Living On Edge: Inside the Winthrop arson investigation

For most residents of the Winthrop apartment building in downtown Tacoma, just living day-to-day is hard enough. The 12-story, 84-year-old former historic hotel, located at the corner of South Ninth and Commerce Streets, is home to approximately 200 residents facing a variety of challenges, such as physical disabilities, mental health issues, and limited incomes.

But for nearly three weeks this summer, residents had to deal with another issue.

According to Tacoma Police, the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office, and Winthrop residents, between Aug. 16 and Sept. 2, eight fires were intentionally set in different areas of the building. On Aug. 21, Crime Stoppers of Tacoma and Pierce County offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

On Sept. 8, the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office charged Theophil J. Braa, 46, with six counts of first-degree arson. Braa was in court on that day, but did not enter a plea. Instead, he was ordered to Western State Hospital for two weeks to determine if he was mentally competent to stand trial. He was scheduled to appear in court again on Sept. 25. However, according to court records, the judge reviewed Braa’s Forensic Psychological Report, which was filed on Oct. 2, and received an e-mail from Western State’s Lori K. Thiemann, Ph.D., regarding his mental status, and ordered Braa to remain in the hospital.

Dr. Thiemann’s evaluation has been sealed by the court.

But publicly available court documents, which include charging documents, a Declaration for Determination of Probable Cause (DDPC), and 13 victim impact statements, provide insight into what it was like this summer when Tacoma police officers and fire investigators diligently worked to solve the case and stop the fires, and Winthrop residents dealt with the hassle and fear of their building the target of an alleged arsonist.

6 FIRES IN 17 DAYS

According to the DDPC — a six-page document which was prepared by Bertha B. Fitzer, deputy prosecuting attorney for Pierce County, and is based on the investigation completed by the Tacoma Police Department (TPD) and Tacoma Fire Department (TFD) — the investigation began on Aug. 17, when a Tacoma police officer responded to a report of a fire at the Winthrop. Upon arrival, the officer called for a TFD investigator, who determined two separate fires had been deliberately started. One fire was ignited in a metal trash can located in the laundry room on floor “B.” Another fire was ignited in a plastic trash can in the garbage room also on floor “B.”

A man who lived on the floor where the fires were set told the officer that he had just returned from collecting his mail when he and a female neighbor noticed a strong odor of smoke coming from the south end of the hall. The pair discovered flames two- to three-feet high in the laundry room. The man grabbed a fire extinguisher and doused the flames. By now, someone had pulled the fire alarm, and the pair gathered with other residents on Commerce Street in front of the Winthrop. But moments later, he followed maintenance staff back inside to help put out the fire in the garbage room, where the sprinklers had activated.

For TFD, it was a familiar scenario. The day before, firefighters were called to the Winthrop to put out a fire set in the ninth floor laundry room.

On the evening of Sept. 1, according to the DDPC, Tacoma police responded to another suspected arson at the Winthrop. Upon arrival, a police officer was directed to the seventh floor garbage room and found a large plastic garbage can ablaze. The officer contacted a TFD investigator, who said he believed the fire to be arson similar to the others. Approximately two hours later, TPD and TFD again responded to a fire at the Winthrop — this time in a recycle bin in the ninth floor garbage room.

On Sept. 3, just after midnight, a TPD detective responded to another report of a fire set in a laundry room at the Winthrop, according to the court documents. Two residents told a TFD investigator they were in the laundry room when they noticed a purple shirt on the floor. A short time later, they returned and discovered the shirt on fire. They put out the fire by stomping on it. The detective and the investigator soon learned there were actually two fires that night. While the TFD investigator was looking into the first fire, a second fire was started in the garbage room on the ninth floor (the third fire in this room in two days). On fire was a small plastic grocery bag containing Top Ramen Noodles, cans, paper, an empty pack of Camel cigarettes, a unique “pin,” two cigarette butts, a clothing tag from a pair of size 34-38 men’s pants, and part of a sign from the eighth floor garbage room (the sign informed residents garbage cans had been removed and the hours to use the garbage rooms was restricted).

Investigators also found footprints with “the traces of a chemical agent,” according to the DDPC.

At that time, they were approached by a man who lived down the hall from the ninth floor garbage room. According to the DDPC, the man said he pulled the fire alarm and grabbed an extinguisher to put out the fire. That information was odd to the fire investigator because the building’s manager informed him the fire was discovered by a different resident and had been extinguished by a security guard working at the Winthrop, according to court documents. The guard confirmed he had put out the fire. The guard also said he saw two women heading to the stairwell as he came onto the ninth floor.

What about the man on the ninth floor who said he put out the fire?

The security guard said he never saw that man, prosecutors allege.

According to the investigators, the ninth floor resident who claimed to put out the fire volunteered to have the soles of his sandals photographed before returning to his apartment. According to the DDPC, the man told investigators his name was Theophil Braa.

– AN INVESTIGATION NARROWS–

Later that day, Tacoma Police Officer Jim Pincham, who patrols downtown and works closely with Winthrop management and residents on public safety issues, responded to a fire alarm on the third floor. According to the DDPC, Deborah Braa, a third-floor resident and Theophil’s wife, approached Pincham to tell him Theophil had assaulted her. After some investigation, court records show Pincham arrested Braa for domestic violence assault.

Meanwhile, the TPD detective and TFD investigator who spoke with Theophil earlier that day asked Deborah about Theophil, the alarms, and the fires, according to the DDPC. She said she was concerned Theophil was involved. She agreed to meet for a recorded interview at TPD headquarters.

Deborah Braa, who had undergone back surgery and needed assistance getting around, told investigators that during every false alarm and every fire, Braa was not at her side. She spoke of the Sept. 1 fire, and how Theophil left the apartment and told her that he was “out looking for the arsonist” when the fire was set. When the alarm went off, she told investigators, Theophil returned to the apartment to help her out of the building. As they walked through the lobby, Deborah added, Theophil pulled a fire alarm. When they returned to the apartment, Theophil left again and Deborah went to bed. Moments later, she told investigators, another fire was started.

As for the Sept. 3 fires, Deborah told investigators she and Theophil returned home from a hospital visit around 11:30 p.m. on Sept. 2. A fire was started in the laundry room shortly thereafter. Theophil, who was not in Deborah’s apartment during the fire, returned and helped her out of the building. When they returned to her apartment, she said he stuffed some papers down the front of his pants and then left the apartment again. When he returned he did not have the papers with him. He told Deborah that he had touched some papers in the fire room and said, “I hope they don’t fingerprint the paper or something,” according to the DDPC. She also told the investigator and the detective about how earlier that morning, Theophil had left to take out the garbage. When he returned, he still had the garbage but smelled of smoke. “He left and that’s when the alarm went off,” she said, referring to a false alarm set at approximately 9:00 a.m. She also added she was in the hospital from Friday to Sunday the week before (with Theophil at her side) and away from the Winthrop for most of this week — a period when there were no fire alarms.

Investigators also recorded an interview with a couple who live on the third floor. The woman said she was visiting Deborah around 9:00 p.m. when Theophil entered the apartment and immediately went to the bathroom to wash his hands. When the woman went to leave, she heard a fire alarm. Theophil told her it was nothing. But moments later, she saw smoke, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and began to knock on the doors of other tenants. She told investigators Theophil got mad, yelled at her to leave, and said he would knock on neighbors’ doors. She thought it was odd that Theophil was upset at her for notifying the other tenants “as if he wanted the glory.” Her partner told investigators that after the fire on the ninth floor, when Braa told investigators he used a fire extinguisher, Theophil told him, “You know what, I’ve got an alibi for this one.” The man thought Theophil’s comment was odd.

‘STRAIGHT UP’ WITH DETECTIVES

On Sept. 4, a TPD detective and a police officer arrived at the Pierce County jail to transport Theophil to TPD headquarters for an interview. Upon arrival, Braa agreed to a recorded interview and waived his Miranda Rights, according to the DDPC. Prosecutors say he initially denied any involvement in the fires, agreed to a polygraph exam, then rescinded. Moments later, Braa said he wanted to be “straight up” with them. According to Tacoma Police, Braa admitted to starting six of the eight fires set between Aug. 16 and Sept. 2. He denied starting the Sept. 2 laundry room fire where a T-shirt was burned. In addition, he claimed that he accidentally started one of the ninth floor garbage can fires; Braa said the fire started when he emptied his ash tray in the garbage. When asked about the false alarms, he admitted to pulling the fire alarm twice because he was upset, according to the DDPC.

Prosecutors say he also admitted that he had several other attempts that did not “take off” — he would light papers in the recycle bins and close the lid, but the fire didn’t burn. Investigators say Braa provided details about the fires that only the person responsible would know.

During the interview, court documents state Braa denied starting fires, then confessed to the activities. At one point, he admitted starting all the Winthrop’s fires. He told investigators he set the fires because the Winthrop’s managers were not doing anything about alleged illegal activities in the building and he wanted to get the attention of the police, according to prosecutors. He also said he recently lost his job. He wanted a mental evaluation because he didn’t know why he was setting the fires. Several times throughout the interview, according to the DDPC, Braa broke down in tears and said he was sorry.

CHAOS DESCRIBED

During the 17 days of fire alarms and arsons, a current of anxiety and unease ran through the building.

Thirteen hand-written victim statements, collected by the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office and available to the general public through Pierce County Superior Court, describe the chaos.

An employee in the Winthrop’s management office wrote, “[A]ll the fires [and] false alarms . . . had a huge effect on us. We always have to stop everything and make sure elevators are locked and down to [the] first floor, tenants are evacuating properly, comply with the Fire Dept., call to restore the alarms and dismantle alarms after locating fire, and all the commotion that goes with it. Sometimes they would be within 3 hours of each other. Due to these, we could NOT do any of our regular daily work and had to stay until midnight on more than one occasion to accomplish some of our daily work. Our maintenance crew [was] mentally and physically exhausted and had to stay home one day to catch up on their sleep. It was all very nerve-racking.”

“With all the fire alarms going off all the time, I have been very jumpy at any and every noise,” wrote another resident. “I’m in a wheelchair and find it difficult and inconvenient to go out on the roof garden sometimes 2-4 times a day or night. Since Mr. Braa has been in custody, we haven’t had any fire alarms go off. It’s been nice and quiet. It’s good to not be so irritable all the time because of all the fire alarms.”

Another resident spoke of “sleepless nights — zombie-like days — not knowing when alarms were going to go off.”

“The fire alarms that occured (sic) in my apartment building has (sic) affected my well-being and my guest’s (sic) that I had,” another resident wrote. “I did not know when the next one will happen (sic). I was afraid to cook, clean, or anything else. The fire alarms also effect (sic) my sleeping behavior. With my health problem’s (sic) and the fire alarms did not help.”

Others described the terror they felt knowing fires were being set in their building.

“This person caused me to feel very uneasy and afraid of what would happen next,” wrote one resident. “He showed no regard for anyone here. On both times he set fires on this floor, there is a young lady and her baby that live directly across the hall from where he set the fires. And he know (sic) that the lady and her child lived there. In my opinion he is not mentally challenged. He was well aware of what he was doing. He should pay for what he has done here.”

And others described how arsons and fire alarms took a physical toll.

One resident wrote of the terrible arthritis in her knees, and how she had difficulty evacuating the building during fire alarms. According to her statement, she fell down three stairs and cracked a rib.

“[It] was hard on me,” wrote another resident. “I had a heart bypass and leg surgery. Having to get up and go to the stairwell was hard on my heart and leg. I needed to get my rest but having to get up every time the alarm went off was really stressful. I also have other health problems so this was emotionally hard on me and it was hard on other people in the building.”

And another resident feared the building would burn to the ground.

“I thought I would be homeless from the Winthrop being burned so bad — that the Winthrop apartments would be shut down,” he wrote. “I would have to live out my (sic) car untile (sic) I found a new apartment. Thought maybe the hole (sic) apartments would be burned down. I would lose every thing (sic) I worked for and saved for . . . You don’t set fires where there are children who could be burned alive.”

JURY TRIAL IN FEBRUARY

While Theophil was in police custody last month, Deborah Braa passed away. Investigator Richard O’Brien of the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed his office is handling the case, but added, “We haven’t made a determination on the manner or cause of death.” According to several residents, a memorial service was held in the Winthrop’s chapel shortly after her death.

One witness statement reads, “Of all the things I’ve seen and experienced . . . living here, none compare to the tragic story of Debbie Braa, who was a good decent human being and who was the biggest victim of all, an (sic) sufferd (sic) the most. God Bless.”

Braa was in court on Sept. 8 to be arraigned on the charges. Braa — who sported a shaved head and the large, overweight build of a former NFL linebacker well into his retirement — arrived with two corrections officers at his sides. His ankles were cuffed, as well as his hands, which were attached to a chain around his waist. He wore olive green coveralls that appeared heavily padded.

As Braa approached the judge, a KOMO-TV camera man seated in the gallery raised his tripod, turned on a camera, and began to focus on Braa. Braa asked his public defender why a camera was in the room. He also glared at two Winthrop residents seated in the front row (one resident was reprimanded by the court when she tried to take photographs with her cell phone).

On Oct. 16, another Forensic Psychological Report was filed in court. On Oct. 20, an order determining Braa was competent to stand trial was issued. A pre-trial hearing is scheduled for Tues., Dec. 15, followed by a competency hearing the next day.

His jury trial is scheduled to begin Weds., Feb. 10, 2010.

The Winthrop Hotel in downtown Tacoma. (FILE PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

To read the Tacoma Daily Index‘s complete and comprehensive coverage of the Winthrop Hotel, click on the following links:

In 2009, the Tacoma Daily Index published a series of interviews with many residents of the Winthrop Hotel. To read the complete series, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.