A Des Moines woman has filed a federal lawsuit for damages against a Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority arson investigator for malicious prosecution and violation of her constitutional rights after she was arrested and charged for a fire she didn’t start in 2016 at a Kent strip mall.
Attorney Sean Gillespie filed the suit Nov. 27 on behalf of Linda Poplawski in U.S. District Court in Seattle. King County prosecutors dropped the first-degree arson case against Poplawski shortly before her trial in August 2017 when information about another suspect came to light.
The three-alarm fire destroyed a Dollar Tree store and strip mall on Nov. 13, 2016, in the 23400 block of Pacific Highway South on the West Hill. Nobody was injured in the fire, although about 20 people were inside the Dollar Tree when the fire broke out. Seventy-five firefighters responded.
“We only become aware of the lawsuit in the last couple of days and are still internally investigating it, therefore we cannot comment at this time,” said Puget Sound Fire spokesman Kyle Ohashi in an email Thursday. “I can confirm that Capt. (Eric) Pedersen is an employee of Puget Sound Fire, but that’s all.”
The suit claims that Pedersen, “willfully withheld exculpatory evidence, violating her (Poplawski’s) rights under the Sixth Amendment.”
That evidence was a 911 caller who saw a man run across the street shortly after the fire and that the man told the caller he was in the store arguing with his wife, thought he was going to be caught stealing and started the fire as a distraction.
“Pedersen had independent and compelling information pointing to a previously convicted arsonist entirely unconnected to Ms. Poplawski, but he withheld that information from the defense team for the entirety of the prosecution,” according to the complaint. “The defense team did not learn of this exculpatory evidence until nine months later, when it was on the brink of trial. Even then, the evidence was provided by Kent Police only in response to a defense subpoena.”
When the defense team provided that evidence to the prosecuting attorney, the case was dismissed. No other arrests have been made in the case.
“As a result of this violation of her constitutional rights, Ms. Poplawski served about eight months in confinement under the fear of criminal conviction for a Class A felony that she knew she did not commit,” according to the lawsuit.
Pedersen, who has worked more than 30 years for the fire department, arrested Poplawski for investigation of arson about two hours after the fire broke out. He based his arrest primarily on a store clerk who claimed 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. Poplawski pleaded not guilty to the charge.
Poplawski, 64 at the time of her arrest, spent about 25 days in jail after her arrest and was on electronic home detention until June 15, 2017, according to Brian Beattie, the public defender who helped get the charge dropped.
“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 for an August 2017 Kent Reporter story about the charge being dropped.
Poplawski has requested a trial by jury. The suit also requests relief in a judgment amount to be proven at trial; an award of taxable costs and attorneys fees; and such other relief as the court deems just and equitable.
In addition to suing Pedersen in his official (as a Puget Sound Fire employee) and individual capacities, the complaint named Rose Richardson, a Dollar Tree employee who claimed Poplawski started the fire, and Dollar Tree as defendants. Dollar Tree has not yet responded to a Kent Reporter request for comment about the complaint.
The city of Kent contracts with Puget Sound Fire through an interlocal agreement for arson investigations, said City Attorney Pat Fitzpatrick. He said the arson investigators are employees of Puget Sound Fire.