West Valley police seek woman after Kmart fire
Store is evacuated after heavy smoke spreads
By Pat Reavy
Deseret Morning News
WEST VALLEY CITY — West Valley City police Tuesday were looking for a woman who allegedly set fire to a Kmart, possibly in an attempt to cover up a theft.
It is reportedly the second such incident in the past couple of days.
About 1:19 p.m. Tuesday, a woman went into the Kmart at 1771 W. 4100 South. She filled up her shopping cart and then allegedly tried to walk out before she was stopped by store security, said West Valley City Police Capt. Tom McLachlan.
The woman claimed she needed to go to the parking lot to talk to her husband. When she returned to the store, she took her cart and went to the back of the building, McLachlan said.
A few minutes later, a fire was spotted in the back of the store. Investigators later went through store surveillance tape and spotted the same woman leaving the store shortly after the fire started with a backpack full of unknown items she did not have when she entered, McLachlan said.
"It's likely the fire was set to cover up a theft," he said.
The fire was started in a furniture area where there were books, candles and carpet, said Moose Barkdull, West Valley fire battalion chief. A liquid — possibly Coleman camp stove fuel — was poured onto the books and a stack of carpets, then ignited, he said.
McLachlan said investigators believe the fuel came from another part of the store where camping equipment was sold. Detectives were collecting fingerprints from that area Tuesday.
The fire caused a heavy amount of smoke in the store, which was full of customers at the time. Almost everyone had evacuated by the time firefighters arrived, Barkdull said. No one was injured.
An extinguisher was used to put the fire out before firefighters arrived. Damage caused by the fire was estimated at between $5,000 and $10,000. But smoke damage was reportedly extensive throughout the store and could raise the damage total into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Barkdull said.
"There's a residual smoke smell that's pretty prevalent," he said. "They'll probably have to take a loss on their clothes."
It took crews more than an hour, using fans and open doors, to clean out most of the smoke smell.
Most of the employees were sent home after the fire, and the store was closed. It is expected to reopen today.
Police had a vague description of the woman and were looking for a female with blonde hair, last seen wearing a red coat.
Investigators also learned from the manager of another Kmart store in Salt Lake County that a similar incident happened there a couple of days ago. West Valley police planned to review that store's surveillance tape late Tuesday afternoon.
Investigators also were looking for two men seen giving each other high-fives in the Kmart parking lot before leaving. The men were believed to have helped put out the fire, McLachlan said. Police would now like to get in contact with those men — both to congratulate them and to find out if they saw anything suspicious prior to the fire starting.