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Accused serial arsonist now charged with murder for Tacoma man’s death in house fire

Nov. 28, 2022 Updated Mon., Nov. 28, 2022 at 6:44 p.m.

Peter Talbot Tacoma News Tribune

TACOMA - A woman charged with 17 counts of arson for setting fires at homes in Tacoma and Ruston is now facing murder charges for one North End house fire that killed an 83-year-old man.

Investigators had linked Sarah Ramey to the deadly Dec. 31, 2021 fire when she was first arrested in January. At the time, prosecutors were only able to charge her with eight counts of first-degree arson for fires set Jan. 23-26.

Now, new charges filed Nov. 7 accuse her of deliberately starting fires in occupied homes as far back as Dec. 30.

Ramey, 43, was charged in Pierce County Superior Court with two counts of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, 17 counts of first-degree arson, two counts of first-degree identity theft, second-degree identity theft, theft of a motor vehicle, second-degree burglary and residential burglary.

The defendant was arraigned on the new charges Nov. 8. Not guilty pleas were entered on her behalf, and Court Commissioner Philip Thornton kept bail at $5 million. Ramey remains in custody at Pierce County Jail.

James Elliott was the only person home at 2 Rosemount Way when it was set aflame last year, according to charging documents. A deputy fire marshal with Tacoma Fire Department determined the fire was accidental, but continued investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found the fire was arson and that it either started on or below the porch.

According to Pierce County property records, the 3,311-square-foot home was built in 1909 and has six bedrooms and three bathrooms. It sits at the end of a winding residential road in the North End flanked by other large, century-old houses estimated to be worth more than $1 million. The victim’s son, Dan Elliott, told KING 5 earlier this year that there was no way his family’s home could be restored to what it once was.

The Pierce County Medical Examiner determined that Elliott died of smoke inhalation. Firefighters found him in a bathroom near the back door with soot on him but no obvious signs of burns.

Records show that after the fire, Ramey spent thousands of dollars on merchandise at Lowe’s using the stolen credit card of James Elliott’s late wife. According to a supplemental probable cause document, about $6,293 worth of purchases were made on the woman’s credit card between Jan. 24 and Jan. 28. About $4,065 of that was spent at the Lowe’s in Tacoma, including purchases for a portable generator, a backpack leaf-blower, a shop vac and a carpet cleaner.

All of the items were seized as evidence from the home of Ramey’s deceased boyfriend’s parents.

Surveillance footage from the Lowe’s in Tacoma showed Ramey making the purchases, records state. She was arrested Jan. 28, a few hours after she picked up five orders there. In the defendant’s 2002 Ford Ranger, the victim’s checkbook was found, and several checks were fraudulently cashed.

Arson at 2 Rosemount Way

At about 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 31, a boy sledding behind his house smelled smoke coming from James Elliott’s burning home, prosecutors wrote in the probable cause document. The boy looked around, saw the smoke was coming from the north, and then heard an explosion.

The boy walked around his house and saw that 2 Rosemount Way was on fire. Records state that the boy’s mother went to the house to see if Elliott had gotten out, but when she got there, she saw the whole front porch was burning, with flames touching the ceiling. She went to the back door and saw that the fire was already there. She yelled into the house for Elliott but got no reply. While the Tacoma Fire Department responded, she watched as flames climbed the three-story home.

As part of the ATF’s investigation, a Central Pierce Fire & Rescue dog trained to detect ignitable liquids and accelerants searched the house. According to the probable cause document, the dog made alerts about 17 times at various points around the exterior.

The dog also alerted to several items removed from the scene: a red gas can, a door mat, a red plastic can and some dirt from under the gas can and mat.

According to the probable cause document, Ramey returned to the burned home in early January. Records state that she went there with a man identified only as S.Z. in court records, and she allegedly told him she had “a really good friend” whose North End house caught fire and was a total loss.

This man was interviewed by law enforcement, records state, and he allegedly said Ramey told him that her friends weren’t coming back to the home, so she could take anything she wanted out of the house so she could make money to pay rent.

S.Z. told detectives it seemed as if Ramey had already been at the home. He said she already knew where things were located and had stuff boxed up. According to him, Ramey wanted his help getting things out of the house. Prosecutors wrote in the documents that when detectives told the man someone had died in the fire, he seemed surprised.

Two of the fraudulently cashed checks were made out to S.Z. in the amount of $1,700 and $900, according to the probable cause document. The man told law enforcement that he saw Ramey write the checks to him three separate times, and that she said she could write them for landscape materials.

While they were inside the home, Ramey allegedly defecated at the bottom of the basement stairs. S.Z. mentioned it to detectives, and on Feb. 10, a Tacoma Police Department forensics team went to the house, where they found and collected human feces in the basement.

Detectives also obtained a search warrant for Ramey’s cell phone, which showed an internet search was made asking “how much scrap metal is in a eight bedroom three bath older four-story house.” She also allegedly searched “leads on Tacoma arsons,” “my money got burned in a house fire,” “can I take my burnt money to the bank and get it replaced,” and “how to cash a stolen check without getting caught,” among other searches.

Defendant accused of arson at ex-employer’s house

It’s unclear what would have motivated Ramey to set fires at so many occupied homes. According to the probable cause document, more than 20 people were inside the residences she is accused of burning, including an apartment building on North Pearl Street where a fire was set in the only doorway to the building, trapping residents and forcing them to escape through windows.

The newly filed charging documents show that one of the fires was set at a Ruston resident’s home where the defendant used to do landscaping work, and the man interviewed by law enforcement about her, S.Z., mentioned examples of Ramey using fire dangerously. He said Ramey had a fire pit in her backyard, and that the fire department was called there “constantly” because it would get out of control.

S.Z. also told investigators that Ramey had bragged about trying to set her ex-boyfriend on fire while he slept by dousing him in gasoline. Apparently the lighter was too wet to light. S.Z. said the ex-boyfriend told him the same story. He also said Ramey admitted to him that she set fire to a business next to her residence on Grant Avenue to get rid of the homeless people living inside.

Court records show Ramey has a tumultuous past that includes residential burglary. She also used to cut lawns for residents in Ruston and was apparently “let go” by at least one person after November 2021 because Ramey became unreliable, records state. Ramey was charged with arson for starting a fire at that person’s home Jan. 19 in the 5200 block of North Shirley Street.

When Ramey was interviewed by detectives, she allegedly denied being involved with any of the fires she is charged with.

According to the probable cause document, she said that she was at a person’s house on Sixth Avenue the evening of Jan. 25 until 4 a.m. the next morning, when she met up with S.Z. and stayed with him until 5 a.m., when she went home. Ten of the fires Ramey is accused of setting occurred during that time. When detectives told her they had video, witness statements and photographic evidence showing her in the location of the arsons, she invoked her right to an attorney.

Records say that in phone calls from Pierce County Jail, Ramey continued to deny that she was involved in the arsons.

While charging documents indicate Ramey was the sole actor in the fires and burglaries she is accused of, records show she wasn’t working alone. When police were checking out homes near the area of a fire Jan. 30 in the 5300 block of North Bennett Street, a resident said that about a week earlier, he saw a Tacoma Metro Parks pickup outside his home. Ramey is accused of stealing such a vehicle, and all the keys to a fleet of vehicles, during a burglary that occurred sometime over the weekend of Jan. 21 at a Metro Parks building.

The resident told police that on Jan. 23 at about 6:30 a.m., he saw a man and a woman transferring items from a Metro Parks truck to a white Ford Ranger.

Timeline of arsons, burglaries

Most of the fires were set in one night Jan. 25-26 over the course of about 8-1/2 hours. Sometime over the previous weekend is when Ramey allegedly broke into a Metro Parks building and stole keys, a pickup and a Metro Parks jacket. Investigators found that eight other fires were allegedly set by Ramey before Jan. 25. Here is a timeline of the arsons and burglaries.

— Dec. 30, 2021, 5:30 p.m.: House fire in the 1300 block of South Prospect Street. One person was inside.

— Dec. 30, 6 p.m.: House fire in the 2600 block of South Melrose Street.

— Dec. 30, 6:05 p.m.: House fire in the 2900 block of South Melrose Street.

— Dec. 31, 5:30 p.m.: House fire at 2 Rosemount Way. An 83-year-old man inside was killed.

— Jan. 19, 2022, 11:15 p.m.: House fire in the 5200 block of North Shirley Street in Ruston.

— Jan. 21-24,: Burglary at Tacoma Metro Parks building in the 5400 block of North Shirley Street in Ruston.

— Jan. 23, 5:27 a.m.: House fire in the 5200 block of North Highland Street in Ruston. Three adults and two minors were inside. The home was fully engulfed by the fire.

— Jan. 23, 7:35 p.m.: House fire in the 5500 block of South Fawcett Avenue. Three people were inside.

— Jan. 23, 8:03 p.m.: House fire in the 400 block of South 54th Street. The home was unoccupied because the resident was helping their neighbor on Fawcett with a fire.

— Jan. 25, 7:47 p.m.: House fire in the 600 block of South Trafton Street. Two people were inside.

— Jan. 25, 8:10 p.m.: Vehicle fire next to a garage in the 2000 block of South 8th Street. The car was destroyed.

— Jan. 25, 8:26 p.m.: Porch fire in the 600 block of South State Street. The siding of the house was burned.

— Jan. 25-26, 11:06 p.m. to 12:10 a.m.: Apartment building fire in the 5100 block of North Pearl Street. Multiple residents were trapped inside.

— Jan. 26, 12:04 a.m.: Porch fire in the 5300 block of North Bennett Street. One person was inside.

— Jan. 26, 1:15 a.m.: House fire in the 4700 block of North Orchard Street. Two adults and two children, ages 11 and 15, were sleeping inside.

— Jan. 26, 2:05 a.m.: House fire in the 4600 block of North Gove Street. The residence was destroyed.

— Jan. 26, 2:18 a.m.: Attempted arson in the 3900 block of North Verde Street.

— Jan. 26, 2:30 a.m.: Residential burglary at a house in the 3700 block of North Cheyenne Street. A 16-year-old’s wallet was stolen with his debit card inside, which was allegedly used to buy snacks at a gas station.

— Jan. 26, 3:08 a.m.: House fire in the 3700 block of North Cheyenne Street. Nearby residences were evacuated due to the fire.

— Jan. 26, 4:05 a.m.: Porch fire in the 3700 block of North Cheyenne Street. Three people were asleep inside.

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