Archive for the ‘Top story of the day’ Category

‘Festering little bombs’: The fire risk of towels with oil residue

Monday, May 23rd, 2016
2016.0513.oilyragsyesIMG_0058

Investigators collect bundle of partially burned restaurant towels from Ham Hill Road house fire. / Courtesy photo from Centralia Police Department

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CENTRALIA – Most people have heard of the dangers of “spontaneous combustion” from oily rags left laying around the garage or workbench.

But how many are aware of the risks associated with a hand towel or dish cloth, for example, used with products one would find in their kitchen cupboards?

Not even Centralia police detective Dave Clary who is trained in fire investigations had come across such a scenario before.

The house fire on Ham Hill Road that took the lives of three children is now labeled with a cause of undetermined. But after two months of investigating, with numerous interviews and examinations that filled more than 50 pages of reports, the experts came up with one possible cause and one probable cause, according to Clary.

2016.0304.CPD.hamhillfirefire1flames.small

March 4, 2016

It’s possible a compact florescent light bulb in a lamp could have malfunctioned and ignited the fire. Clary knows that because a private investigator hired by the insurance company asked if such bulbs were used in the home and noted they have been known to do that.

He told Clary if he had the bulb, he might be able to tell if it went bad by looking at it. But the fire in that area was so intense that no remains of a bulb were located.

The probable cause of the fire, according to Clary, because its more than 50 percent likely to be the reason it occurred, was from recently laundered oily towels placed in a milk crate near the front door.

Clary, who was the lead police investigator for the fire, said he was previously unaware CFL bulbs could be risky or dangerous.

“But, by the same token, I didn’t know vegetable oil was unstable,” he said.

The recently released reports and photos from the nighttime blaze offer information on previously unanswered questions, detail heroic attempts by police officers and firefighters to rescue the children and shed light on what their mother Sue Tower underwent before eventually standing outside the burning home in what police officers described as in a daze, or in shock.

It was an ordinary week night, a Thursday, and the family shared a dinner of pot roast, potatoes and sourdough bread Tower baked from scratch.

The 40-year-old single mother put her children to bed, reading a story to her youngest, Samuel, and said she closed their bedroom doors after tucking them in. Madeline had been having nightmares, so she slept with her older brother Benjamin that night.

The four had moved in to the rental home the previous April; their father lives in Thurston County.

The children’s bedrooms were on the upper floor of the split level home, with the main living area on the middle level and Tower’s bedroom on the ground floor at the back of the garage.

From her bed, Tower could see up the stairs into the kitchen and said she awoke to a noise like a crack, saw a glow near the stove and saw smoke.

She ran up the stairs twice, the first time in her underwear, the second time after pulling on jeans and a sweatshirt, but was turned back by the intense heat. She grabbed her phone and called 911, and ran out the back door of her bedroom hoping to get in through the back door on the main floor, but realized it was locked and she didn’t have her keys.

Detective Clary’s description of the 911 call characterizes Tower as panicked, out of breath, seemingly terrified and finally not able to speak coherently. She tells the dispatcher there is a fire in her kitchen.

Tower runs back through the house and opens the garage door, thinking that would help get rid of the smoke. A dispatcher tells her that was not the best thing to do.

“Over and over again she tells the dispatcher that she has children in the home,” Clary writes. “She advises that she is in the house downstairs and her children are upstairs and she cannot get to them.”

She goes outside and sees the entire house is on fire.

And she begins to scream.

Benjamin D. Tower, 12; Madeline R. Tower, 10; and Samuel J. Tower, 7, never made it out of their bedrooms, according to the Lewis County coroner. Coroner Warren McLeod said asphyxiation from smoke and carbon monoxide blocked their breathing and it’s more likely than not they did not suffer.

The bedroom door to one of their rooms was found open.

The owner Bill Bates, a former Centralia city council member, told detectives there were smoke detectors throughout the wood-framed house.

Sue Tower said she didn’t hear a smoke alarm. The one on the main floor had recently begun chirping, so she took the battery out and set it on the counter as a reminder to buy a replacement, she told police. She said she hadn’t checked other detectors.

A carbon monoxide detector was plugged in to one of the outlets on the main floor.

The fire was investigated by Riverside Fire Authority Assistant Chief Rick Mack, four fire department investigators, four detectives with the Centralia Police Department and two private investigators hired by Bates’ insurance company.

The reports and photos outline numerous visits to the scene, close examination of several appliances and electrical outlets and the sifting through the debris to collect various items as possible evidence.

The house was heated with an electric forced-air furnace.

The worst fire damage was on the main floor, not in the kitchen but in the living room.

Tower pondered possible causes with authorities, noting an electrical breaker would trip when the microwave was used and that one of the control knobs on the stove sometimes stuck making it difficult to shut off. She mentioned some of the electrical outlets were “loose.”

She was certain she hadn’t been burning any candles, even though she liked them and used them.

The reports reflect that police detectives were also taking note, looking for any suspicious behavior on the mother’s part.

Early on, investigators narrowed the origin of the fire down to an area near the front door, based on burn patterns they observed.

A piece of carpet and pad from the spot was collected to be tested for ignitable liquids.

It wasn’t until almost a week after the fire as detective Clary was contemplating the possible ignition sources that he recalled cloth items they had found and remembered Tower worked at a restaurant where cooking oil would be used.

She told the investigators she had washed a batch of soiled towels that afternoon and after drying them immediately placed them in black plastic milk crate by front door, so she would remember to bring them back to work the next day.

Tower said they use a lot of rice bran oil at Hub City Grub.

The remains of the towels – which Clary said still smelled somewhat of used cooking oil – along with samples of the cooking oil the restaurant uses and towels that didn’t go through the fire were collected for testing.

The results from the lab came back noting the fats detected would  have a low to moderate tendency toward “self heating.”

However, if laundering doesn’t remove all the oils, the cloth would be subject to spontaneous ignition with the additional of heat from drying, when poor dissipation of the heat occurs, the report indicated.

Instances like this have occurred all over the country and cases have even been documented in Centralia, according to the reports.

Something similar happened last summer at a Chehalis night spot, where firefighters responded to a smell that was not quite right just before closing, and eventually found a slightly smoking stack of towels. They had been used to clean up and then washed and dried before being put away, but when an investigator took them outside, he found heavy charring in the center.

Oily rags, dirty or clean, should be stored in something metal with a lid on it, the Chehalis fire investigator said at the time.

Detective Clary found the scenario is what more likely than not led to the deadly fire on the 900 block of Ham Hill Road in Centralia on March 4.

“When Suzanne washed and dried the towels she brought home from the restaurant and then stuffed them into the milk crate, she inadvertently combined the necessary ingredients for the towels to self heat and ultimately break into flame,” Clary writes.

Both detective Clary, Assistant Fire Chief Mack and the insurance investigator agreed they could rule out all the potential causes except for the towels, and except for a bad CFL bulb – since they never found the bulb.

Because more than one possible cause exists, the cause of the fire is officially ruled undetermined. It is also ruled to be accidental.

Sue Tower was stunned after the meeting with investigators, when they explained what they knew.

“It’s a really hard thing to process,” she said. “It’s such a fluke, I don’t even normally bring them home.”

Tower continues on, still not able to plan more than one, maybe two, days in advance.

Every night, she relives the nightmare, she said.

“Sometimes I’m smarter, quicker, I do something different,” she said. “I’m not going to pretend I’m even remotely okay.”

She calls towels with oil residue festering little bombs. Even just vegetable oil, she said.

The former Chehalis native said she began researching and found quite a bit of information, noting television journalist Diane Sawyer did an episode once on the dangers of linseed oil.

“I had no idea, and there are so many people who don’t know,” Tower said.

•••

For background, read “Heavy hearts as family loses three in Centralia house fire” from Friday March 4, 2016, here

2016.0523.917HamHillfire(38)interiortwo

Investigators took numerous photos at the Ham Hill Road house for their fire investigation, many of them just inside the front door. / Courtesy photo from Centralia Police Department

2016.0304.HAMHILLFIREHOUSE.8317

Fire investigators working at the scene at the two-story house fire on March 4, 2016.

Suspicious fire breaks out at Winlock fireworks company

Friday, May 20th, 2016
2016.0519.jakesfireworksfire.LC2016008 022 copy

Crews work to extinguish flames at Jake’s Fireworks. / Courtesy photo by Derrick Paul

Updated at 10:46 a.m.

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – Investigators are looking into vandalism and a fire that left a large fireworks business in Winlock with an estimated $100,000 loss.

Members of Lewis County Fire District 15 spent about 12 hours yesterday at Jake’s Fireworks on the 700 block of Nevil Road.

Fire Investigator Derrick Paul said he is working with the sheriff’s office on the case.

Paul said when employees got to work they discovered vandalism and walked through the property looking around when they discovered smoke coming from one of the many large metal cargo containers on site.

Most of them are locked and used to store fireworks, but the one was used for recycling, such as cardboard and was unlocked, Paul said.

When they opened it to investigate, and allowed oxygen inside, the fire “really took off,” he said.

The radiant heat ignited contents of other cargo containers, according to Paul.

The vandalism that occurred sometime since the day before included someone tampering with the fire suppression system, according to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office. Chief Deputy Stacy Brown said their $7,000 water storage bladder had been sliced open.

A tire on one of the trucks was punctured as well, according to Brown.

Paul said between the vandalism and the items destroyed by the blaze, the loss is upwards of $100,000.

Jake’s is a distributor of wholesale fireworks and a fireworks retailer.

Brown said there is a person of interest and the business is working on providing detectives access to a footage from a surveillance system.

Centralia police admit errors in cat cruelty investigation, taking a second look

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016
2016.0428.Jaykitty.DerekHorrace

An image of Jay the cat shared on Facebook.

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – The Centralia police chief admitted today that police made mistakes in their response and investigation into the death of a cat that suffered what prosecutors called cruel and terrible injuries.

The feline, named Jay, was at one point possibly dropped from a second story balcony and maybe or maybe not, stabbed at an apartment complex in north Centralia last month.

Prosecutors released without charges a 24-year-old who was arrested, calling the evidence murky, and noting the pet’s body was not collected for evidence.

“Fortunately, these types of cases do not occur frequently in our community,” Centralia Police Department Chief Carl Nielsen stated in a news release. “This case brought to light the lack of information and resources we had available for our staff to refer to during the initial investigation.”

Police detectives have been following up on new information and evidence, Nielsen said today. He expects the case will be presented once again to prosecutors late next week, he said.

Nielsen wants the community to know that the Centralia Police Department is currently updating its policies and wanted to personally thank the members of Pasado’s Safe Haven and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for their help in both identifying resources for officers, as well as assisting in the crafting of a new policy for the department.

He says he appreciates the passion and concerns shown by the community throughout this incident.

“We have outstanding staff working here, but from time-to-time mistakes will occur,” Nielsen stated. “When those incidents do occur, we will work diligently to correct those mistakes.”

Nielsen was hired as chief of the department just one year ago.

Centralia police responded to the evening incident at the 100 block of Virginia Drive on April 28, and interviewed several individuals, including children.

They arrested the man accused of stabbing the cat, but Lewis County Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Brad Meagher released him the following day without charges, saying someone was very cruel to the cat, but he didn’t have enough evidence to make a case.
•••

For background read “Man released from jail with no charges in connection with Centralia cat death” from Friday April 29, 2016, here

Former Centralia high school student wins a second appeal of virtual life sentence

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – For the second time, the Washington State Court of Appeals has struck down Lewis County Superior Court Judge Nelson Hunt’s nearly 93 year sentence for a drive-by shooting committed by a former Centralia High School student at age 16. Nobody was killed.

The three-member panel also agreed Guadalupe Solis-Diaz Jr. is free to move to disqualify the judge from the case.

2013.0627.solisdiaz5088.small

Guadalupe Solis-Diaz Jr.

Solis-Diaz Jr. was arrested after gunfire was sprayed along the east side of South Tower Avenue in Centralia, missing six bar patrons the summer of 2007. Witnesses testified it was gang-related. Solis-Diaz maintained he was innocent.

He was tried as an adult and convicted of multiple offenses, including one count of first-degree assault committed with a firearm for each bullet that was fired.

The six assault counts were ordered to be served consecutively and each carried a mandatory extra five years because they were committed with a firearm. While nobody was injured, the sentence given was at the high end of the standard range.

In 2012, the Court of Appeals ordered the local court to conduct a new hearing, referencing various matters that it believed should have been handled more thoroughly, given the defendant was a juvenile.

At the end of the hearing when it was finally held in the spring 2014, Hunt criticized the appeals court decision calling some of their conclusions insulting and ludicrous and said he found no merit in any argument he should lower the sentence. He sentenced Solis-Diaz for the second time to 1,111 months in prison.

A different three-member panel which issued its opinion today stated that on remand, the sentencing court must conduct a meaningful, individualized inquiry into whether Solis-Diaz’s youth should mitigate his sentence.

“Solis-Diaz argues, and the state concedes, that the sentencing court erred by refusing to consider whether application of the multiple offense policy warranted an exceptional downward sentence,” Justice Thomas B. Bjorgen wrote in the unanimous opinion. “He also argues the trial court erred by refusing to consider his youth as a mitigating factor and by imposing a 1,111-month prison term on a juvenile offender in violation of constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment.”

The appeals court agreed with the two contentions, but stated it did not consider whether the sentence violates the constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Accordingly, we vacate Solis-Diaz’s sentence and remand for remand for re-sentencing,” Bjorgen wrote.

Today’s decision was the topic of some casual conversation in Lewis County Superior Court Judge Richard Brosey’s courtroom.

Judge Brosey mentioned the issuing of opinion to Lewis County Deputy Prosecutor Kevin Nelson and defense attorney Joely O’Rourke after they finished the business of preliminary hearings.

Brosey spoke of political correctness and how clerks are the ones who write the opinions the justices sign their names to.

Brosey alluded to his thinking that the age of the person  holding the gun doesn’t change what happens at the other end of a gunshot.

Judge Brosey and Judge Hunt have announced they are retiring at the end of this year. O’Rourke is running for election to Brosey’s position on the bench.

Solis-Diaz is represented by Longview lawyer John A. Hays. Lewis County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Sara Beigh argued the appeal for the state.

Justices Bradley A. Maxa and Rich Melnick concurred with today’s decision, however Melnick added a few paragraphs.

Melnick stated he agreed the sentence must be reversed, but didn’t believe the appeals court should be telling the trial court what issue to consider on remand.
•••

For background, read “”Do-over” on drive-by shooting sentence yields no change for Centralian” from Monday March 3, 2014, here

And Washington Courts: Court of Appeals Division II: State of Washington, Respondent V. Guadalupe Solis Diaz Jr., Appellant: 46002-5, here

News brief: Girl dead, driver airlifted following Centralia wreck

Monday, May 16th, 2016

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

A child is dead and a driver is in serious condition after their vehicle struck a parked pickup truck in Centralia this afternoon.

Police and aid were called at 2:47 p.m. to the collision near Galvin and Gallagher roads, according to the Centralia Police Department.

The driver, described only as a female, was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center, according to police. The girl, described only as younger than 10 years old, was declared dead at the scene, according to police Cmdr. Pat Fitzgerald.

Troopers with the Washington State Patrol’s major accident team are conducting the investigation.

Fitzgerald indicates Galvin Road, up to River Heights Road,  may remain closed for the next hours as they do their work.

The parked truck was unoccupied.

Both victims have been identified, but their names will not be released until after their next-of-kin are notified, according to police.

Investigation: Fatal Ham Hill fire cause not clear

Friday, May 13th, 2016
2016.0304.CPD.hamhillfirefire1flames

Courtesy photo from Centralia Police Department investigation

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – A joint police and fire department investigation has concluded the blaze that killed three children in their Centralia home was accidental but could not pinpoint a certain cause.

Investigators learned of two possible reasons for the March 4 fire on Ham Hill Road. The fire was believed to have started inside near the front door of the split level home.

2016.0304.smallhousefirehamhill8314

•••

One potential culprit was a compact florescent light bulb in a lamp and the other is recently laundered oily towels, both which had been at the point of origin, according to the Centralia Police Department.

Because more than one possible cause exists, the cause of the fire is officially ruled undetermined.

Their mother who had been sleeping downstairs escaped but the children never made out it out of their upstairs bedrooms. Benjamin D. Tower, 12; Madeline R. Tower, 10; and Samuel J. Tower, 7, died from smoke inhalation.

A police officer who responded to the approximately 12:45 a.m. was injured when he broke a window trying to rescue the kids.

Sue Tower had moved her family into the rental home less than a year earlier.

The Centralia Police Department issued its findings today.

A news release from Cmdr. Pat Fitzgerald states that police detectives and members of Riverside Fire Authority have been diligently investigating.

They knew that morning the origin was within about four feet of the front door.

“At the point of fire origin, there had been a lamp with a compact florescent light bulb (CFL), this light bulb could have malfunctioned and caused the fire,” Fitzgerald wrote. “No remains of the bulb were found.”

The other possible cause is the spontaneous combustion of oily towels, according to Fitzgerald. They had been washed and placed in a crate, near the front door, he indicated.

News brief: RFA douses two brush fires outside Centralia

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

The Centralia area fire department is urging the public to use extra caution when conducting outdoor burning, noting an unusually warm and dry spring after twice yesterday evening responding to brush fires.

At 4:50 p.m. crews were called to the 600 block of Centralia-Alpha Road where they found grass and light brush on fire covering an area of approximately 50-feet by 20-feet.

“The fire was quickly brought under control without any complications,” Fire Capt. Scott Weinert stated in a news release.

It appeared to have originated where brush had been piled up next to an area where the ground was being developed for some type of construction, according to Riverside Fire Authority.

“The RFA wishes to remind everyone that outdoor burning must be attended by a responsible person and a burning permit must be obtained from Lewis County,” Weinert wrote. “All conditions of the permit must be adhered to at all times.”

Twenty minutes after that call, the fire department was dispatched to TransAlta on the 900 block of Big Hanaford Road where employees discovered a nearly half-acre fire that consumed brush and ignited a pile of power poles as well as an over-sized tire and a debris pile, according to Weinert.

The workers had used a bulldozer to create a trail around the perimeter to prevent the fire from spreading, Weinert said.

It was just four days ago when three area fire departments spent all night attacking a wildfire on Crego Hill in Adna.

Last summer saw some of the largest, and fastest moving wild fires around the county, and the region, in recent history due to an exceptionally hot and dry summer.

Backpage.com encounter results in violent home invasion in rural Chehalis

Friday, May 6th, 2016

2016.0506.natrone.bostick.samath.hen.8595

Natrone D. Bostick, 19, left, and Samath L. Hem, 23, attempt to turn their seats to face a wall when they see a camera in the courtroom this afternoon.

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – Two Pierce County men have been ordered held on $100,000 bail for allegedly tying up a rural Chehalis man with a power cord and robbing him at gunpoint at his home where he had invited an escort he contacted on Backpage.com.

The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office reported yesterday checks belonging to the victim found in the trunk of a car associated with a Chehalis shoplifting case earlier this week led them to the suspects.

Natrone D. Bostick, 19, of Lakewood, and Samath L. Hem, 23, Tacoma, were interviewed in the Lewis County Jail where they had been booked on Tuesday for organized retail theft.

The sheriff’s office said two males arrived with the female to the residence on the 900 block of Logan Hill Road last Friday, but the 53-year-old victim didn’t report what happened until the following day.

The alleged facts set forth in the affidavit of probable cause basically indicate a home invasion, Lewis County Superior Court Judge Richard Brosey said this afternoon.

Hem, 23, reportedly told a detective he drove Bostick and the un-named female to Lewis County in his grandmother’s rented red Charger.

Court documents make no mention of why the three ended up at the Logan Hill home.

Charging documents give the following account of what the victim reported:

One of the males hit him in the head with a pistol, one of the males punched him the face multiple times.

“(He) stated he was dragged to his bedroom where he was tied up at his feet and ankles with a power cord,” Lewis County Deputy Prosecutor Paul Masiello wrote.

A pistol was pointed at him while one of them demanded the combination to his safe and the other two rummaged through his house.

They were in the residence several minutes and then fled. Once he was able to untie himself, he discovered valuables missing from his home, including a large television and some checkbooks.

The sheriff’s office reported this morning that search warrants were executed which resulted in the recovery of some of the victim’s property.

The victim was shown photo montages and identified Bostick, but was uncertain because the male at his home had been wearing a hoody.

A 21-year-old woman from Tacoma was arrested with Bostick and Hem on Tuesday by Chehalis police in their case, but has not been implicated by authorities in this case.

Bostick and Hem were charged today with first-degree robbery, first-degree assault, first-degree burglary and also with first-degree kidnapping, for allegedly holding the victim to facilitate the commission of a felony or flight thereafter.

Each of those offenses carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Hem, who has no felonies in his background, is to be represented by court-appointed attorney Jacob Clark. Centralia lawyer Don Blair was appointed for Bostick.

Their arraignments are scheduled for next Thursday afternoon.
•••

For background, read “Sirens: Daily police and fire roundup – BACKPAGE.COM ENCOUNTER ENDS WITH VIOLENT ROBBERY” from Thursday May 5, 2016, here

Fallen Chehalis officer to be honored

Friday, May 6th, 2016
2015.0619.rick.silva

Chehalis Police Officer Rick Silva

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – Chehalis Police Officer Rick Silva will be posthumously awarded the medal of honor today, for his exceptionally meritorious conduct while serving as a law enforcement officer.

The public ceremony will be held at noon at the state capitol in Olympia.

In addition, Officer Silva’s name will be unveiled at the Washington State Law Enforcement Memorial.

The Silva family as well as members of the Chehalis Police Department will be in attendance.

Silva died on June 18 of last year, not specifically while he was working, but in a line of duty death. He passed away due to complications during surgery he was undergoing related to a physical struggle with a resisting shoplifter earlier in the year, according to the Chehalis Police Department.

The 61-year-old began his law enforcement career in 1988 at the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and in 2002, he went to work for Chehalis.

The local community will be honoring Silva on June 16 at a ceremony during which his name will be unveiled on the Lewis County Law Enforcement Memorial at the front of the Lewis County Law and Justice Center in Chehalis, off Main Street.

Officer Silva will also be honored in Washington D.C. on May 15 during the 35th National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service, with his name added to the National Law Enforcement Memorial.

Police Chief Glenn Schaffer and two of the department’s honor guard members will be in attendance to escort Silva’s family to the various ceremonies and events.

National Police Week takes place Thursday through May 16.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department has a team taking part in a 300-mile bicycle ride to recognize and honor the sacrifices of officers who have died in the line of duty, and will be riding for Silva and two other officers from the Pacific Northwest who lost their lives during 2015. The Police Unity Tour finishes in Washington D.C., when the riders meet up with fallen officers’ families and present them with memorial bracelets worn during the ride at a candlelight vigil on Thursday.

Today’s ceremony on the campus of the state capitol will also be recognizing 11 other officers receiving the Washington State Law Enforcement medal of honor. Silva’s is one of three names being added to the memorial wall.

Washington State Patrol Trooper Brent Hanger died last Aug. 6 and the third line of duty death being recognized today is Chelan County Sheriff’s Office Deputy James M. Bennett who died July 14, 1911.

Behind the Badge Foundation and the Washington State Medal of Honor Committee are responsible for organizing and hosting today’s event.

•••

For background, read “Chehalis police mourn loss of veteran officer” from Friday June 19, 2015, here

Cause for Cenex fire will be undetermined

Thursday, May 5th, 2016
2016.0502.cenexafternoon8526

Just one side of the office-storage building remained standing on Monday afternoon at Cenex.

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – Whatever clues might have existed as to what ignited the Cenex building in Chehalis burned up in the fire, according to the fire chief.

Fire investigators spent the past two days exploring the scene at the 100 block of Northwest State Avenue, just north of Main Street.

“The damage was so extensive, they could not determine the cause,” Chehalis Fire Department Chief Ken Cardinale said today. “We were dealing with 2000 degree temperatures.”

The business was closed when flames were reported about 10:34 p.m. on Sunday.

Approximately 30 firefighters from four departments battled the blaze that mostly consumed the office-storage building, dealing with ongoing explosions of the contents.

The building held numerous  55-gallon drums of lubricating oil among other petroleum products, according to Cardinale.

Cenex includes a gas station, but the business also provides bulk delivery of various fuels including propane. Crews worked through the night keeping cool the numerous liquefied petroleum gas tanks on site to prevent them from exploding.

Cardinale said investigators spoke to workers and also to the individual who first reported the fire.

No problems had been reported by the company with its building, such as electrical issues, but the initial caller was able to say the fire at first was seen at the southwest corner of the building, according to the chief.

Investigators focused around that area, but didn’t find anything, the chief said.

A common aspect of fire investigations would be to take samples or have a dog sniff for accelerants, but the building contained mostly hydrocarbons, so that wasn’t an option, according to Cardinale.

An estimated dollar loss won’t be available until after the private contractor finishes cleaning up the surrounding area next week, Cardinale said.

At one point during the fire, the department stopped putting water on it and allowed it to burn, to reduce the amount of contaminated run off.

Cardinale said the adjacent dirt field should be cleaned up by tomorrow, but the contractor will be working next week on cleaning up culverts as well as a retention pond next to Interstate 5.
•••

For background, read “Fire claims Cenex in Chehalis” from Monday May 2, 2016, here

Twin Star Credit Union robber gets reduced sentence

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016
2016.0504.michael.lar8567

Michael A. Lar, right, confers with defense attorney David Arcuri in Lewis County Superior Court.

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – A 63-year-old repeat bank robber described as courteous and very literate spent about 30 minutes this morning engaged in oral arguments on his own case before Lewis County Superior Court Judge Nelson Hunt.

Michael A. Lar didn’t win on the point he made, but his life sentence was reduced to 18 years and six months.

“Mr. Lar, I have to tell you, you are the most confounding defendant I have had in my career,” Hunt said. “You are incredibly intelligent, very well-mannered and a violent criminal.”

Lar has multiple convictions for bank robbery, the earliest one local prosecutors could find was as far back as 1982.

According to Lewis County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Sara Beigh, Lar was released from prison in 1995, convicted again and released in January 2008.

He was arrested in January 2010 after an attempted robbery at Twin Star Credit Union in Centralia on South Gold Street.

Two employees arriving for work found a man who’d gotten inside by breaking a window. A responding police officer was able to pull one woman to safety and fired two shots before an hours-long standoff.

Police surrounded the bank, but after hiding in nearby bushes nearly 12 hours, a wounded Lar called a taxi and headed to Olympia, where he was arrested the same night, according to court documents.

After his trial in Lewis County Superior Court, Lar was found guilty of first-degree attempted robbery, first-degree kidnapping and first-degree burglary.

He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release, based on the so-called three strikes law. However, last year the state Court of Appeals reversed the sentence, saying his previous federal convictions were not comparable to “most serious” convictions under Washington law.

He appeared in court today, represented by Centralia defense attorney David Arcuri.

The discussion focused on how many points Lar had given previous convictions, for the purposes of computing the sentencing range that should apply.

Arcuri told the judge Lar wanted to make a legal argument, representing himself with Arcuri standing by.

He said his client was very well versed in the matter before the court.

“Mr. Lar knows the law about as well as any lawyer could,” Arcuri said.

Judge Hunt allowed it, noting his own experience showed him Lar was very learned in the area.

Lar cited case law addressing whether his two federal bank robbery convictions were comparable to state convictions, for the purposes of determining his “points.” Arcuri stepped back from the defense table, returning to help turn pages for the handcuffed defendant.

Judge Hunt ultimately agreed with Beigh however.

Hunt imposed 140 months for the  first-degree burglary, 222 months for first-degree kidnapping and 120 months for first-degree attempted robbery, all to be served concurrently.

Among the other orders were no contact with the victim and some $493 restitution to the credit union.

At the end of the hearing, Arcuri handed the judge notice of Lar’s intent to appeal.
•••

For background, read “Life sentence overturned for Twin Star bank robber” from Tuesday April 21, 2015, here

Salkum uncle gets year in jail for bow and arrow threat

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – The Salkum man who aimed a cross-bow at his 24-year-old niece and said he wanted to eviscerate her earlier this year pleaded guilty pursuant to a deal with prosecutors and was ordered by a judge to see a mental health professional.

Carl E. Griffith Jr., 45, pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and felony harassment today in Lewis County Superior Court. The deadly weapon enhancement was dropped from the charges.

2016.me0504.0225.carl.griffith.8292small

Carl E. Griffith Jr.

Griffith chose not to speak on his own behalf but indicated he wanted a court order prohibiting his niece from contacting him.

Judge Richard Brosey went along with prosecutor’s recommendation of 12 months in jail, which was twice what Griffith’s lawyer asked for.

“I’m of the opinion Mr. Griffith needs to get a message this kind of conduct will not be tolerated,” Brosey said.

Brosey called the crime beyond the pale and not acceptable.

Griffith has five assault convictions in his background, one of which was a felony, although he has been crime free for 16 years, according to the two attorneys.

Today’s conviction however was a second strike offense.

Lewis County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Will Halstead told the judge there are mental health issues in this particular case.

According to charging documents, the incident came to the attention of law enforcement when a mental health provider at Valley View Health in Toledo reported Griffith had come in for a session, emotional and extremely agitated, and confessed what he had done.

He said his niece was at his mom’s home doing laundry when he  began yelling at her, grabbed the bow, placed it in full draw and pointed it at her, according to the documents. He said he then pulled her out of the house by the hair and threw her into the front yard.

The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office said Griffith went into great detail about what he wanted to do to her corpse.

Halstead said the information frightened the counselor so much, she no longer does that kind of work.

Judge Brosey gave Griffith 72 days credit for time already served and ordered 12 months of community custody following his release. He ordered him to have no contact with the victim.

Griffith is disabled and on social security, defense attorney David Arcuri told the judge.

The judge also ordered him to get a mental health evaluation and follow through on whatever treatment, if any, is recommended.
•••

For background, read “Salkum uncle charged for bow and arrow threat” from Friday February 26, 2016, here

Defendant head-butts father during trial, tries to flee

Monday, May 2nd, 2016
Law enforcement officers stop defendant from leaving Lewis County Superior Court courtroom

Law enforcement officers stop defendant from leaving Lewis County Superior Court courtroom

Updated at 6:26 p.m.

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS –  A defendant on trial in Chehalis this morning reportedly got up from his seat, head-butted his father who was in the audience and fled the courtroom.

Dominic Combs did not get very far as numerous law enforcement officers were already present on the fourth floor of the Lewis County Law and Justice Center.

He was stopped at the doorway exiting Lewis County Superior Court Judge James Lawler’s courtroom by corrections office as well as Centralia officers who were there for his case.

At least three Lewis County sheriff’s detectives at the end of the hall ran down to assist.

Chief Deputy Stacy Brown said it was a bench trial, so there was no jury in the room.

Combs arm was injured as he went through the door so he was taken to Providence Centralia Hospital, Brown said.

Combs was on trial for incidents stemming from mid-February of this year that resulted in charges of felony harassment, intimidating a witness, second-degree burglary, protection order violations and second-degree trespass, according to his lawyer David Arcuri.

The judge declared a mistrial.

Fire claims Cenex in Chehalis

Monday, May 2nd, 2016
2016.0501.cenexfire.main.DaltenCrosby

A fire alarm summoned about 30 firefighters to Cenex in Chehalis last night. / Courtesy photo by Dalten Crosby

Updated at 12:50 p.m.

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – An overnight fire at Cenex on Northwest State Street in Chehalis destroyed its building but nobody was injured.

The cause is under investigation.

Firefighters called about 10:34 p.m. found flames already coming through the roof of the approximately 50-foot by 200-foot metal sided building, according to the Chehalis Fire Department.

Cenex’s fuel pumps and underground tanks didn’t come into play, but crews had numerous LPG tanks they had to keep cool to keep them from exploding, according to the fire department.

The building which holds offices and storage contained numerous 55-gallon drums of lubricating oil, many of which exploded, Fire Chief Ken Cardinale sad.

“We had 10 to 15 explosions,” Cardinale said. “From numerous BBQ-sized propane tanks.”

Because of the concern about the hazardous runoff, at about midnight they decided to stop putting water on the fire and let the product burn off, he said.

They managed to keep the oils and related products out of a nearby creek, Cardinale said. Hazardous materials response people were on the scene this morning.

West Main Street is closed this morning from Interstate 5 to Northwest Chehalis Avenue.

Cardinale said he expected they would be out there all day.

The Chehalis Fire Department was assisted by Lewis County Fire District 6, Riverside Fire Authority and West Thurston Regional Fire Authority.

2016.0502.cenex.am.CharlesDiMaggio530

The fire at Cenex as the sun comes up today. / Courtesy photo by Charles DiMaggio

Many witnesses, included convicted murderer, expected for John Booth’s attempt to undo life sentence

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – Two days of court hearings begin tomorrow morning on convicted triple murderer John A. Booth Jr.’s motion to vacate his life sentence.

Booth was convicted for the August 2010 fatal shootings on Wings Way in Onalaska of David West Sr., 52, David “D.J.” West Jr., 16, and Tony Williams, 50. West Sr.’s girlfriend, Denise Salts, survived a gunshot wound to her face. Prosecutors said he was collecting a drug debt.

2011.1206.booth.close_2

John Allen Booth Jr.

The former Onalaska resident denied the shootings, but was given a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of release under the “three strikes” law following his December 2011 trial in Lewis County Superior Court.

The hearings are scheduled to begin in Lewis County Superior Court at 9 a.m. before Judge Richard Brosey.

Among the many witnesses Booth, through his lawyer, is expected to call to the stand is Robert J. Maddaus Jr., formerly of Rochester, who is similarly serving a life term in prison.

Maddaus was convicted earlier in 2011 for the first-degree murder of Shaun Allen Peterson. Peterson died handcuffed and shot on an Olympia street early on Nov. 16, 2009, in what prosecutors said was a weekend of threats and attempts by Maddaus to recover pounds of missing methamphetamine.

Maddaus was transported to the Lewis County Jail on Friday morning.

Lewis County Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Brad Meagher said Booth has subpoenaed a lot of witnesses, including many employees of the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office.

The burden is Booth’s to make the case to the judge on his motion, Meagher said.

Booth is represented by court assigned defense attorney Erik Kupka. He contends eavesdropping on inmates in the jail  jeopardized his rights to confidential communications with his lawyers.

The motion to vacate the judgement and sentence is based on court rule 7.8.

Meagher said he thinks this could be Booth’s final appeal.

“We beat his appeal, we beat his personal restraint petition, we beat another motion he made,” Meagher said. “I think this is his last hurrah.”

•••

For background, read “Judge to hear convicted triple murderer John A. Booth’s motion in May” from Wednesday April 13, 2016, here

Probe into unspecified “organized crime” nets local resident eligible for deportation

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – A Chehalis business owner has pleaded not guilty to local charges related to using an alias following a search by local, state and federal agencies of his warehouse, his home and several vehicles.

A sheriff’s detective began looking into Champion Greens located on Northwest West Street in Chehalis based on information that arose pursuant to an investigation by multiple agencies into organized criminal activity in Washington state, according to court documents.

Both the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office said the case involved an ongoing investigation, which they have not commented on.

Lewis County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Will Halstead declined to say what type of organized crime was being looked into or what law enforcement agencies were doing the looking.

Elvis A. Matias-Lopez, 34, of Chehalis, is charged in Lewis County Superior Court with three class C felonies and is free on a $10,000 unsecured signature bond.

Halstead said he believes Matias-Lopez is Guatemalan.

The current charges relate to Matias-Lopez allegedly registering to vote, possessing two guns without the required alien firearm license and using the name Elvis A. Matias-Lopez for over 10 years, according to court documents.

Matias-Lopez pleaded not guilty on Thursday in Lewis County Superior Court to first-degree criminal impersonation, false declaration as to qualifications as a voter and alien in possession of a firearm without an alien firearm license.

He hired Centralia lawyer Don Blair after his April 20 arrest.

Charging documents in the case don’t reveal the nature of the organized crime being investigated, they only state a Lewis County sheriff’s detective became aware of Champion Greens because of that investigation, back in September 2014.

Champion Greens is a forest products foraging business consisting of a large cinder block structure, with multiple loading bays and “ample” storage area on Northwest West Street in Chehalis, according to the documents.

Law enforcement decided to conduct surveillance which continued regularly until last October on Matias-Lopez, his business co-owner, Champion Greens and his residence, according to court documents.

According to court documents, the sheriff’s office found Matias-Lopez was illegally in the country and eligible for deportation.

Another deputy learned from Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Oregon that Matias-Lopez had previously informed them he’d legally changed his name in the Guatemalan court system, but in February, inquiries showed no evidence of Jose Matias-Lucas changing his name, according to court documents.

Search warrants were secured on April 19 and the following day, served with the assistance of local, state and federal agencies.

Items were seized which included but not were limited to documents showing Matias-Lopez’s “dominance and control” of the various structures and vehicles, receipts, bank drafts, inspection forms, a voter registration card, a  12-gauge shotgun, a Ruger LCP and ammunition, according to the court documents.

Prosecutor Halstead, who is handling the case in Lewis County Superior Court, said late last week he “cant’ answer that” as to whether any indications of organized criminal activity were found during the searches.

A phone call seeking comment from Matias-Lopez’s attorney was not returned.

The three alleged violations of state law each carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison. His trial is scheduled for the week of July 11.