Everett firefighters pour water on the Colby Square Apartments on Dec. 21, 2017. (Caleb Hutton / Herald file)

Everett firefighters pour water on the Colby Square Apartments on Dec. 21, 2017. (Caleb Hutton / Herald file)

Man behind fatal Colby Square apartment arson gets 10 years

William Matthews was in “the throes of mental illness” when he started the fire, his attorney said.

EVERETT — Jim Addington and his wife had bought the Colby Square Apartments in North Everett in 1999.

They were in their 30s and looking for something to invest in, Addington said.

The apartments at 2229 Colby Ave. became a third job for them, and their children grew up helping out.

“My kids were 14 years old before they realized that their friends don’t spend all weekend painting and cleaning,” Addington said, laughing.

The property was almost paid off when it was destroyed by a fire in December 2017, he said. Suddenly, 20 people were without a home. One person, Elsie Flynn, 76, later died at the hospital.

Speaking in Snohomish County Superior Court, Addington called the event catastrophic.

The man who started the fire, William Matthews, was sentenced to 10 years in prison Tuesday.

Matthews, 42, was initially charged with first-degree murder. He pleaded guilty in May to first-degree manslaughter and first-degree arson.

Public defender Tiffany Mecca said Matthews was in the “throes of mental illness” the evening of Dec. 21, 2017, when he used a lighter to ignite an artificial Christmas tree in the two-story building’s stairwell.

Matthews had spent the day “wandering the streets of Everett, yelling nonsensically and looking for help,” Mecca wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

“Mr. Matthews was looking for safety and warmth. He was actively hallucinating, hearing voices and unable to communicate his needs to the people and police officers he interacted with on the street,” she wrote.

He was later diagnosed with having symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Mecca said he had been abused and neglected as a child, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder. He spent most of his life in and out of mental health care.

The December arson was a “misguided attempt to get help,” Mecca said.

The apartment’s manager, Janis Robinson, said she was home when the fire started. It was cold outside, she recalled at the sentencing. She was wearing a nightgown when someone knocked furiously on her door, yelling that something was burning.

She warned tenants as fast as she could. But the stairwell, the only escape route, had gone up in flames. She and others who lived on the second floor had no choice but to jump.

That wasn’t an option for Flynn, though, who was in fragile health. She suffered from emphysema and needed 2 liters of oxygen per day. A neighbor set up a ladder against the balcony for her and her daughter to climb down. By the time Flynn got to the ground, she had passed out.

She died at the hospital four days later, on Christmas, from respiratory failure, possibly triggered by lack of supplemental oxygen, smoke and the stress the escape had on her body. Her death was classified as a homicide.

Flynn’s cat, named Colby, also died in the fire. Colby had been a stray until she began hanging out in the parking lot, Addington said. Among the tenants, the cat found food, comfort and eventually, a home with Flynn.

An investigation aided by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives showed the fire was arson, sparked in the northeast corner of the stairwell. A suspect, who would turn out to be Matthews, could be seen in video surveillance.

An Everett police officer had seen Matthews just 10 minutes before someone called 911. Matthews was walking within 25 feet of the Colby Square parking lot and had stopped to shout at the officer, who recognized him from a previous disturbance call.

Police tracked down Matthews and interviewed him on Jan. 22, 2018, in Bellingham. At first he denied setting the Christmas decorations on fire. Eventually he told police he didn’t mean to hurt anyone.

Robinson, the manager, told the court she lost her home, her job and her belongings in the fire. More than that, she lost the sense of family that she had created with the tenants.

“I didn’t think of myself as the manager,” she said. “I was the apartment mother.”

For the past 1½ years, she’s lived at her son’s home, she told the court. Memories of the fire have haunted her. For a while, she could barely eat.

Matthews was teary-eyed when he spoke to the court on Tuesday. He said he was sorry, and that he would seek mental health treatment, even though it wouldn’t be enough to make amends for what had happened.

Addington said the Colby Square Apartments are being built bigger and safer than before. The new building will have two stairwells, as well as more fire safety measures, he said.

Reconstruction has racked up $3 million in costs, half of which is being paid by insurance, Addington said. He expects to start bringing in new tenants in the fall.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; zbryan@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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