A 46-year-old man who recently moved to Washington from Hawaii was charged Monday with first-degree arson, accused of setting a fire last week in his sixth-floor room at the Renton Red Lion hotel, which has been used since April to house more than 200 homeless clients of Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
William Mara III has not been transported to court for a first-appearance hearing due to medical reasons but King County prosecutors have requested that his bail be set at $100,000, jail and court records show.
Mara has pending misdemeanor assault and harassment charges in Seattle Municipal Court from incidents that occurred in October and November and had been a resident at the Red Lion for about three weeks before setting the Nov. 25 blaze, say charging papers.
It does not appear that Mara has an attorney yet. He is to be arraigned Dec. 10.
According to the charges:
Citing information provided by DESC staff, Renton police detectives learned the hotel’s sixth floor is reserved for people with mental health challenges and only seven people were living on the floor at the time of the fire.
Mara’s caseworker told investigators Mara’s medication had recently changed, he admitted to using meth and there were concerns he was suicidal.
The morning of the fire, Mara became agitated after his caseworker refused to give him his heartburn medication, which was only to be taken at night. She suggested he leave for a while to calm down but he told her he was going “to burn the place down,” say the charges.
Around 10:45 a.m., the caseworker returned to the room to help Mara’s roommate move to a different room. She later returned to the room again but was unable to unlock the door with an electronic key card so sought the help of a locksmith.
When the caseworker and locksmith went to Mara’s room around 11:40 a.m., they found him standing shirtless in the doorway with black smoke filling the room behind him. The locksmith later recalled seeing the glow of flames right before the sprinkler system turned on.
Mara, who claimed he was being set up by the government, refused to leave but was eventually escorted outside, where he was arrested by Renton police, according to the charges.
Staff members called 911 and evacuated the other residents from the hotel. The fire was doused by either the sprinklers or responding firefighters.
An investigation into the cause of the fire indicated that it had been intentionally set, according to the charges: It is believed a roll of toilet paper was set on fire, then used to burn a couch cushion, cardboard, greeting cards and other debris piled in the middle of the floor. A lighter was found in Mara’s pocket after he was arrested.
The use of the Red Lion as a shelter has been a matter of heated debate in Renton: After hearing almost an hour of impassioned community testimony last week, city officials could vote as early as Monday on an emergency ordinance that would restrict shelters’ placement and operations and set a six-month move-out date at the Red Lion.
During the pandemic, crowded congregate shelters don’t allow for proper social distancing and risk the spread of coronavirus among a vulnerable population. In April, to protect the health of DESC’s clients, the county moved almost the entire population of the downtown Seattle Morrison Hotel shelter — many of whom have disabilities, serious mental illness or substance use disorders — to the Red Lion close to downtown Renton.
Soon, Renton businesses, officials and the mayor began to complain about increasing 911 calls around the hotel, which — though lower than what the shelter generated in Seattle — was much higher than local police said they’d ever seen, according to a Seattle Times story in May.
In June, Renton leaders told the county, the shelter operator and the investors group that owns the hotel that they were in violation of the city’s zoning codes. The county appealed that decision to the Renton hearing examiner, who ruled that the county needed to apply to the city for a permit or leave — but also that the city’s zoning code was vague when it came to homeless shelters.
The emergency ordinance introduced last week would require shelter operators to meet requirements like submitting a map of routes clients are encouraged to use to travel around the city, and a plan to maintain “site aesthetics” by cleaning graffiti and picking up trash. DESC’s executive director, Dan Malone, said last week the detailed and stringent requirements would be “very difficult” for providers to meet.
Police were called to the hotel again on Wednesday: Around noon, the Renton Fire Department tweeted that firefighters and police had responded to the Red Lion after receiving a call that a person had set off the sprinkler system.
Renton police Cmdr. Dave Leibman said officers responded to a report of a verbal threat around 11 a.m. and when they arrived, they learned a 39-year-old man had barricaded himself in his fourth-floor room and had threatened to burn the building down. The man set off the sprinkler and officers eventually forced their way into the room that was flooded but empty of occupants, Leibman said.
The 39-year-old was eventually contacted by officers outside the hotel but Leibman said he couldn’t tell from dispatch records if the man was arrested or transported to jail.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.