Keller Admits Setting Costly Tacoma Fire

TACOMA - Serial arsonist Paul Kenneth Keller has admitted setting a fire that did millions of dollars in damage to a Tacoma warehouse but he won't be charged in the case, an investigator said.

Keller told police he set fire to a warehouse at the northern end of the Freighthouse Square shopping mall last year after he couldn't find a toy-train shop there, Tacoma fire investigator Lee Britt said.

Then Keller drove to a nearby lumberyard and set some wood on fire, Britt said. The lumber fire caused minor damage.

The daytime fire Sept. 17, 1992, at Freighthouse Square was the city's costliest arson, Britt said. Damages were estimated at $8.3 million.

"He stated, `Yes, I did start the fire,' " Britt said yesterday. "But there are not going to be any charges against him. That was part of the agreement to get him to talk."

Keller is serving a 75-year sentence at Clallam Bay prison after pleading guilty in May to setting 32 fires in the Puget Sound area since August 1992. He admitted in court to setting more than 72 fires, most in King and Snohomish counties. The Tacoma blaze was not among them.

No one died in the fires. Most of the blazes were set in trash bins, construction sites, carports, churches and outside homes.

Lew Raden, who headed the task force that looked into the serial arsons, said the Freighthouse fire is one of the costliest - if not the costliest - blaze authorities believe Keller set.

"It's another fire we can mark off the list," said Raden, a supervisor with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Seattle.

The Freighthouse fire ranks as the costliest arson and the second most expensive fire ever in Tacoma, fire officials say. The city's most expensive fire was the $62 million blaze Oct. 3, 1992, at Mountain Cold Storage Co., believed to have been accidental.

Freighthouse Square office manager Mona Elliott said the retail square was insured for $1 million for the building and $300,000 for its contents.

Owner Keith Stone is rebuilding the warehouse at the same location, and it's expected to be completed by mid-January, she said.

Tacoma fire investigators identified Keller as their primary suspect in the arson before he confessed. Gas receipts and cellular phone records of calls he made placed him at or near the indoor market about the time the warehouse went up in flames, Britt said.

The 27-year-old Keller worked for his father's advertising firm in Everett.

Keller was interviewed about the Freighthouse fire at the prison Nov. 3 by two Tacoma police arson investigators, Britt said.

Keller has been described by investigators as the nation's most prolific serial arsonist.