Alaska man charged with arson for Seattle protest fire

The 19-year-old allegedly set a fire at the city’s East Precinct police building on Monday.

  • Heidi Groover The Seattle Times
  • Friday, August 28, 2020 6:25am
  • Northwest

By Heidi Groover / The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Federal prosecutors are charging a 19-year-old man with arson for allegedly setting a fire at the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct on Monday night.

Desmond David-Pitts was arrested and booked into the King County Jail early Tuesday morning before being transferred to federal custody.

In a complaint filed Thursday, federal prosecutors say surveillance-camera footage shows David-Pitts tossing trash bags into a sally-port area at the precinct and using a lighter to set them on fire. After initially denying he set the fire, David-Pitts later admitted to it during an interview, according to a complaint filed Thursday.

“During the interview, David-Pitts explained that he and others with whom he is close have had bad experiences with police,” wrote Michael Collier, special agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “He stated that as the protest went on, ‘My stupid ass got angry. So that’s exactly why I was acting the way I did. I’m accountable.’”

David-Pitts appeared in U.S. District Court Thursday. Arson carries a mandatory five-year sentence or up to 20 years in prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington.

The fire at the precinct Monday night came in the midst of several months of sustained protests against police violence and racial injustice in Seattle. The event was organized to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. About 200 to 250 people gathered, marching from the East Precinct on Capitol Hill to the West Precinct near South Lake Union and back to the East Precinct, where people threw fireworks at the precinct and set fires outside the building.

The complaint alleges that, as part of a group tossing trash, fireworks and other objects at the precinct, David-Pitts piled trash bags and used a lighter to set them on fire near a garage door to the precinct. Nearby, others set a second fire at the wall of the precinct behind a chain-link fence around the precinct. The video appears to show David-Pitts helping others break into the fence, the complaint alleges.

As some were lighting fires, other people used a metal rod and a “canister of rapidly-drying liquid cement” in an “apparent effort to prevent officers who were inside of the precinct from exiting through the door,” the complaint alleges. Seattle police have posted a photo online of a door to the East Precinct smeared with a gray substance.

J. Talitha Hazelton, an attorney representing David-Pitts, declined to comment on the charges Thursday and said she has not yet been able to see David-Pitts in person.

Defendants in federal cases are held at Federal Detention Center SeaTac, where 31 inmates and six staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus. Federal courthouses in Seattle and Tacoma have been closed since March, resulting in delayed trials.

David-Pitts told investigators he had recently arrived in Seattle from Alaska to observe and participate in the protests here, the complaint says.

David-Pitts participated in protests against police brutality in Alaska this year after his 16-year-old brother was killed by Anchorage police, according to local news reports. Police said the 16-year-old fired a gun at officers; David-Pitts questioned the police narrative, according to the reports.

On Monday, at a separate protest earlier in the day, a young man who appeared to be David-Pitts, said his brother was killed by police in Alaska and there had been “no justice.” He said he had arrived in Seattle two days earlier.

Attempts to reach David-Pitts’ family Thursday were unsuccessful.

While many in the crowd Monday wore black clothes and gas masks, David-Pitts wore distinctive clothing, including pink pants, that allowed him to be identified, according to the complaint.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office would not release the surveillance-camera video referenced in the complaint, saying the case is still being investigated. Other videos of people setting a fire at the precinct have circulated online, though a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said those are not the same as the video referenced in the complaint.

The fire at the East Precinct has sparked outrage from the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), which released a video Thursday in which SPOG President Mike Solan said “criminal actors” are “conducting acts of domestic terrorism.”

During the protest Monday night, the group marched past the East Precinct, downtown and to the West Precinct and then back to the East Precinct. Along the way, some broke windows at several Starbucks locations and an Amazon Go store, spray-painted graffiti and smashed parking meters, while others blocked or damaged security cameras. Protesters chanted the names of people shot or killed by police and messages about Black Lives Matter and police abolition.

At the West Precinct, they left graffiti, threw objects at the building and attempted to damage or block security cameras. An empty police bus later had broken windows and what appeared to be smoke. When the group returned to the East Precinct, some threw fireworks at the building and started the fire.

During the group’s first stop at the East Precinct, several officers had exited the precinct in riot gear before going back inside. As the protest moved downtown and to the West Precinct, police were not visibly present. Once the protesters returned to the East Precinct and after the fire was started, police arrived on bikes, on foot and in an armored vehicle. They issued a dispersal order and pushed the crowd away from the precinct.

The King County Prosecutor’s Office was prepared to ask a judge to hold David-Pitts and find probable cause for arson before federal authorities told the county they planned to arrest David-Pitts, said Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for the prosecuting attorney’s office. “If the case does not proceed at a federal level, our office would then move forward as we planned,” McNerthney said in an email.

The charge is one of several instances in which federal prosecutors have gotten involved with Seattle protest cases.

In June, a woman was charged in federal court with five counts of arson for allegedly setting fire to five Seattle police vehicles during protests May 30 and a North Carolina man was charged after police allegedly found a makeshift shotgun on him during a protest.

In July, a man was charged with arson in federal court for allegedly setting a small fire at the East Precinct during the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), which was later doused by other protesters.

Another case might see federal charges soon. The county prosecutor’s office said Thursday that a suspect accused of breaking windows at Key Bank on Wednesday and having a Molotov cocktail in a backpack is being transferred to federal custody.

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