Tacoma police have arrested a 15-year-old boy on suspicion of burglarizing the historic pagoda structure at Point Defiance Park and later setting it on fire.
Pierce County prosecutors have charged the Tacoma teen with first-degree arson for the April 15 fire at the pagoda, second-degree burglary and second-degree malicious mischief for a break-in April 6 and unlawful possession of an incendiary device.
The teen made his first court appearance this afternoon and was ordered held in secure detention at Remann Hall juvenile court until his next court date in May. His lawyer entered not guilty pleas to all charges on the teen’s behalf.
Ruston police stopped the teen early Wednesday as he rode his bicycle toward the park, Tacoma police spokesman Mark Fulghum said.
The bicycle was not illuminated. The officer knew about the previous fires and, after following the boy for several blocks, honked his horn to stop the teen, charging documents state.
The officer found a one-gallon plastic can full of gasoline in his backpack and a box of wooden matches in one of his pockets. When asked why he thought he was stopped, the teen responded, “yes, because of the fires.” He told police he was going to the boat house down at the marina, charging documents state.
“When asked where his parents thought he was, the respondent stated that he snuck out, so they would think he was at home in bed,” charging documents state.
A Tacoma police detective obtained a search warrant for the boys’ phone and found several text messages sent from the phone and talking about the fires in the park.
“Hey … I broke into a building,” said one text sent April 6 at 12:51 a.m.
“Hey … we should start a fire in that 1 building I told u about,” said another text sent April 14 at 11:24 p.m.
On the day of the pagoda fire, one text stated, “Yes I crashed someone’s wedding 2.”
The teen did not make a statement to police after his arrest.
Flames and smoke heavily damaged the iconic pagoda, the centerpiece of Point Defiance Park’s Japanese garden, on April 15. A Metro Parks Tacoma garbage worker spotted the smoke during the early hours and called Tacoma firefighters. Smoke had filled the structure’s main floor by the time fire crews arrived at the park.
The fire scorched the building’s wood beams. Several of the roof’s original clay tiles were damaged when firefighters pried them off to get at the fire’s remaining spots in the roof.
Investigators had been investigating the pagoda fire as an arson and investigating whether it was tied to an April 6 break-in of the building’s basement area.
In both cases, someone got into the building through a louvered window on the west side of the building, charging documents state. During the April 6 break-in, several of the window panes had been removed and smashed. During the April 15 fire, investigators found that six of the glass panels had been removed and placed on the ground. The detective “noted that the panels did not have any smoke damage, indicating they had been removed prior to the fire,” charging documents state.
They also were looking into whether it was connected to other smaller fires set in the park. Several garbage cans were set on fire April 11 at Owen Beach. Toilet paper had been lit and thrown into a track can inside the men’s bathroom near the Rustic Picnic area on April 18.
Fulghum said Monday that detectives are looking at whether the teen is connected to the other, smaller fires.
The teen has no prior history with the Tacoma police or Ruston police departments, Fulghum said. He’s homeschooled.
Metro Parks Tacoma officials have been working to figure out how much it will cost and how long it will take to restore the nearly 100-year-old building, which is insured. Those estimates are not expected for up to two months.