipment that the Washington State Patrol uses for collision mapping. Both fire and police wanted the area mapped to show where “Mako” had the hits in case they should need the information later in court. Hargraves had contacted the department earlier in the week to see if they would be willing to come to Pullman to map the area and he said they were pleased to help out. They told him they had the equipment and they were willing to share it. The deputies also told Hargraves that morning that this was the biggest scene they had done.

While police detectives were documenting their case against the suspect and fire and police investigators were gathering evidence at the fireground, discussions were going on at a higher level: should this case be prosecuted locally or federally? Jenkins, the police chief, said he contacted Michael C. Ormsby, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, and told him that if this case goes to the federal level, he would be fine with that. After all, a case from Pullman, if prosecuted locally, would end up in Whitman County courts and prosecuted by an office that was already short of staff and operating on a very limited budget. “The feds have a lot more resources,” Jenkins concluded.

Jenkins also said he consulted with the FBI just in case there was an anti-government protest that they were aware of that could have resulted in this fire. After all, there had been fires in Colorado at apartment buildings under construction and Jenkins wanted to make sure that all possibilities had been explored.

Hart, the ATF agent, suggested during the week that his agency had their own polygraph examiners and offered to bring one to Pullman to assist in the interview with the prime suspect. They suggested options and in the end, ATF polygraph examiner James Bauer flew in Sunday from San Francisco, CA, to help with the interview the next day.

Bryan Lee Kitchen, a 31-year-old Pullman resident, walked into the police station Monday morning for another interview. But this time, the conditions were different. Kirk was accompanied by Bauer monitoring and recording the suspect’s answers. That meeting, with a few breaks, went 4½ hours. Hargraves attributed the length of time to Kirk’s “tremendous interview skills.”

Following the interview, Jenkins held a news conference, accompanied by fire and police personnel. He announced the arrest of Kitchen, who was charges with arson in the first degree, a Class A felony, and transported to the Whitman County Jail. Within a few days, Kitchen was transferred to federal custody. He pleaded innocent, but on Jan. 6, 2014, he changed his plea to guilty in U.S. District Court in Spokane. The judge will review the plea and sentencing is scheduled for April 15. Dragoo said Kitchen has now admitted to starting five fires in 2004, three in 2007 and eight fires on the WSU campus. That does not include three suspicious fires in campus buildings in May 2012.

Hart was quick to point out that when he showed up the next day after the fire, there was no intention to take over the case. “We’re here to help with our level of expertise and additional resources, and that includes financial help,” Hart said. He said those additional resources could include heavy duty equipment to do a crime scene or to secure a scene with fencing. “We can pay for that,” he said.

Hart said he was able to justify federal prosecution, in consulting with the U.S. Attorney’s office, on the basis of several key elements. The company that owned The Grove was from outside of the state of Washington. He also noted that all of the lumber came from outside of the state. As further justification for federal jurisdiction, Hart said that all the tenants, and there were some from out of state, had to pay their deposits in advance.

When investigators conclude a fire was intentionally set, one of the most challenging and frustrating experiences for both police and fire is to identify, capture and convict an arsonist. In this Pullman case, it happened just eight days after the event, but it would not have occurred without the seemingly mundane work of one officer running a license plate of a car that looked out of place before the fire had even occurred.

Hart recalled a case in Spokane where they had similar luck. They had a serial arsonist running loose “so we met with patrol and told them to run cameras, identify anything…and that helped us with our case.”

That theme of communicating with others outside of one’s department or area of expertise was pervasive throughout The Grove fire experience. Both Jenkins and Hargraves mentioned their monthly meetings in Spokane. While it was at least a half-day’s time commitment to meet there with other department representatives, it was important to get to know others who may be able to help when you need it. Jenkins attends the Inland Northwest Law Enforcement Leadership group and he used those contacts on this fire.

During and after the fire, Heston cited a number of important conversations that helped him in his command of the situation. Several police officers kept him informed of what they saw initially as the point of origin and some suspicious leads they were pursuing. WSU police officers reported the issues with the Steptoe apartments.

 

Ensuring adequate water

A city maintenance and operations (M&O) employee, Randy Rubenthaler, was called to put out barricades, but also took the initiative to check the water supply. A water tank nearest the fire scene was being sandblasted and paper covered sensors that would have triggered an alarm over a dangerous drop in water levels. He overrode the system to make sure the department had an adequate supply. Scharnhorst estimated that 550,000 gallons of water were used. Following this experience, M&O will notify the fire department whenever a tank is out of service or if there is anything that may impact the city’s water supply. The other conversation that was underway almost immediately was how to mark non-functioning hydrants to withstand heat and fire.

The fire-police task force was another example of taking advantage of training opportunities and investing in department personnel. Fire and police investigators who worked this fire had worked together on another series of arson fires a year ago on the WSU campus that were not tied to this suspect. As Taylor pointed out, “When you train together, you get to know each other. You build rapport and when that happens, you establish trust.”

Pullman Officer Engle, a task force member, offered “we work differently and that’s why the trust component is so important. I know fire does its thing; they trust me to collect evidence and we don’t worry about who gets the credit.” That was echoed by WSU Police Officer Jones. “Neither one could have done it independently, we worked well together.” n

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