Suspect Arrested In Arson Spree -- Lynnwood-Area Man Linked To 40 Fires

Millions of dollars in property damage, untold fear for thousands of residents in Snohomish and King counties, months and months of investigation, and in the end, it came down largely to a phone call.

Hiking shoes also played a part.

Six months to the day after the most devastating arson wave in Puget Sound-area history began, a call to an arson hotline, combined with other information, led investigators yesterday to the apartment

of a 27-year-old Lynnwood-area man. That man, authorities say, is responsible for at least 40 of the more than 100 unsolved arsons that have plagued primarily two counties since last summer.

Paul Kenneth Keller is sitting in the Snohomish County jail after being charged with setting three of the fires. More charges are expected, authorities say.

Keller's name first came to the attention of authorities in a phone call to the arson hotline set up as part of the investigation that began in August of last year.

Keller, who works as a salesman at his father's advertising agency in Everett, was arrested at his apartment on 36th Avenue West about 6:30 a.m., said Chris Nelson, special agent in charge of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau in Seattle.

Nelson said late yesterday that Keller had been "very cooperative from the beginning."

He said Keller is a suspect in more than 40 fires in north King and south Snohomish counties.

Nelson estimated the amount of total damage from those fires at $2 million to $3 million. He declined to discuss specifics of what brought the arrest, but said a half year of investigation went into the case.

Documents describing the investigation, however, indicate that a series of clues and information from family members were among the elements.

Nelson said the call to the hotline and drawings of a possible suspect released Jan. 27 played significant roles in breaking the case. Keller also was identified by various witnesses to fires from photo montages. A witness to a Nov. 2 fire in the town of Snohomish was able to pick Keller out of a photo montage last Thursday.

Authorities said Keller's family has been extremely cooperative, but is traumatized by the arrest.

"We're supporting him," was all his aunt, Patricia Stickles, would say last night. She was interviewed by the task force after seeing her nephew leaving one of the fires.

Court papers filed by prosecutors lay out a complicated trail of information that led to the arrest. Among the clues was an unusual type of boots.

On Jan. 1, footprints were found in the snow at a fire scene in the 2400 block of Pacific Street in Everett. The shoes, a specific brand of hiking boots, were sold in only two local locations, one of them at Alderwood Mall.

On Feb. 3, as part of a surveillance operation, an investigator happened to be standing near Keller and noticed he was wearing that type of shoe, the affidavit said.

Other information included statements made by Paul Keller's father, George Keller, who said his son had gone through a personal bankruptcy last July, which his father described as "personally devastating for Paul."

George Keller also said his son had numerous emotional problems as a child and Paul had told his father he was at some house fires in Lynnwood, according to the court papers.

The Keller family became concerned when they learned several fires had been set in Kittitas County along the Interstate 90 corridor in November.

"Mr. Keller stated that other family members became concerned upon learning that a series of arsons had occurred in the Cle Elum area on Nov. 17, 1992," court papers said. "Paul Keller was present in Cle Elum on Nov. 17, 1992, according to gas receipts from an Exxon in Cle Elum, reflecting a charge made by Paul Keller."

Keller had a cellular phone and a police scanner, and his family said he is familiar with police- and fire-radio frequencies, according to court papers. Investigators had said whoever was setting the fires knew about the habits of firefighters.

Another key part of the investigation occurred Jan. 1, when Keller almost collided with Stickles at the scene of a warehouse fire at 2403 Pacific Ave., according to authorities.

Lew Raden, who headed the arson task force, said Stickles was driving to the fire "because she lived in the area and was curious."

Stickles' son, Kyle, said last night he and his mother went to the scene because Kyle Stickles worked nearby. Stickles said his household also kept a police scanner on most of the time and it alerted him to the fire.

As they were leaving, the Stickles almost were hit by a white car, he said. "My mom said, `That guy almost cut me off.' Then she looked again and said, `I think that's Paul!' "

Keller apparently told his father several different stories about the incident. He first said he had been at the fire, then said he hadn't been there, then said he had "responded" to it after being advised of it by a friend, a volunteer firefighter in Snohomish, court papers said.

This made the family suspicious, Raden said.

Two days ago, Keller said he was considering going to California to see a girlfriend, according to court papers. "The family is highly concerned that Paul Keller is at risk to either flee or to do himself bodily harm," the papers added.

Keller is charged officially with first-degree arson for a fire at a home in the 24300 block of 58th Place West in Mountlake Terrace on Nov. 2. If convicted on that charge, he faces life imprisonment.

He also is charged with two counts of second-degree arson for setting a fire at a distributing company on Nov. 2 in the 300 block of Pine Street in Snohomish; and with setting a fire on Jan. 1 at a warehouse in the 2400 block of Pacific Avenue in Everett. It was at that fire that the footprints in the snow were noticed.

Keller is being held in lieu of $1 million bail.

Two of Keller's neighbors, John and Deborah Emdee, said yesterday that police spent several hours at their apartment Friday, waiting for Keller to return, then returned about 6:15 yesterday morning. John Emdee said he thought Keller was a detective because he sometimes wore a badge on his belt and often used a cellular telephone. "He was always running in and out. Running in and out," he said.

Alderwood Heights apartment-leasing manager, Connie Missall, manager, said of Keller, "He was just a good resident and a very nice guy. We had no problems with him."

State license records show that Keller was born Jan. 6, 1966, is 6 feet tall, has hazel eyes, and weighs 155 pounds. Authorities said he strongly resembles one of sketches they released of possible suspects. Keller's driver's license has been suspended and records show he has five outstanding warrants for flight to avoid prosecution, although the nature of the charges was not immediately available.

The Sno-King Response Team, the group of federal and local authorities investigating the arsons, have linked as many as 120 fires as having a distinct signature and possibly the work of one person or group.

No one has been seriously injured or killed in the arsons, something investigators have found miraculous.

The fires began Aug. 6 in Lynnwood with blazes at churches and unfinished homes. In September, arson targets shifted to carports and garages of often-occupied homes in the Shoreline area. Fires began occurring in rapid succession, almost as if the person responsible was trying to taunt firefighters.

The fires dropped off dramatically as the weather got colder and wetter in November and December and timing became less predictable.

In January, the arsonist appeared to pick targets almost exclusively in Everett.

The arsonist appeared to travel main arterials such as Interstate 5, Highway 99, local roads in Seattle and Lynnwood and Interstate 90, in the case of the four Kittitas County fires.

The arsons have been characterized by the use of available combustible materials ignited with a hand-held flame, possibly a hand torch in several cases. Wood, trash, cardboard boxes and corrugated fiberglass on carports were burned frequently, but no material seemed out of bounds. At times, rubber-hose covers, lawn chairs and straw mats were used.

On Jan. 27, investigators released sketches of three possible suspects and announced they had six individuals of interest. For the first time, they provided a profile of the arsonist. He was described as a white man in his 30s, who dresses neatly and drives a dark blue, four-door sedan. Investigators said the car might appear silver, gray or black in darkness. He was described as fair-skinned but tanned, with dark, well-combed hair, possibly sporting a neatly trimmed moustache on a thin face.

-- Times staff reporters Dee Norton and Tomas Guillen contributed to this report.