Keller Family Saga Destined For TV -- Parents Praise Portrayal Of Arson, Anguish As An Uplifting Message Of Hope And Faith

ARLINGTON - From the start, it had the makings of a TV movie of the week:

A middle-class Christian family discovers its son and brother, a star sales executive in the family advertising business, is responsible for a six-month string of fires that caused three deaths and $16 million in damage, and terrorized a region.

And on Jan. 31, the painful, stranger-than-fiction crisis faced by the Keller family of Everett will be the focus of "Not Our Son," a CBS movie filmed in Vancouver, B.C.

"It's about an average family that is faced with an extraordinary crisis, and they respond simply by doing the right thing," said George Keller, father of Paul Keller, who was convicted of three murders and dozens of arsons for fires set from August 1992 to January 1993.

George Keller, his wife, Margaret, and others associated with the movie are praising it as an accurate and uplifting tale of hope and faith.

"We're hoping we hear from other families that it encourages them to do what's right," Keller said earlier this week in the Arlington offices of Keller Advertising Co.

In the movie, Neal Patrick Harris, best known for his lead role in the TV show "Doogie Howser, M.D.," plays Paul Keller.

But the story focuses on George Keller, played by veteran TV actor Gerald McRaney, and on an eight-day period that began Jan. 28, 1993, when George Keller picked up his newspaper. He read a story with profile information and artist sketches prepared by investigators for an arson task force. Keller went to investigators with his suspicions.

For the next eight days, the Kellers lived with a secret: Paul probably was responsible for the worst case of serial arson in the country's history - more than 100 fires.

The family lived and worked with Paul, trying to act as though nothing were out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, investigators worked around the clock to secure a case.

"We were living a double life," George Keller said. The decision to turn Paul in has caused the family "an enormous amount of pain, more than we ever could have imagined," Keller said. "We've lived with broken hearts ever since."

The Kellers said the movie is part of their struggle to find something positive out of a situation lined with "wall-to-wall victims."

The victims included three elderly people who died in a fire at a North Seattle retirement home, scores of people who lost property and the Keller family, the Kellers said. They also maintain that Paul is a victim.

The family has claimed Paul Keller's actions were the result of a difficult birth, in which a traumatic loss of blood restricted the flow of oxygen to his brain. In addition, they say that as a teen, he was molested at gunpoint by a family friend.

Margaret Keller said that although friends never knew of her son's dark side, family members always had. But they've never understood it.

Despite the family's claims that Paul Keller's acts were caused by some medical or mental condition, no one fully understands why he set the fires. He pleaded guilty to starting 32 fires, and admitted to, but was not charged with, 44 others. He was suspected of starting even more.

Paul Keller, who turns 29 tomorrow, has always had a fascination with firefighting and fires. He is serving a 99-year sentence in the Clallam Bay Corrections Center.

George and Margaret Keller said they talk to their son several times a week, that his personality has calmed and that he's adjusting to life in prison but receives no counseling.

The Kellers say they initially were worried about whether the movie would be accurate but are pleased by the result.

The movie deal began with the work of Brian Halquist, a Tacoma-based independent television producer who spent more than 100 hours interviewing Paul Keller after befriending the Keller family. Halquist said he immediately thought the story had the potential for a TV movie and contacted his agent in Los Angeles. He served as a co-producer in the movie that resulted.

George Keller declined to say how much money he received for selling the story rights to Multimedia Motion Pictures of Los Angeles. But he defended his right to try to make up for business losses that resulted after Paul left his company.

He said the deal makes up only for a fourth of the losses, which totaled "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in the first year alone. He pointed out that he donated $25,000 in reward money to help rebuild Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynnwood, which was destroyed by a fire set by Paul. He also started the George Keller Foundation, a nonprofit organization geared toward helping youths identified as potential arsonists.