The man who set a fire inside a crowded Capitol Hill gay nightclub on New Year’s Eve was sentenced Thursday to 10 years in federal prison for arson — double the amount of time agreed to by attorneys in the case.
Musab Mohammed Masmari had pleaded guilty to the charge and wrote the court, admitting to setting the fire at Neighbours, but claimed he had no recollection of doing so because he was blackout drunk.
However, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez brushed aside those assertions, concluded Masmari had set the fire because the club’s patrons were gay, and said he would invoke his discretion to impose an exceptional sentence.
Masmari did not speak in court. His attorney, Charles Swift, said the harsh sentence was not entirely unexpected “due to the political nature of this case.” He said Masmari would appeal the sentence.
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Masmari was initially charged with arson in King County Superior Court; however, the federal prosecutors decided to indict him after it was determined that state sentencing guidelines would allow for only a two- or three-year prison sentence. The federal arson charge carries a mandatory-minimum five-year sentence, with a maximum of 20 years.
But the judge said the huge potential for loss of life at the club and the “common sense” conclusion that Masmari had set the fire because he disliked gays provided the court with the justification to impose the longer sentence — one equivalent to a sentence for attempted murder.
Martinez imposed the sentence after noting the courtroom comments by a Neighbours employee who was working the night of the arson, Shaun Knittel, who said he and others in the community were “disgusted” with the agreed-upon five-year sentence. The club was packed that night, he said, with “people who are irreplaceable to us.”
“This was a blatant attack on our lives,” he said.
Knittel said after the sentence that he was pleased with the outcome.
In a statement of responsibility submitted before the sentencing, the 31-year-old Masmari admitted to setting the fire at Neighbours but said he had no recollection of it.
“On New Year’s Eve I bought a cheap bottle of whiskey and then drank all of it,” he wrote. “I do not remember what happened after I drank the whiskey.”
He declined to speak during his sentencing, referring to his statement.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Greenberg argued that, but for the quick action of employees like Knittel and others, a tragedy would have resulted. The club, well known in Seattle’s gay community, has been open for 30 years and was filled with more than 750 revelers when the fire was set.
Martinez said he didn’t believe Masmari’s blackout story because the crime was too well-planned and Masmari tried to leave the country on a flight to Turkey afterward.
There was evidence the arson was a hate crime — statements by confidential informants and other sources — but they were not admissible as evidence and prevented Masmari from being charged under that statute.
Considering his lack of criminal history, it is unlikely that under the sentencing guidelines he would have been eligible for more than five years in prison even if the hate-crime enhancement was applied.
According to the charges, a friend of Masmari’s contacted the FBI in early January to say that he was concerned that Masmari “may be planning some terrorist activity,” according to search-warrant documents filed earlier in Superior Court. The friend, who was not identified by authorities, worked as a confidential informant for the FBI and Seattle police after the fire, the documents say.
The friend also told investigators that Masmari, on a number of occasions, expressed his “distaste for homosexual people” and thought they “should be exterminated,” the documents said.
Police say that Masmari avoided a security check at Neighbours by entering an adjacent bar called Therapy Lounge. He then passed through an interior door between the bars into the two-floor dance club and was seen on surveillance footage walking around with an object that appeared large enough to contain a 1-gallon gas can, according to the state charging documents.
Masmari allegedly fled the club within seconds of flames first appearing on the footage, the papers say. Club patrons and a bartender quickly doused the blaze with a fire extinguisher.
Police released grainy surveillance photos of the suspect in January, and several people called in tips to police, including the friend named in the warrant, according to information presented in the arson case.
Days before his arrest on Feb. 1, Masmari — who also goes by the surnames Musmari and Al Masmari — booked a one-way flight to Turkey. He was arrested by police as he was preparing to leave for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Masmari was born in California, but his family returned to Libya when he was an infant; he came back to the United States permanently in 2009, according to charging paperwork filed in the arson case.