Daughters Erin Van Ry (left) and Jennifer Parks listen as their mother, Kathy Parks, addresses the court with Nanci Bidondo (far right) Thursday, when Elmer Nash was sentenced for the 1987 arson that killed firefighter Gary Parks. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Daughters Erin Van Ry (left) and Jennifer Parks listen as their mother, Kathy Parks, addresses the court with Nanci Bidondo (far right) Thursday, when Elmer Nash was sentenced for the 1987 arson that killed firefighter Gary Parks. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Arsonist who killed a firefighter in 1987 gets 10 years

Gary Parks died in the inferno at Everett Community College. Elmer Nash, now 47, was 12 when he lit the match.

EVERETT — Not long ago, the family of Gary Parks gathered to watch video that had recently been transferred from VHS to DVD.

They saw the vibrant image of the middle-aged, off-duty Everett firefighter. He was on his sailboat in the San Juan Islands, shucking oysters and smiling. Even the way he blew his nose had a certain humorous charm.

It was, according to court papers, the first time his widow, Kathy, and two daughters had heard his voice in the 34 years that have passed since Parks died in an intentionally set inferno that destroyed the Everett Community College library, cafeteria, restaurant and student union.

And it was the first time beyond photographs that his son-in-law and three grandchildren had glimpsed the man they heard so much about and learned to revere through family stories.

It was a bittersweet reminder of who he was and how much he is missed.

The family gathered again on Thursday afternoon in the Snohomish County Courthouse. This time, it was not to celebrate their loved one, but to describe to a judge the painful void his death left and to advocate for a long prison sentence for the arsonist. They were accompanied by friends and retired firefighters.

City of Everett firefighter Gary Parks died in an arson at Everett Community College on Feb. 16, 1987.

City of Everett firefighter Gary Parks died in an arson at Everett Community College on Feb. 16, 1987.

The man who set the fire was a 12-year-old boy on Feb. 16, 1987, when he dropped a lit match on books and papers dumped on the floor of the library.

On March 25, Elmer Thomas Nash pleaded guilty to first-degree murder during his arraignment. Then he failed to appear at a scheduled sentencing last week, leaving a courtroom full of people who had wondered for a third of a century when justice would finally be served. Police tracked down Nash and arrested him in King County the next day.

Nash is now 47, just a year younger than Parks was when he died.

It was a decades-long investigation by Everett police detectives that led Nash to reluctantly confess on camera during a 2017 interrogation.

Judge David Kurtz sentenced Nash to 10 years in prison Thursday, as well as community custody for the rest of his life once he is released. In doing so, the judge went above the 3½ to 4½ years the defense and prosecution were seeking, in sentencing recommendations within the standard range for juveniles for first-degree murder in 1987. Kurtz said he had an obligation to consider Nash’s age at the time of the crime, but also his lengthy criminal record and the safety of the community.

“Today the court is sentencing a grown man who sadly appears to have not fully grown up,” Kurtz said.

Family, friends and firefighters had urged the judge to sentence Nash to prison for much longer than the original plea deal called for: 3½ years. They wanted decades to life. The standard sentencing range, had he committed the same crime as an adult, was 34 to 45 years in prison.

Elmer Nash is sentenced to 10 years Thursday in Snohomish County Superior Court for the 1987 arson at Everett Community College that killed firefighter Gary Parks. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Elmer Nash is sentenced to 10 years Thursday in Snohomish County Superior Court for the 1987 arson at Everett Community College that killed firefighter Gary Parks. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

In one of many letters urging Kurtz to consider a stiff sentence, Matthew Van Ry quoted Scripture, John 15:13, to describe his grandfather’s sacrifice: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

“Heroes provide protection, so where is the justice for my grandpa,” he wrote. “… I don’t believe the three years Elmer faces is enough for the pain he has brought onto us. I recommend a more substantial sentencing of 34 years to life, to equate to the 34 years he has sat in silence.”

Kurtz made note of the grandson’s letter during sentencing.

“Gary Parks will always be a hero,” he said.

The fire

As Gary Parks entered the flaming building with five other firefighters, Nash was hanging out with friends in front of some homes about a mile away. It was well past 3 a.m.

As the crew worked its way inside, conditions deteriorated rapidly.

Thousands of books and periodicals provided ample fuel for the fire to rage, and there were no sprinklers to tamp it down.

The crew was cut off by a wall of flames that flashed up behind them, blocking their retreat. Their oxygen supply was low, the smoke thick, black and toxic. The feel of their hose was their guide out.

As they emerged, some of the firefighters struggled to breathe and were taken to the hospital.

When word spread that Parks had not made it out, dozens of firefighters volunteered to go in to find him. The reality was they couldn’t. It was an impossible mission. The fire was too fierce.

Only after a fire truck sprayed thousands of gallons of water for nearly an hour was it safe for a small search party to enter. Parks was unresponsive, though every life-saving effort was made to bring him back.

Parks, who served in the Air Force, died of smoke inhalation on the campus where he once studied fire science under a Veterans Affairs program.

Kathy Parks, (left) widow of Gary Parks hugs Terri Johnson, mother of Elmer Nash, after Nash was sentenced to 10 years in prison Thursday afternoon in Snohomish County Superior Court on May 13, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Kathy Parks, (left) widow of Gary Parks hugs Terri Johnson, mother of Elmer Nash, after Nash was sentenced to 10 years in prison Thursday afternoon in Snohomish County Superior Court on May 13, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

His death led to finger-pointing at higher-ups and prompted policy changes within the fire department. Today, a scholarship for firefighting students and EvCC’s student union building are named after him.

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.

More than 50 names were offered as potential suspects. Nash was on that list, in part because someone blamed him for it in a message left in graffiti in north Everett. Several people, according to court papers filed earlier this year, told authorities that Nash admitted setting the blaze, including a friend who was 10 years old at the time.

By 2017, detective Mike Atwood had been handed the case. He knew he wanted to talk to Nash. That opportunity arose one night when he happened upon him in the booking area of the Snohomish County Jail while looking for a suspect on a different case. Nash spent much of his adult life behind bars. He racked up a dozen adult felony convictions, mainly for drug and property crimes. He was 10 when he was first convicted of a felony, a burglary.

Nash was initially evasive, but slowly, over a couple of days, he began to reveal the truth behind what happened Feb. 16, 1987. Finally, Nash acknowledged 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.

Nash asked Atwood to tell the firefighter’s daughters that it was all an accident.

“I never meant for no one to get hurt. And I was … I was 12 years old, and I was being a dummy, being stupid, wasn’t thinking,” he told the detective.

He later tried to recant the confession.

‘The life Elmer stole’

In her letter to the judge, Gary Parks’ eldest daughter, Erin Van Ry, described the happiness in the videos the family watched in April.

“That is the life Elmer stole from us,” she wrote.

In court on Thursday, she described the volume of Nash’s rap sheet, over 80 felonies and misdemeanors as a juvenile and adult.

“I would hate to be the person who lived this life of crime,” Van Ry said.

She also expressed gratitude to police and prosecutors who pursued the charges and to those who spoke up over the years with information that aided the investigation.

Deanne McQuarrie grew up in the same Lake Stevens neighborhood as the Parks family and was Van Ry’s best friend. She remembered how Parks taught neighborhood kids to play sports, water ski and snorkel, how he’d haul them to horse shows and take them to swap meets and drive-in movies and how Gary and Kathy took in two foster children.

Jennifer Parks described her struggles to accept the circumstances of her father’s death over the past 34 years.

“When he died, part of me died,” she said.

Kathy Parks was the last member of her family to speak.

With her voice occasionally breaking with emotion, she told the judge that she and her husband had been married just shy of 25 years when he died. She described the idyllic life they once shared, raising their daughters on the shores of Lake Stevens with dogs, cats and a horse named Penny.

Kathy Parks wrote that she thinks about the words to Charlie Chaplin’s song “Smile,” which helps her endure.

Smile, though your heart is aching

Smile, even though it’s breaking

When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by

If you smile through your fear and sorrows

Smile and maybe tomorrow

You see the sun come shining through for you

Many factors to consider

Well before charges were filed against Nash, deputy prosecutors Robert Grant and Tyler Scott were negotiating a plea agreement with Everett defense attorney Phil Sayles. Those conversations resulted in a dual sentencing recommendation, below the standard range, on the condition Nash pleaded guilty at his arraignment.

The prosecution took into account Nash’s age at the time of the offense, potential evidentiary issues at trial, the passage of time and his criminal history.

Age was a key factor, Grant told the judge.

Grant pointed to the case of Paul Keller, a local advertising executive who in the 1990s pleaded guilty to dozens of arsons in Snohomish and King counties, including one in September 1992 at a Seattle retirement home that killed three residents, ages 93, 77 and 72. He was sentenced to more than a century behind bars.

Keller was an adult and a serial arsonist who, Grant asserted, enjoyed watching the fires burn. Nash was not yet a teen who naively was trying to hide his fingerprints and, on some level, showed remorse.

“Elmer Nash Jr. is not Paul Keller,” he said.

All along, Keller denied setting the Everett Community College fire. In a statement to The Daily Herald after Nash pleaded guilty, Keller praised the Everett police investigators and chastised those he said wrongly accused him of the college fire.

Sayles, in his sentencing recommendation, emphasized Nash’s age at the time of the crime and his difficult childhood. Even at 12, he was using drugs.

“Elmer Nash had no idea that his actions on February 16, 1987, would have led to the death of another person,” Sayles wrote. “At the time, he was 12 years old. A 12-year-old boy who was living most of his life on the streets.”

When it was his turn to speak, Nash sobbed uncontrollably as he told the Parks family: “I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry. I wish I could bring him back but I can’t.”

Judge Kurtz outlined his reasoning for going above what the prosecution and defense recommended and beneath what some family and friends of Gary Parks were asking. Case law compelled him to consider the defendant’s youth when the crime was committed, but the defendant’s criminal history and the seriousness of the offense also influenced his ruling.

He told the defendant that most children learn early about three basic rules: “You don’t hit. You don’t steal. You don’t play with fire.”

‘Mutual respect’

As the courtroom cleared and the crowd thinned, a few folks lingered.

There were retired firefighters in their crisp formal uniforms who caught up with one another about events in their lives.

Members of the Parks family chatted amongst themselves and with well wishers.

And there was a gathering of two grandmothers and a police detective.

The woman in the black sweater wore a button with a picture of herself and her husband from many years ago.

Kathy Parks gave the other woman glow-in-the-dark rosary beads and told her she loved her. She told her what had happened in court was a good thing.

The woman accepted and listened intently.

Terri Johnson is Elmer Nash’s mother. She, in turn, embraced detective Atwood, the man who convinced her son to admit he was the one who started the fire 34 years ago.

Yes, Atwood said, the timing of the night he encountered Nash in the booking area at the jail was significant, but he believes the case would not have been solved were it not for another factor that would be easy to overlook.

“To be honest, I think this came down to resolution out of mutual respect,” he said.

There was the relationship he developed with Nash’s mom, the trust among attorneys from both sides and the police and fire departments, to list a few, he said.

Capt. Jeraud Irving said the investigation itself was like a fire. Whenever it would appear to die out, there would be an ember and Atwood was ever vigilant, he said.

“There would be a flare up and he would go after it,” he said.

For Robert Grant, the sentencing was his last case as a deputy prosecutor.

He marvels that the case could be resolved more than three decades later.

“There were a million little pieces that had to fall in line for us,” he said, “to get to where we are today.”

Eric Stevick: stevick@heraldnet.com.

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