EVERETT — A homeless man started a deadly apartment fire in Everett as “a cry for attention and help,” according to court papers filed Tuesday.
Police said William J. Matthews, 40, confessed this week to setting the fire at the Colby Square apartments on the night of Dec. 21. He lives with post-traumatic stress and other mental problems, according to police.
Flames spread throughout a stairwell at the center of the L-shaped building around 10 p.m. at 2229 Colby Ave. The stairs were the lone escape route for people on the second floor. Tenants jumped from the balcony to escape, and threw precious belongings to waiting hands below. Some residents were elderly or disabled.
One woman, Elsie L. Flynn, 76, passed out, suffered smoke inhalation and died days later at an Everett hospital. She was identified Tuesday by the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office. The official cause and manner of her death were still pending.
A total of 20 others were displaced by the fire.
Over the weeks that followed, Everett investigators asked for tips to help solve the case. One tip led them to Matthews, a transient who was in Bellingham. Police there found him near a freeway offramp Monday, and he agreed to talk with an Everett detective at the local police station, according to court papers.
At first Matthews denied being at Colby Square on the night of the fire. Police countered that they knew he was there. He changed his story, and confessed to starting the fire, police wrote. He said it was a cry for help. He “provided intimate details that only the person who started the fire would have known,” court papers say. “This included exactly where the fire was started and with what.”
Police haven’t said how the fire was ignited.
Matthews stopped the recorded interview and mentioned that he should probably talk to an attorney. Detectives arrested him for investigation of first-degree arson and first-degree assault.
“It should be noted,” police wrote, “that there should be multiple counts of (first-degree assault) for all the victims he trapped with his fire and (who) faced death.”
Depending on the results of a death investigation, Matthews could be charged with manslaughter or murder, police noted. Everett police described the suspect as a “drifter with no ties to the community.” Court papers show he had a driver’s license in New Jersey, and he’d been staying in Everett until he went to Bellingham.
An Everett District Court judge Tuesday found cause to hold Matthews for investigation of arson and assault and set his bail at $500,000.
Federal investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives helped in the investigation, as police tried to recover security camera data that had been damaged by heat. Security footage recovered from the area helped to piece together what happened, Everett police officer Aaron Snell said.
The Everett Fire Department gave an initial damage estimate of $800,000. Jim Addington has owned and operated Colby Square since 1999. The loss will be closer to $1.5 million, he said Tuesday.
Addington and his wife plan to rebuild. To him, the building is just a building. They can build another. The average tenant had lived there for five years, he said. The fire destroyed a kind of neighborhood, separating friends who knew and leaned on each other for years.
“That’s the painful part,” he said. “This fire just scatters them all.”
He’s grateful that investigators worked for weeks to solve the case.
“There’s no ‘why’ that will ever make sense,” Addington said. “But I’m glad that someone responsible is being held accountable, for all the residents there.”
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.