The man suspected of setting at least 40 arsons in King and Snohomish counties was an emotionally troubled child and a hyperactive and impulsive adult, according to people who know him.
Paul Kenneth Keller is being held on $1 million bail in the Snohomish County Jail after being arrested Saturday on suspicion of setting three of the more than 100 arsons in King, Snohomish and Kittitas counties since Aug. 6 last year. He was expected to appear in court today.
Although now charged only with fires in Mountlake Terrace, Snohomish and Everett, the Lynnwood man is a suspect in at least 40 of the blazes and is the only prime suspect being investigated at the moment, authorities said.
The Keller family today released a statement, which read: "In this horrible time of sorrow and suffering, we wish to express our deepest compassion to every person, every family, every business, and every church harmed by our son and brother, Paul Kenneth Keller. Pain and loss has also come to our home. Our prayers are with you."
Keller's immediate family, for the most part, has been unavailable to the media, but in court papers filed by Snohomish County, Keller's father told authorities that Paul Keller has had a fascination with fire since he was a child.
And a friend said Keller, a 27-year-old advertising salesman who works in Everett, often visits fire stations for tours. In speaking with firefighters and taking photos of fire equipment, the
suspect has said that he was writing a book.
Keller's father, George Keller, told authorities his son had "numerous emotional problems" as a child and that at age 8 or 9 was caught setting fire to a vacant house next to his own.
Five or six years ago, Paul Keller worked as a bookkeeper for an Everett firm, but was fired after his desk caught fire under suspicious circumstances.
An aunt, Dee Egge of Everett, said her nephew was bright and happy as a young boy but sometimes got into trouble because of his hyperactive behavior.
Keller started setting small fires as a child, she said, recalling at least two incidents in the neighborhood for which he was caught and reprimanded.
To make sure he understood the seriousness of his actions, Egge said, the Kellers had firefighters and police officers lecture the boy about the hazards of playing with fire.
"We thought that would take care of the problem," she said. "We had no idea he was still setting fires."
The oldest of three children, Keller regularly attended church as a young boy. He graduated from Watson Groen Christian School in North Seattle.
He had attended First Baptist Church in Marysville, but for the past two years attended Grace Community Church in Arlington, where he occasionally sang in the choir.
"He seemed to always have been happy-go-lucky. He was always on the run. I would say he seemed to always be kind, conscientious about his work," said the Rev. Dave Hovik, pastor of the 200-member Arlington church.
DRUGS FOR HYPERACTIVITY
As a child, Keller took medication for his hyperactivity but stopped receiving treatment as he got older, said Egge. When the suggestion of professional counseling arose, Keller insisted he didn't need it.
She now believes her nephew probably needed drugs and professional counseling to help him with his impulsive behavior, which she said was evident throughout his adult life.
"There was a kind of restlessness about him," said Egge. "He was bored with normal, everyday life. He always felt he had to go one step beyond that."
To satisfy his urge for excitement, Keller frequently chased fire trucks and aid cars at night, said Egge, who believes this late-night hobby caused some of the strain in his marriage, which ended in divorce two years ago.
"He rode in fire trucks with friends who were firefighters and liked to project himself as being one of them," she said.
Using his own scanner, Keller liked to race to accident and fire scenes, often boasting of the times he arrived first on the scene, said Egge.
At the time, Egge said, the family thought Keller's interest in emergency aid vehicles, which started when he was a young man, was harmless and maybe even a positive outlet for his hyperactive tendencies.
"We thought he'd modified and re-channeled his behavior to something where he could help others," she said.
"As a boy, he loved trains. He loved to watch them go by. He could name the box cars and the numbers," she said. "Then with the aid cars, he loved the sirens and the lights."
Egge remembered one night she heard sirens go by her house, then received a phone call from Keller, who asked if she'd seen or heard him go by.
"I would say I heard the sirens, but I didn't know it was him," she said. "He just had a strange fascination for those sirens and lights. We'd kind of laugh, but we didn't think it was anything to worry about. We didn't want to put him down."
DIVORCE, BANKRUPTCY HIT
After Keller and his wife divorced, he became depressed and more agitated, Egge said.
Last July, he went though a personal bankruptcy that seemed to add to his emotionally charged state, Egge said.
Even when she sensed something was bothering her nephew, Egge said, he refused to talk about his troubles because he felt they suggested weakness and failure.
"Success was key to Paul in everything he did," she said. "He felt that if you were not successful, then you would not be accepted. I think he wanted us to feel that he was above asking for help."
More recently, Egge said, Keller enjoyed collecting fire memorabilia from local fire stations and talking about a book he was writing on the nationwide history of fires.
Six years ago, Keller introduced himself to firefighter John Hinchcliffe, then working in the Lake Stevens Fire Department, and asked if he could photograph equipment for the book he was writing.
Keller would visit the station up to four times a year and "was always wondering if we had bought any new equipment. His big interest was sirens," Hinchcliffe said.
When the firefighter moved to the Snohomish Fire Department three years ago, he discovered Keller was making periodic visits there, too.
It was Hinchcliffe who recognized Keller from a police sketch and called the hotline, providing a name and occupation from a business card he was given by Keller.
SUSPECT MAY HAVE HINTED
Egge said news of her nephew's arrest has shattered the family, which she described as very close. Egge visited with Keller almost every month.
During their last visit in January, Egge said, Keller may have hinted at the crimes he has been charged with.
"He told me, `I would hope that if I ever make a mistake or do anything wrong, the family would forgive me,' " said Egge. "I told him we would love him unconditionally . . . I'm sure he was feeling guilty."
Ralph Nutting, a volunteer firefighter in Snohomish and a friend of Keller's for several years, said he and Keller went several times a year to Central Washington.
Keller is a suspect in four fires in Central Washington last November, but he has not been charged in those cases.
The two men shared an interest in trains, and Nutting said Keller liked to watch fires and visit fire stations.
But Nutting said he was amazed to learn of the arrest of Keller, whom he considered a close friend. "I have been a volunteer firefighter for 27 years, and I absolutely did not have any inkling that he was into anything. He must have been a different person when he was away from me."
On most of their trips east of the mountains, Nutting said, he and Keller would drive separately on Saturday mornings and meet for breakfast at a restaurant in Ellensburg.
On the first few trips, the two drove together. "He likes to run around, and I don't always want to go where he goes, and (riding together) was a bone of contention between us," Nutting said.
Nutting said he didn't know what Keller did on those trips after the two split up - other than visit fire stations. He said a few times the two drove to Yakima "and went to the train station to watch trains."
KELLER `GO-GETTER TYPE'
Keller's parents' home in north Everett is in a middle-class neigborhood of well-kept, landscaped houses.
Neighbor Rick Hamilton said the Keller family has kept to itself but is a very good neighbor.
"I feel sorry for the family," he said.
Everett City Councilman Bob Overstreet said he has known the suspect's father, George Keller, owner of Keller Advertising in Everett, for about 10 years.
"He really is a wonderful person; it's a shock to hear this kind of thing," Overstreet said.
When Overstreet last spoke with Paul Keller, about four years ago, the conversation turned to firefighting, he recalled.
"He made some comments to me about the fire department," he said. "He was knowledgable about firefighting apparatus and he was interested in some equipment Everett was acquiring."
Paul Keller "was a very hyperactive, go-getter type when I knew him," he said.
"They are the heart of the American family," Overstreet said of the Kellers. "They need a lot of our prayers."