EVERETT — An Everett man who lit a fire when he was a 12-year-old boy, killing firefighter Gary Parks, did not show up to his sentencing hearing Friday.
Elmer Thomas Nash had pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, for a fire he started by dropping a lit matchstick on books and papers on the floor of the Everett Community College library.
Parks died in the inferno on the morning of Feb. 16, 1987. The arsonist’s identity remained a mystery for three decades. A dogged, decades-long investigation by Everett detectives led Nash to confess reluctantly on camera in a 2017 interrogation.
Nash, now 47, pleaded guilty at his arraignment in March, in a deal that called for 3½ years in prison. Attorneys argued the sentence should take into account the defendant’s age at the time of the crime.
The suggested prison term was within the standard range for juveniles convicted of murder in 1987.
Superior Court Judge David Kurtz allowed Nash to go free on a promise to attend his next court hearing in May, when he was expected to be taken into custody. No bail was required.
Kurtz approved a bench warrant for Nash’s arrest on Friday afternoon.
The defendant’s decision not to appear might hurt his chances for a lenient sentence. Deputy prosecutor Robert Grant said he now expects to seek more prison time.
Well over a dozen retired firefighters in formal dress attire down to their shiny black shoes fanned out over a makeshift courtroom designed to accommodate a large socially distanced gathering.
Bruce Hansen, a retired Everett assistant fire marshal who became a teacher and principal in his second career, flew in from Indiana to sit beside Kathy Parks, during what was supposed to be Friday’s sentencing. He was allowed to address the court Friday.
Hansen considered Gary Parks to be his mentor in the fire department as well as a trusted friend.
He described Parks as a family man and someone who provided moral support when Hansen needed it most, after getting treatment at a hospital specializing in alcohol and drug addictions.
“I have never forgotten his unwavering support and assistance in my uncomfortable return to the job … ,” he wrote. “Gary Parks always stood by my side and I have been clean and sober ever since for almost 42 years.”
Hansen dropped to his knees and shed tears when he reached the fire scene and learned that Parks didn’t make it out. He was a primary investigator and photographed the autopsy.
Hansen argued Nash, like him, had a chance to turn his life around but did not. He also insisted that despite his age, Nash knew the difference between right and wrong when he lit the match.
Parks, an engine driver and Air Force veteran, died at the age of 48.
That morning Parks was among the first firefighters to reach the campus he’d once attended as a student in the firefighting program. He entered the library with a crew of five others. Conditions deteriorated rapidly. Oxygen supplies grew low. Black toxic smoke thickened all around. They were cut off by a wall of flames that flashed up behind them, blocking their retreat. The fire had plenty of fuel and there were no sprinklers to rain down on the flames. More than 48,000 books, a collection begun in 1947, had been reduced to ashes.
Damage was estimated at upward of $8 million.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sent 20 arson experts to assist Everett police and firefighters. They soon determined the fire had started in the book drop, which could only be reached from inside the building.
Nash’s name, like many others, was listed in the case files early on. Someone anonymously pinned the blame on him with a message left in graffiti in north Everett. Others, including kids and adults, came forward with tips based on statements Nash and others made. Nash was questioned by police, but nothing came of it at the time.
By 2017, detective Mike Atwood had been handed the case. He’d grown increasingly interested in talking with Nash and happened upon him in the booking area of the Snohomish County Jail while looking for a suspect on a different case. Nash was no stranger to time behind bars. Court records show he’d been sentenced to nine months in jail in 1995; 17 months in prison in 1996; three months in 1997; 22 months in 1999; 12 months in 2003; 20 months in 2005; two years in 2007; 2½ years in 2010; two years in 2012; and another 2½ years in 2016.
In all, he racked up more than a dozen adult felony convictions, mainly for drug and property crimes, along with 58 adult misdemeanors. He was 10 when he was first convicted of a felony, a burglary.
Nash agreed to talk with Atwood about the EvCC fire, but was initially evasive. Over two days, a trip to McDonald’s and a few smokes, he began to open up. Nash eventually acknowledged to Atwood and another detective that he was one of three boys who broke into the library as part of a burglary, and that he was the one who lit the match in an ill-conceived attempt to hide their fingerprints.
He later tried to recant the confession.
Yet when he was finally charged, he showed up to court to plead guilty to murder on March 25.
In letters to the court, family, friends and firefighters urged the judge to sentence Nash to prison for much longer than the plea deal called for. They wanted decades to life. If he’d committed the same crime as an adult, the standard sentencing range was 34 to 45 years in prison.
Nash did not arrive on time at 1 p.m. Friday in Snohomish County Superior Court.
As the minutes ticked by, family members who had waited many years for justice were left to linger in the courtroom. Attorneys said they would wait until a new deadline of 2 p.m., and later 2:45 p.m., for the defendant to show up.
He did not.
Police were searching for him.
A new sentencing date has been tentatively set for next Thursday.
Attorneys from both sides said they hoped Kurtz, who has handled the case thus far, will be available for sentencing before he retires at the end of the month.
After court adjourned on Friday, Kathy Parks said another delay after so many years is difficult.
“It’s like a weight of sand that is just engulfing,” she said.
Although she is grateful to know who was behind the arson, she still struggles with other circumstances behind her husband’s death. Investigations at the time chronicled missteps that contributed to the tragedy, particularly the decision not to pull all the firefighters from the building when they began to run low on air.
“Now I know who lit the fire, but poor leadership and bad decisions killed my husband,” she said.
Her daughter, Jennifer, said she was not surprised that Nash didn’t show up. She, too, said the wait for justice is agonizing.
She also wondered if Nash had blown his opportunity for leniency by failing to appear in court.
“The plea bargain is toast,” she said.
Eric Stevick: firstname.lastname@example.org.