Born Of The Ashes -- One Year Ago, James Arthur Schmitt Set Out On An Spree Of At Least 14 Arsons In Mountlake Terrace And Lynnwood That Terrifed Residents And Caused Millions Of Dollars In Damage. But With The Fires Ended And The Debris Cleared, The Town Braces For The Biggest Challenge Of All - Starting Over Again.

Collette Higley wouldn't let her two young sons out of her sight.

When she ran errands, the Mountlake Terrace woman did them quickly, never wanting to leave her home for long. At night, she trained herself to listen to every sound, notice every unusual car.

That was before April, when Mountlake Terrace police arrested James Arthur Schmitt, 27, who would eventually admit to setting 13 of 16 fires that plagued the city and another in Lynnwood between July 1990 and February of this year.

At least six of the Mountlake Terrace fires were set in the late night or early morning in Higley's neighborhood along the 60th Avenue West corridor between 221st and 228th streets Southwest.

In May, Schmitt, who lived in the neighborhood himself, was charged in Snohomish County Superior Court with five counts of first-degree arson and one count of second-degree arson. Last month, he pleaded guilty to the charges. Under a plea agreement, prosecutors agreed not to file additional arson charges for other fires.

Prosecutors said Schmitt wasn't charged with the other arsons because the charges he already faced would give him the maximum possible sentence under the state's guidelines - nine to 12 years.

The fires caused several million dollars in damage, primarily to the city's East and West Plaza shopping centers last August. Another fire that month destroyed a Mountlake Terrace home and almost claimed the life of an elderly woman.

With Schmitt scheduled to be sentenced tomorrow, Higley and many of her neighbors say they are sleeping easier.

"I can feel free to move around without feeling worried about (my sons)," Higley said last week. "We don't have to keep - every few minutes - looking out the window at night."

Bruce O'Hara, who lives up the street from Higley and runs an electronics consulting business from his home, feels the same. "People feel more comfortable now," he said.

Still, O'Hara acknowledges some of the uneasiness remains. One recent day, he was too nervous to leave his windows - the frames still wet with fresh paint - cracked open when he left the house.

The residents of the 60th Avenue West corridor weren't the only ones who suffered from the string of arsons.

"The victimization will long live after Mr. Schmitt's sentencing," said Police Chief John Turner, pointing to the destruction of the Plaza shopping centers, which comprised a major commercial district in largely residential Mountlake Terrace.

"The big issue I sense from the community is that the businesses haven't been rebuilt," he said. "I think that has significantly demoralized a lot of people."

The arsons have "gutted downtown," agreed Mountlake Terrace resident Fred Drewien, a resident of 60th Avenue West and a victim of an arson in January. The Boeing Co. employee vividly remembers he was dripping wet from a shower early one morning when he heard the newspaper carrier pounding on his door and yelling about a flaming bag of charcoal under his carport.

"I used to shop there," said Drewien, referring to the burned shopping centers. "I used to hang out at Neal's Nightcap. It was a fun place. . . . It was a congregational place."

Ken Martin of Bremerton, co-owner of the East Plaza Shopping Center, which was destroyed by arson Aug. 6, 1990, said the property is on the market.

"We are in the business of renting spaces," he said. "We're not in the business of reconstructing stores."

Martin said seven businesses, including a tavern and a dry cleaner, were displaced by the fire. Some have relocated in the city; some have remained out of business.

The fire less than a week later at the West Plaza Shopping Center caused $1.7 million damage and destroyed the largest of several buildings at the center. In February 1985, a fire of undetermined origin caused about $250,000 damage to the center.

The latest arson displaced several businesses. One business, Plaza Photo and Pharmacy, reopened across the street two weeks after the fire, but went from a 5,400-square-foot store to a 700-square-foot space.

Sally Kyte, owner of the drugstore, said the move to smaller quarters has forced the business to cut way down on merchandise, though she has continued to serve the majority of her old prescription customers.

Kyte said her "fondest wish" is to move back to a larger location in the shopping center. She is frustrated that reconstruction hasn't started.

"It's been a year," she said. "Not the six months we were led to believe. They still haven't hammered a nail yet. I'm going to lose another holiday season."

When the first fire hit the shopping center, the drugstore had a previous owner. Kyte, an employee in the store, assumed ownership of the business after the fire and worked hard to build the store back up.

Now, after a second fire, Kyte acknowledges she feels vulnerable.

"Somebody could pull the rug out at any moment," she said. "It clearly shakes you to the foundation when you have to live through something like that."

The owners of two other businesses that burned, Neal Ische of Neal's Nightcap and Bonnie Palaniuk co-owner of D&D Meats, share Kyte's frustration that they have been unable to reopen. Ische said he temporarily hired many of his former employees at his Seattle restaurant, but Palaniuk and her husband, Les, have been out of business for a year.

"You make all these plans and something like this happens. . . . We've got to start living and stop worrying about the bills," said Palaniuk. "You never know what's going to happen."

Owners of all three businesses plan to move back to the West Plaza after it's rebuilt, and both Ische and the Palaniuks will double the size of their old businesses.

"At this point, we're just waiting for a building permit to be issued by the city," said Diana Clay, owner of the shopping-center property, adding she submitted a preliminary application to the city at the end of last year.

Mountlake Terrace Planning Director Mary Davis said the application has had to be revised several times but said she expects the city to approve it very soon. "It's getting close to being issued," said Davis.

Clay said construction could begin almost immediately and is expected to last about three months.

"The drugstore and the meat store should be able to occupy by the end of November or early December," she said.

Neal's Nightcap, which will include a banquet room, large dance floor and expanded bar and restaurant, would take about 30 to 60 days longer, she estimated.

Mountlake Terrace Finance Director Ron Swanson said the city will have lost an estimated $85,000 in sales tax, property tax and other revenue by the time the shopping centers are rebuilt - and more if rebuilding takes longer than two years.

Solving the arsons cost the city an additional $90,000 in overtime by police and fire officials, Turner said.

With all four police detectives assigned to the investigation, less serious crimes did not get as much attention, he said. While police cleared 322 cases in 1989, the department cleared only 261 in 1990, Turner added.

"Burglaries went unsolved, vandalisms went unsolved," he said. "The serious ones we worked."

But the effort, he said, paid off with the arrest of Schmitt.

Many residents, including Brad and Susan Griffith, are glad it did.

According to police, the same newspaper carrier who banged on Drewien's door, noticed flames at the Griffiths' house minutes later and managed to rouse Susan Griffith from sleep.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze, which started on the back porch, before the house became engulfed, but the fire caused an estimated $5,000 damage.

Initially, fire officials believed it was an accidental electrical fire. Police said Schmitt later admitted to setting the fire.

Despite the success of the investigation, the Griffiths were traumatized enough to decline a newspaper interview about the experience.

"We'd just like to have it be over with and be back to where we were before the fire," said Brad Griffith.

"We did buy a dog though," Griffith added. "He's big." --------------------------------------------------------------- A wave of arson --------------------------------------------------------------- James Arthur Schmitt has admitted to 14 arsons, according to Mountlake Terrace Police: MOUNTLAKE TERRACE: .

July 30, 1990 - fence and tree at a school, 5400 block of 228th Street Southwest.

Aug. 3 - dumpster, 5300 block of 228th Street Southwest.

Aug. 6 - East Plaza Shopping Center, 23100 block of 56th Avenue West; $1 million damage.

Aug. 8 - residential carport, 23100 block of 55th Avenue West.

Aug. 8 - carport at a vacant home, 23100 block of 55th Avenue West.

Aug. 10 - car in 22700 block of 60th Avenue West.

Aug. 11 - West Plaza Shopping Center, 5600 block of 232nd

Street Southwest; $1.7 million damage.

Aug. 21 - a box of rubbish behind Azteca Restaurant, 22000 block of 66th Avenue West.

Aug. 25 - house in which a woman almost died, 5900 block of 221st Street Southwest.

Jan. 13, 1991 - car cover in a carport, 22700 block of 60th Avenue West.

Jan. 25 - porch on a residence, 22600 block of 60th Avenue West; $5,000 damage.

Jan. 25 - bag of charcoal beneath a carport, 22700 block of 60th Avenue West.

Feb. 23 - newspapers stored in a carport, 5900 block of 226th Street Southwest.


Aug. 25 - apartment in which two occupants were sleeping, 6000 block, 208th Street Southwest.

Source: Mountlake Terrace Police Department