Arrest in arson string

Earl Jimmy Smith Jr. lives in an apartment at the center of a ring of fires that have been set by an elusive arsonist in Marysville over the last three years.

Police believe an arsonist struck at least 19 times in and around the 6700 block of Armar Road where Smith lives. Fires have scorched homes and carports, trucks and cars, and lots of garbage in dumpsters.

Marysville police set up hidden video surveillance cameras in the area early this year.

Those cameras recorded images of Smith coming and going from his apartment when three of the arsons were set, the most recent on Sunday morning in a vacant apartment in the man’s complex, a Snohomish County district court judge was told Friday in Everett.

Smith, 39, has denied setting any fires, and in court Friday shook his head in apparent anger as a deputy prosecutor Jim Townsend outlined the allegations against him.

Townsend alleged that Smith’s behavior was suspicious at the time of the fires, and he also suggested that a pattern of arsons has followed the man as he’s moved from Anacortes to Everett and Marysville.

Smith’s court-appointed attorney, Michael Magee, questioned whether investigators had legal grounds to arrest the man on suspicion of two counts of first-degree arson and one count of attempted second-degree arson. No charges have been filed.

The taped images at the heart of the case are all of Smith in his own neighborhood, and none show him lighting a fire, Magee said.

Judge Roger Fisher agreed the evidence against Smith is circumstantial, but also held it sufficient to support maintaining the $500,000 bail that was set at the time of his arrest.

Court papers show police believe the videotapes connect Smith to an April 8 fire outside a house, a Sept. 24 fire in the bed of a pickup truck, and an early morning fire Sunday in an empty apartment just a few doors away from Smith’s home.

The investigation is continuing, Marysville Police Cmdr. Robb Lamoureux said.

"We’ve arrested him on the three fires and there are still 16 other fires that we are investigating," he said. "I suppose it is reasonable to assume that this person is involved, but we haven’t been able to make that connection."

In court Friday, Townsend said the videotapes show Smith leaving his apartment carrying what appears to be a bag of trash just before each fire was reported. Instead of walking toward his apartment complex’s garbage bins, Smith was recorded headed to and from areas where fires erupted minutes later, the prosecutor said.

Smith was dressed in dark-colored clothing and appeared to be running back to the apartment, Townsend said. In more than one instance, the cameras recorded Smith returning to his apartment and his wife stepping outside to look in the direction of where the fires were set, the prosecutor said.

The investigation was conducted by Marysville police and fire officials, with assistance from arson experts from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. ATF agent Dane Whetsel, who was one of the lead investigators in the Paul Keller serial arson case from the early 1990s, participated in the case, Townsend said.

Smith knew that cameras were monitoring the area because detectives questioned him after the April fire, and confronted him with the tape, documents show.

Townsend told the judge Friday that investigators believe a pattern of arson has surrounded Smith for years.

The prosecutor showed the judge an aerial photograph of deliberately set fires around the man’s Marysville home. The fires formed a circle, with Smith’s home at the center.

Marysville police compared notes with fire investigators in places Smith used to live, Townsend told the judge. He called Anacortes home in 1993 and 1994 and investigators found 17 arsons in his neighborhood. In Everett, where Smith lived in 1996 and 1997, there was another cluster of eight arsons.

Smith is under investigation only for Marysville fires near his apartment, Lamoureux said.

One unanswered question is why the arsons were so concentrated in one area.

"I think we are still trying to sort that out," Lamoureux said. "I don’t think we have a good explanation."

He said investigators are relieved to have the person they believe is responsible for the fires behind bars. The arsons caused thousands of dollars in damage, but fortunately did not result in death or injury, Lamoureux said.

"We hadn’t heard anything from the fire department or police or anything, but I’m glad there’s been an arrest," said Cindy Poortvliet, whose family, including five children, lives near a home on 50th Drive NE that was destroyed in one of the blazes.

"It’s a relief," Poortvliet said of the arrest. "I really suspected it would be someone from those apartments (on Armar Road) because everything was centered around it."

Her husband, Roger Poortvliet, said he’s tried not to focus on the arsons.

"You can’t spend your life worrying; you have to let it go," he said.

Herald writer Cathy Logg contributed to this story.

Reporter Scott North: 425-339-3431 or north@heraldnet.com.

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