Lynnwood Arsonist Formidable Foe -- Fire Crimes Hard To Solve, Police Say

LYNNWOOD - An arsonist believed responsible for the most extensive string of arsons to hit the city remains a step ahead of police.

Since early Thursday, 11 fires have been set in Lynnwood and the surrounding area just outside Edmonds. They have destroyed or damaged five newly constructed homes and four churches and caused an estimated $1.8 million damage.

Despite the vigilance of police and community members, some of whom are organizing late-night watches, the arsonist remains elusive.

"It's a difficult investigation," acknowledged Lynnwood police Cmdr. John Szalda. "We (can't) predict with any kind of accuracy when and where this individual will act again."

Szalda said police have no suspects or persons of interest in the case. And while they believe the 11 fires are connected, they can't be sure at this point if they're being set by one or more persons.

Homes under construction and churches have been hit especially hard, but other buildings, including a newspaper office, have also been targets, he said.

Police said most of the fires were set in the hours before about 4 a.m. In all 11 cases, materials available at the scene were used to set the fires and no evidence of accelerants was found.

Detective Neal Knight said arson is among the most difficult crimes to solve because crucial evidence literally goes up in smoke. "Arsonists don't give you reasons until you catch them," he said.

Another difficulty, investigators said, is fires often aren't discovered right away because they've burned out. This has been the case in the Lynnwood arsons.

A fire at The Enterprise newspaper on 196th Street Southwest, for example, was reported yesterday after workers found burned materials behind the building. The fire could have been set any time after Friday, police said.

And while information-gathering is difficult, the arsonist "could strike in the next day or the next hour or the next minute," Szalda said.

In their effort to solve the crimes, Lynnwood police and fire officials have met with state and county fire marshals and with police and fire officials from Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace.

An arson expert with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms is also working on the case.

Police have stepped up nighttime patrols and distributed warning fliers to construction companies and to residents - especially those living near unfinished homes.

Some construction workers have spent the past several nights guarding their projects.

In the Greenwood area of Seattle, nighttime patrols have been set up in an attempt to catch whoever has set 36 fires in the area this year.

The patrols will continue indefinitely, said Georgia Taylor, Seattle Fire Department information officer.

Officials do not see any link between the Greenwood and Lynnwood fires, Taylor said.

With four church fires, including a huge blaze at Trinity Lutheran Church early Sunday morning, Lynnwood police have warned local churches.

Roger Cone, pastor for Edmonds Christian Church, where a small burned-out fire was discovered Sunday morning, said the spate of arsons has made church members anxious.

"I think there's the realization that we're very vulnerable, and that it can happen here," Cone said. "It's the realization that we've got to do something to protect ourselves."

At Christ Lutheran Church near Edmonds, where fire burned part of a storage shed, pastor Robert Quello said last weekend's destruction of Trinity Lutheran Church overshadowed his own loss, he said.

"There's a sense that you feel violated," said Quello, as he sifted through debris. "And is it a tragedy? Yes. But we just lost one wall of our shed. Their whole church burned up."

-- Vanessa Ho of the Snohomish County bureau contributed to this report.

Lynnwood area arsons

(Listed in order of occurrence or discovery):

1) A storage shed at Christ Lutheran Church, 23500 block of 84th Avenue West, in unincorporated Snohomish County just outside Edmonds. The shed's side was set on fire, and the blaze was reported shortly after midnight Thursday.

2-3) Two fires at a subdivision under construction, 3900 block of 178th Street Southwest, gutted two newly completed homes and destroyed a third home under construction shortly after 2 a.m. Thursday.

4) A tree fire near a residence on the 17300 block of 36th Avenue West was discovered about 3 a.m. Thursday; minimal damage.

5-6) A fire at a home under construction, 3600 block of 166th Place Southwest, had burned out by the time it was discovered Friday morning. Another burned-out fire was discovered in the same home Monday morning. Damage was minimal.

7) Lynnwood Alliance Church, 5800 block of 176th Street Southwest, reported shortly before 3 a.m. Sunday.

8) A home under construction, 16500 block of Spruce Way, was destroyed about 3:30 a.m. Sunday.

9) Trinity Lutheran Church, 6200 block of 196th Street Southwest, sustained extensive damage.

10) Edmonds Christian Church, 23000 block of 84th Avenue West, in unincorporated Snohomish County just outside Edmonds; burned-out fire was discovered near a rear door Sunday morning. Damage was minimal.

11) The Enterprise newspaper, 7300 block of 196th Street Southwest; burned-out fire discovered behind the building yesterday. Damage was minimal.