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Monday, November 11, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Fire chief: Luck saved man accused of setting fire at gas station and hiding in beer cooler during police standoff in downtown Spokane

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 2, 2019

An investigator from Spokane Fire Department walks amid melted Gatorade and gas station goods as he processes a scene at a 76 gas station at Second and Walnut in Spokane on Oct. 1, 2019. Last night, SWAT was in an hours long standoff with a suspect who allegedly pointed a gun at a state trooper and fled to the gas station, where he then barricaded himself inside and was said to have set fire to the building. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
An investigator from Spokane Fire Department walks amid melted Gatorade and gas station goods as he processes a scene at a 76 gas station at Second and Walnut in Spokane on Oct. 1, 2019. Last night, SWAT was in an hours long standoff with a suspect who allegedly pointed a gun at a state trooper and fled to the gas station, where he then barricaded himself inside and was said to have set fire to the building. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
By Emma Epperly and Jared Brown The Spokesman-Review

A routine traffic stop Monday night led to an hourslong armed standoff and fire that reportedly started with a bag of Doritos lit on fire and destroyed a Divine’s gas station in downtown Spokane.

Phillip Booher, 49, was taken into custody more than five hours after barricading himself inside the gas station at the corner of Second Avenue and Walnut Street with what law enforcement and witnesses believed was a handgun.

Spokane police instead recovered an airsoft handgun resembling a real firearm Tuesday morning from the beverage cooler where Booher hid during part of the standoff, according to a news release.

Security camera footage from the incident appears to show Booher pulling the trigger of a gun from behind the gas station counter, police said.

The incident began when a Washington State Patrol trooper stopped a vehicle with three occupants at about 5:30 p.m. on U.S. Highway 2 because Booher was not wearing his seat belt, according to police. The adult female driver was identified quickly, but Booher, who was in the backseat, was unwilling to give his name.

The trooper asked Booher to step out of the vehicle, according to police. Booher then got out of the car, pointed what appeared to be a gun at the trooper and told him he was not going back to jail, according to police.

Booher got back in the car as the driver and another adult male passenger exited the vehicle, police said. The driver and passenger were initially detained by troopers and released after being interviewed as witnesses.

A chase ensued as Booher fled. Along Sunset Boulevard he pointed an apparent gun at an unmarked Spokane police vehicle with its emergency lights activated, according to court documents. After a pursuit throughout downtown, Booher left the car and ran.

People in the area reported that a man matching Booher’s description was pointing a gun and attempting to carjack people, according to police.

He later ran into the Devine’s gas station wielding a handgun at about 5:50 p.m., police said.

“I was ringing up a customer and I saw the cops outside the window,” said Daune Montel, the gas station clerk. “Next thing I know a guy runs in.”

She said Booher asked her where the back door of the building was and she informed him there wasn’t one. Then he ran behind the register, and she spotted his gun in his hand at his hip.

“He said, ‘Can you call this number for me?’ And I tried, but I was shaking,” Montel said.

Booher then grabbed a cell phone charging on the counter that belonged to Montel’s boyfriend, Jeff Davis, who was outside smoking a cigarette.

“He got on the phone with some girl,” Montel said. “And he said, ‘I’m not going back, hurry up.’ ”

That girl was reportedly Booher’s girlfriend, who attended his first appearance Tuesday. She declined to give her name but defended Booher.

“It’s completely out of character,” she said.

Booher called and asked her to come get him “in a panic,” she said.

The girlfriend headed to the scene and ended up giving her phone to police for them to contact Booher, she explained.

“He was scared, and he didn’t want to go back to jail,” she said, explaining why he ran from police.

She said she believed Booher was trying to commit suicide by cop and noted he has some mental health issues.

Davis said he went back into the store to help Montel, but then Booher told her to leave and that he didn’t want to hurt her.

By this point, Spokane Police, Washington State Patrol troopers and firefighters had surrounded the gas station.

Law enforcement officials were able to view a live feed from the gas station’s security cameras, according to court documents.

At about 7 p.m., Booher started burning newspapers and other items inside the store, police said.

A bag of Doritos that Booher allegedly lit on fire quickly spread into a large blaze, Davis said. Then, to hide from the fire, Booher went into a beer cooler and helped himself to a few drinks while he talked with police on the phone.

“He was sitting in the freezer drinking beer negotiating with the police on my phone,” Davis said.

Police negotiators were unsuccessful in convincing Booher to surrender.

With the fire spreading, police threw chemical canisters into the building in an attempt to force Booher outside, starting at about 7:15 p.m. Witnesses heard at least 50 pops and bangs.

“That’s why we inserted those gas canisters as quickly as we did because we were concerned for his safety,” said Spokane Police Department Cpl. Teresa Fuller.

Officers broke the glass walls of the gas station about 15 minutes later and dark smoke poured out of the building as fire engulfed the inside. Flames could be seen coming from the roof.

Fighting the fire with an armed suspect inside was difficult, said Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer.

Booher was telling negotiators over that phone that he would shoot the first officer he saw, according to police.

Incident commanders came up with a plan for police to cover firefighters and SWAT as they placed hoses and extinguished the blaze.

“It resulted in an exceptional outcome with nobody being hurt,” Schaeffer said.

Schaeffer said Booher’s choice to hide in the beer cooler was dangerous and that he was fortunate to have come out relatively unscathed.

“There are compressed gasses used inside those coolers, a significant amount of electricity, so it’s not safe,” Schaeffer said. “That was completely a lucky choice that he made. The outcome was based on luck – it wasn’t based on science at all.”

Police called for Booher to come out of the building with a loudspeaker at about 8 p.m., after the fire started to shrink.

“Our interest at this point is solely getting him out of that store safely,” Fuller said at the time.

Firefighters with axes walked toward the building about 30 minutes later and a SWAT vehicle continued to shine a spotlight on the building entrance from 2nd Avenue.

The gas pumps at the station were shut off and power was shut down for almost an entire city block, according to police. Nearby buildings, including the Tiki Lodge motel and Uncle Rusty’s Diner, were evacuated.

Police deployed a robot and a fire department drone to view the inside of the building when security cameras inside lost power, according to police.

“He was still telling us he would shoot the first officer he saw,” Fuller said.

At about 11 p.m., police used an armored vehicle to ram into the gas station’s back wall, KHQ reported.

Police made a judgment call to send SWAT into the building because Booher continued to lie to police about where he was in the building and gave no indication he would surrender as the standoff approached five and half hours, Fuller said. Meanwhile, evacuated hotel guests sat in STA buses waiting to be allowed back in their rooms.

“That’s the point we drew the line and decided it was time to go in and get him,” Fuller said.

SWAT officers entered the building just after 11:30 p.m., as Booher yelled obscenities over the phone, according to police. No gunshots were fired as officers took him into custody.

Medics treated Booher and transported him to a local hospital before he was booked into jail, according to police.

“Our goal is always to make sure that nobody gets hurt,” Fuller said.

The gas station building won’t be reoccupied, but it is safe for investigators to go in now that parts of the building have been reinforced, Schaeffer said. Major crimes detectives waited for clearance from the fire department before beginning an investigation Tuesday morning.

Investigators are collecting evidence to help determine the specific cause of the fire, Schaeffer said.

Parts of 2nd Avenue near Maple Street were blocked Tuesday during the investigation and police officers were on scene to direct traffic, Fuller said.

Booher was charged in Spokane County Superior Court with first-degree assault, arson, attempting to elude police and commercial burglary in relation to the incident. His bond was set at $500,000 Tuesday afternoon.

Booher also had an unrelated bench warrant from Walla Walla County for a prior second-degree burglary charge, according to police. He has prior felony convictions for burglary, controlled substance possession and taking a motor vehicle without permission.

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