A charred high school notebook and chemistry flashcards helped lead investigators to a teenager now linked to a series of arsons across southern Spokane Valley.
The boy, identified in court records as a 16-year-old Central Valley High School student, was interviewed at least twice in the past week by investigators before finally cooperating Tuesday night following a particularly fiery weekend in neighborhoods near his family’s home. He faces first- and second-degree arson charges and is being held at the Spokane County Juvenile Detention facility while the investigation continues.
“The urgency, for us, was to protect the public,” said Assistant Chief Greg Godfrey with Spokane County Fire District 8, where most of the 23 suspicious fires since Sept. 13 occurred. “A serial arsonist is rare.”
Authorities on Wednesday credited an outpouring of tips from residents and the dedication of a multiagency arson task force with cracking the case, which left many in south Valley neighborhoods feeling uneasy as fires erupted in fields and unoccupied new homes around them.
The largest was the wildfire near the Saltese Flats that threatened eight homes and was fought by crews from several agencies on Sept. 18.
No one was hurt in the string of fires, but two nearly completed new homes were heavily damaged by smoke and flames. One is in the 1800 block of Daystar Road, and the other is nearby at the intersection of Apollo and Chapman roads.
The teen told investigators he was new to the area, depressed, didn’t have any friends and “hated it here,” according to Spokane County Superior Court records.
Although the boy is identified in arrest reports and other records, The Spokesman-Review typically avoids naming juvenile crime suspects.
Court records show that in one of the fires a lighter and road flares were used to ignite pages of the boy’s school notebook and study flashcards from a chemistry class. A passerby who happened onto the small Sept. 23 blaze reportedly spotted the burning notebook, kicked it onto the nearby road and was able to smother the flames, preserving a major piece of evidence that gave investigators one of their first big clues.
Investigators also had begun receiving reports of a white, four-door sedan being seen in the area of some of the suspicious fires, which matched the type of car the teenager often drove.
One of the first to engage the teen was Spokane Valley Fire Chief Bryan Collins, who spotted the white sedan Sept. 25 in the Saltese Flats area and began following it because it matched the description of a suspicious vehicle seen near a brush fire a day earlier, records show. The teen pulled into an apartment complex parking lot and Collins requested assistance from his deputy fire marshal, Clifton Mehaffey. The boy told them that he didn’t have anything to do with the fire but was described as “extremely nervous” and began crying during the conversation.
The fires, which averaged two a day, continued and over the weekend began erupting closer to dense neighborhoods. That’s also when the second of two new homes was set ablaze, records show, and crime-scene technicians were able to lift fingerprints from where forced entry had been made.
Investigators obtained search warrants on Tuesday for the teen’s home, which is within walking distance of all of the weekend fires, and for vehicles he had access to. The warrant also authorized investigators to obtain his fingerprints and a DNA sample. The teen was contacted along Sullivan Road on Tuesday evening and taken to the Sheriff’s Office’s Valley precinct for questioning before being booked into juvenile detention.
He’s currently charged with seven of the 23 fires, including the two house fires and the Saltese Flats wildfire, but authorities say the investigation is continuing.
The arson task force included representatives from Fire District 8, Spokane Valley Fire, the state Department of Natural Resources and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.
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