A 66-year-old Des Moines grandmother will receive $100,000 from the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority to settle a civil-rights lawsuit alleging she was wrongly investigated and charged with first-degree felony arson. The arson charge resulted from a 2016 fire in a Kent strip mall that leveled a Dollar Tree store and damaged two other businesses.
Linda Poplawski agreed to dismiss the lawsuit against the agency and Capt. Eric Pedersen, a 30-year-old veteran Kent City fire investigator whom the lawsuit claims “willfully withheld” evidence that could have linked the fire to a known gang member and convicted arsonist nicknamed “Coconut.” The day of the fire, Nov. 13, 2016, a witness called Kent police to say Coconut had admitted to starting the fire as a diversion when he thought he had been caught shoplifting at the store, located at 23406 Pacific Highway South.
According to court documents, Pedersen never followed up on the tip and withheld the existence of the possible suspect from both prosecutors and defense attorneys while he attempted to build an eyewitness-driven prosecution against Poplawski, a lifelong area resident who lived just blocks away and frequently shopped at the Kent Dollar Tree store. Poplawski has no criminal history and is disabled and on Social Security, according to the pleadings.
Efforts to contact Pedersen at the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority were not successful. The agency’s public-information officer, Capt. Joe Root, confirmed Tuesday that Pedersen remains a “productive member of the regional fire authority who is in good standing.” He did not know whether Pedersen was disciplined over the investigation.
Poplawski became a target in the case after a newly hired store cashier told Pedersen that Poplawski had come into the store and complained loudly about there not being enough shopping carts, according to police records. The employee said Poplawski left and then returned to say she was going to burn the store down. Poplawski reportedly ventured into the store — where as many as 50 people were shopping — and then came out to say there was a fire in back. None of the other witnesses interviewed by defense investigators reported hearing Poplawski say anything about burning the store and nobody saw her set a fire.
Other employees would later tell defense investigators that Poplawski was one of many customers who routinely complained about the dearth of Dollar Tree shopping carts, but that she was well known in the store among veteran workers and was considered a good customer, according to the lawsuit. Indeed, police records show that Poplawski was among the first people to report the fire to 911 emergency dispatch, using a cellphone borrowed from a Dollar Tree employee.
According to the lawsuit, Pedersen did not attempt to confirm the cashier’s story with other customers or workers and quickly dismissed the report taken by another Kent officer that the purported gang member known as “Coconut” had possibly been seen by others in and around the store before and immediately after the fire started. According to court documents, that individual has 11 felony convictions, including a prior first-degree arson. He has not been charged in connection with the Dollar Tree fire.
Prosecutors charged Poplawski three days after the fire, on Nov. 16, 2016, based on Pedersen’s investigation. The charges were dismissed on a motion by prosecutors in August 2017 after Poplawski’s criminal attorney, public defender Brian Beattie, turned up two follow-up reports — including the one about the second possible suspect — that had not been provided to the defense, in likely violation of the requirements of Brady vs. Maryland, a landmark 1963 ruling by the United States Supreme Court that requires the prosecution to turn over all evidence that might exonerate a defendant to the defense.
Beattie obtained the records only after serving a subpoena on the Kent Police Department just days before the trial in King County Superior Court was scheduled to convene, according to the court file. Much of that time Poplawski spent in custody, said her civil attorney, Christopher Carney.
Poplawski declined an interview. Carney said she avoided being convicted of a crime she did not commit only because, “Luckily, Ms. Poplawski had a skilled and tenacious defense team, who left no stone unturned.”
“The investigator in this case failed to hand over critical evidence that showed that someone else was responsible for the fire,” he said. “Once the evidence was finally handed over, the prosecutor promptly dismissed the case, but only after Ms. Poplawski endured months of fear and undeserved loss of her freedom.”