Flames shoot from the Dollar Tree store on Kent’s West Hill during a Nov. 13 fire. Courtesy Photo/Puget Sound Fire

King County prosecutors dismiss arson case against woman in Kent strip mall fire

King County prosecutors dismissed a first-degree arson case against a Des Moines woman accused of starting a large fire that burned down a Dollar Tree store and strip mall in November on Kent’s West Hill.

“We no longer believed we could prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt at trial given new information that came to our attention just prior to the trial date,” Dan Donohoe, spokesman for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, said in an email.

Linda Poplawski, 65, faced an Aug. 16 trial date. Prosecutors alleged in November that Poplawski started the three-alarm fire on the Sunday afternoon of Nov. 13 in the 23400 block of Pacific Highway South because she was upset the store didn’t have any shopping carts available. She reportedly started the fire in the greeting card section with a lighter, according to charging papers. Nobody was hurt in the fire.

Poplawski pleaded not guilty to the charge on Nov. 28. She spent about 25 days in jail after her arrest and was on electronic home detention until June 15. If convicted as charged, Poplawski would have faced a prison sentence of 21 months to 27 months.

“The case remains under investigation,” Donohoe said.

The new information Donohoe referred to includes reports about a possible second suspect who may have started the fire, according to court documents filed Aug. 11 by public defender Brian Beattie. Kent Police reports indicate leads about another suspect that fire investigator Eric Pedersen failed to follow up, Beattie said. Pedersen has worked with Puget Sound Fire (formerly the Kent Fire Department) for more than 30 years.

“We’re pleased that the right thing was done without having to put Linda and the community through a several-week trial,” Beattie said in an email Monday. “Linda never said anything about burning the store down. She did not cause the fire at the Dollar Tree store that day.”

In addition to not following up a lead, Pedersen reportedly failed to release the police reports about a second suspect to prosecutors or the defense. An investigator working for Beattie obtained the reports through a subpoena in July to Kent Police for incident reports of arson cases, which turned up the Dollar Tree fire. Beattie works for the Associated Counsel for the Accused to represent people who cannot afford an attorney,

An investigator for the defense interviewed Pedersen in June and the fire investigator said all reports had been released. But the supplemental reports about the second suspect were not part of reports received by the defense from the state.

“This highlights the importance of vigorous public defense so that innocent people are not wrongfully accused – or worse, wrongfully convicted,” Beattie said in an email.

Man runs from fire

According to a Nov. 13 police report, an anonymous caller to 911 reported seeing a man run across Pacific Highway South just after the fire broke out. The caller asked the man why he was running and the man said, “I was in the Dollar Tree arguing with my wife, and I thought they knew I was stealing so I lit a small fire in the back to cause a distraction and then the whole back went up.”

The caller declined to identify himself for fear of retaliation from the man, a reported gang member. Based on a description of the man as a Samoan, about 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighing about 240 pounds, bald head with a goatee and tattoos on both arms, the officer obtained a photo and name from police databases that appeared to match the description. The man was known to smoke meth and frequent the Pacific Highway corridor.

Based on a police officer’s report, Pedersen asked two Dollar Tree employees if they had seen anyone the day of the fire that matched the description of the man seen running across the highway, according to the police report. Both employees said they hadn’t seen anyone matching that description, so Pedersen didn’t pursue a second suspect any further.

“Mr. Pedersen never disclosed his report or any information about this alternative suspect,” Beattie wrote in court documents. “Indeed, defense’s investigation reveals that Mr. Pedersen did not even bother to follow up on the lead. Instead, it appears Mr. Pedersen attempted to withhold information from Ms. Poplawski’s defense team.”

The man police believed to be the one running across Pacific Highway South after the fire reportedly is a documented gang member with a record of at least 11 felony convictions, including a conviction for first-degree arson, according to court documents.

Beattie said in the court documents Pedersen didn’t call the number listed with the 911 call, didn’t attempt to contact the suspect listed by police and didn’t interview anyone else regarding information about a second suspect.

As of Wednesday morning, Puget Sound Fire officials hadn’t responded to questions about potential internal investigations into how Pedersen handled the arson case.

About 20 people were in the store when the fire broke out, according to Puget Sound Fire. Everyone got out safely. The three alarms totaled 75 firefighters and more than 20 support personnel. The fire burned for more than 24 hours in part because of so many paper products and the roof collapsing. The fire destroyed a tobacco shop, U.S. Post Office and damaged a beauty salon, specialty food store and fitness gym. The Dollar Tree store and strip mall remain damaged and fenced off.

Experts criticize investigation

In court documents, Beattie included a review of the evidence by Warren Burns, a fire investigations expert and former Snohomish County investigator, who wrote that Puget Sound Fire, “fails to make a compelling or convincing case for arson, or even an intentionally set fire.”

The expert continued that the fire’s point of origin was not determined by the investigator; there was no documentation of the source of the fire or material ignited; and there was no elimination of accidental causes, search for alternative causes or any actual fire scene analysis.

“While the fire could have been set exactly as described by investigator Pedersen, it likewise could have been caused by any number of other common accidental causes, by intentional acts of any of the 20-25 persons in the store at the time of the fire (including any or all of the three witnesses upon which the entire case depends),” the fire expert said. “None of this was investigated or eliminated.”

Gregory Gilbertson, a criminal justice professor at Centralia College and another defense expert, concluded that Petersen’s investigation “was remarkably incomplete and lacking evidence sufficient to establish probable cause, much less convict Linda Poplawski of first-degree arson. The charges against this defendant should be dismissed without prejudice by the King County prosecuting attorney without delay.”

Pedersen based his case mainly on the clerk who said she heard Poplawski say something about being upset about the store having no shopping carts available and then said something about burning the store down. Nobody saw Poplawski start the fire, according to court documents. One employee even indicated the fire started in the back of the store, not the greeting card section. Pedersen also interviewed the three store employees at the same time inside the cab of a fire truck rather than separately and didn’t collect any detailed written statements from the three.

Pedersen arrested Poplawski for investigation of arson about two hours after the fire broke out. She denied starting the fire. Her bail was set at $225,000.

“We were confident that Linda would be cleared of all charges,” Beattie said. “Of course, you can never be sure of such things. There are too many variables in the jury trial process to give guarantees and there was a large amount of negative attention wrongfully aimed at our client in the beginning. But given the lack of a thorough investigation and our defense expert opinions, we were confident she would be acquitted.”

A frequent customer

Poplawski, according to research by the defense, frequently shopped at the Dollar Tree because of her limited income and it was close to the apartment she had lived in for 14 years. She would buy cleaning products, food, toys and coloring supplies. The coloring books were for her grandchildren and friend’s children.

“The day of the fire, she was in the process of buying a coloring book for her grandchildren,” Beattie said in an email. “She regularly went to the Dollar Tree store and had no credible reason to cause harm there. She was one of the first people to call 911 to report the fire.”

Poplawski told store employees about the fire breaking out as she left the store. As far as her complaint about a lack of shopping carts, store employees said that was a regular complaint by many customers.

Poplawski pays for her apartment through Section 8 housing but was in jeopardy of losing that assistance because of the charge, Beattie said. She lost her Medicaid funding because of the allegation. Her first trail date was set for March 26 but continued several times.

Beattie shared in his email interview how Poplawski reacted to the case dismissal. Poplawski and her family could not be reached for comment.

“Linda is relieved,” he said. “It was a nightmare for her. Just the accusation had collateral consequences that still need to be fixed. As family and friends have informed us, she is a caring and selfless person. She has no criminal record at all, and no one that knew her believed for one second she would be capable of burning down a store.

“Now she can return to doting on her grandchildren and spending time with her friends and family in peace.”

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