Prosecutors Monday charged a Tacoma teen with setting fire to the historic pagoda in Point Defiance Park after detectives found text messages sent from his cellphone about the blaze and a previous break-in.
The boy has been in custody since early Wednesday, when a Ruston police officer spotted him pedaling toward the park. He had a gallon of gasoline in his backpack and a box of matches in his pocket, police said.
“Yes I crashed someone’s wedding 2,” stated a text sent on 5:06 p.m. April 15, about 13 hours after a Metro Parks garbage worker spotted the burning pagoda and alerted firefighters.
“Hey should I run away just incase I go to jail,” read a message sent at 11:01 p.m. that day.
Pierce County prosecutors charged the teen with first-degree arson in the pagoda fire, second-degree burglary and second-degree malicious mischief in a break-in April 6 at the building, and unlawful possession of an incendiary device for having the can of gasoline.
The suspect is not being named because he’s being tried as a juvenile.
During a court appearance Monday, not-guilty pleas were entered on behalf of the teen.
Juvenile probation officer Kathleen Holand and deputy prosecutor Fred Wist recommended the boy stay in detention until his case is resolved, saying they had concerns about the public’s safety.
Wist said the fire “paralyzed the community” and noted the boy had shown the propensity to avoid parental supervision by sneaking out in the middle of the night.
He also remains under investigation in other incidents, the deputy prosecutor said.
Officers are looking into whether the teen set several garbage cans on fire April 11 at Owen Beach and threw burning toilet paper into a trash can inside a restroom near a picnic area in the park, police spokesman Mark Fulghum said.
The boy’s father asked pro-tem Commissioner Steve Gregorich to send the teen home.
He said he and his wife would make sure the boy, who is home-schooled and has no previous criminal record, stayed in the house 24 hours a day. He also said they would arrange for counseling for their son.
Defense attorney Lauren Gotchy of Seattle suggested the boy be released on electronic home monitoring.
Gregorich, citing the seriousness of the alleged crimes, ordered the boy held until at least his next court date, which is set for May 2.
The boys’ parents declined to comment after the hearing.
Flames heavily damaged the 97-year-old pagoda, the centerpiece of Point Defiance Park’s Japanese garden.
The fire scorched the building’s wood beams and smoke tinged the windows and marble walls in the stairwell. Several of the roof’s original clay tiles were damaged when firefighters pried them off to get at the fire’s remaining hot spots.
Officials with Metro Parks Tacoma continue to assess the extent of the damage and the cost to repair the building.
Detectives determined the fire started in the basement and believed it was intentionally set. They had been looking at whether it was tied to an April 6 break-in of the building’s basement.
In both cases, someone got into the building through a louvered window on the west side, charging documents state.
During the April 6 break-in, several window panes were removed and smashed. Paint was splashed about and plants and file cabinets knocked over, causing more than $1,000 damage, charging documents state.
After the fire, investigators found that six glass panels had been removed and placed on the ground. A detective “noted that the panels did not have any smoke damage, indicating they had been removed prior to the fire,” charging documents state.
Investigators had been working the case when a Ruston police officer saw the teen riding a bicycle in the 4900 block of North 49th Street shortly after 1:15 a.m. Wednesday. The bicycle was not illuminated.
The officer knew about the previous fires and stopped the teen, who wore pink gardening gloves and a carried a backpack. He was breathing heavily and appeared nervous, court documents state.
The officer checked the backpack and found a one-gallon plastic can full of gasoline. He found a box of wooden matches and cellphone in the teen’s pockets.
Asked if he knew why he was stopped, the teen responded, “Yes, because of the fires,” according to the documents He also told police he was going to the boathouse at the marina, charging documents state.
“When asked where his parents thought he was, the respondent stated that he sneaked out, so they would think he was at home in bed,” charging documents state.
A Tacoma police detective obtained a search warrant for the boy’s phone and found several sent text messages about the fires in the park.
“Hey ... I broke into a building,” said a text sent at 12:51 a.m. April 6.
“Hey ... we should start a fire in that 1 building I told u about,” said a text sent at 11:24 p.m. April 14.
Investigators are working to determine who received the text messages and whether they were involved in the park incidents, Fulghum said.
Staff writer Adam Lynn contributed to this report