A man who pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court to setting a fire outside the abandoned Seattle Police East Precinct during the Capitol Hill “CHOP” occupation was a housemate of Manuel Ellis and was frustrated and angry over his friend’s death at the hands of Tacoma police when he committed the crime, according to his attorney.
Once it became clear the police officers who killed Ellis would be charged and held accountable for his death, Isaiah Thomas Willoughby agreed to plead guilty and take responsibility for his actions last June, where he used gasoline to set a fire to a pile of trash outside the precinct, Seattle federal public defender Dennis Carroll said.
According to criminal charges filed last month against three Tacoma officers accused of killing Ellis on March 3, 2020, the officers stopped the unarmed Ellis for no apparent reason and initiated a confrontation that ended with Ellis beaten, stunned and suffocating to death, his last words, “Can’t breathe, sir!” The officers have pleaded not guilty.
Willoughby, 36, was also angered by the similar death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 — a killing that prompted national protests — and had bad experiences with police himself, Carroll said.
“Mr. Willoughby’s actions in setting the fire at the East Precinct were motivated in large part by the killing of his friend Manny, the murder of George Floyd, and his own experiences with law enforcement,” Carroll said in a statement.
“After learning that the State of Washington would hold Manny’s killers accountable, Mr. Willoughby decided that he would take accountability for his own actions by entering a plea of guilty for his actions related to a fire he set at the Seattle Police Department East Precinct,” he said.
Ellis and Willoughby were both living at a sober-living home in south Tacoma called God’s Hand Up at the time of Ellis’ death, confirmed Cedric Armstrong, who runs the house.
Willoughby was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of arson and conspiracy and faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted. He pleaded guilty to arson in an agreement in which the government said it will ask for a three-year sentence.
In the agreement, Willoughby admitted that he set the fire outside the precinct in the early morning hours of June 12, 2020, just days after police had abandoned the precinct and Black Lives Matter protesters had taken over the area and declared it the police-free Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone.
Sentencing is scheduled before U.S. District Judge John Coughenour on Oct. 4.
Willoughby admitted he used gasoline to soak a small pile of debris piled against the wall of the police station, according to the plea agreement, then is seen on video setting it ablaze.
The fire was extinguished by others nearby and the building suffered no structural damage.
The incident was captured on video in which Willoughby is seen wearing a distinctive bright yellow sweatshirt from a clothing line he represented as a social media influencer. That sweatshirt helped police identify him, according to the complaint and plea agreement.
Relatives of Willoughby reported to police that he was in Seattle in the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest zone at the time of the fire. Following the fire, Willoughby took steps to remove posts from his social media accounts that may have linked him to the arson, according to court documents. However, at least some of his Facebook posts remain, noting his anger at police and his knowledge of the East Precinct building.
Another man who pleaded guilty to helping set a different fire two months later at the East Precinct during the protests also has a direct tie to someone killed by police: Desmond David-Pitts, a 20-year-old from Alaska, came to the Seattle protests after his 16-year-old brother was killed by officers in Anchorage. He was recently sentenced to 20 months in prison.