On October 4, 1991, a Snohomish County Superior Court judge sentences James Arthur Schmitt, who had pled guilty to a series of arson fires in Mountlake Terrace, to 20 years in prison -- far beyond the 12-year sentence jointly recommended by the prosecutor and by the defense attorney. Judge Kathryn Trumbull said the exceptionally long sentence was justified because the fires, set between July 1990 and February 1991, had caused major economic loss, endangered lives, and destroyed a small community’s peace of mind.
Schmitt, an unemployed 27-year-old Mountlake Terrace man, pled guilty to five counts of first-degree arson and one count of second-degree arson but admitted to setting a total of 13 fires. Deputy Prosecutor Ron Doersch agreed to drop charges involving some of the fires in return for the guilty plea.
Most of the fires caused only minor damage but one, on August 6, 1990, destroyed the East Plaza Shopping Center; another, on August 11, severely damaged the West Plaza Shopping Center; and a third, on August 25, destroyed a Mountlake Terrace home and nearly claimed the life of an elderly woman who lived there. The shopping center fires caused an estimated $2.7 million in damage, forced 14 businesses to close either permanently or temporarily, and put 70 people out of work.
Mountlake Terrace police initially charged another man with the West Plaza arson. That man was tried and acquitted by a Snohomish County Superior Court jury in December 1990. Police began investigating Schmitt the following spring. He was arrested on April 4, 1991, and charged with setting three of the 16 arson fires that had been reported in Mountlake Terrace in the last nine months. He was released on $25,000 bail.
A few days later, he was arrested by Lynnwood police in connection with a fire at an apartment complex in Lynwood the previous summer. According to court papers filed in that case, Schmitt became angry after his estranged wife would not let him into her home. He then set fire to another apartment in the complex by reaching in through an open window and igniting curtains. A man and woman, who were asleep in the unit, woke up and extinguished the blaze.
The apartment fire was reported at 5 a.m. on the morning of August 25, 1990. In his guilty plea, Schmitt admitted to setting another fire that same day, at a house in Mountlake Terrace. The house was destroyed and an elderly women was nearly trapped in that fire.
At the sentencing hearing, Everett defense attorney Kim Dupuis said his client -- jobless and living with his parents -- would get depressed, drink, and then set fires on his way home. When the judge asked if he wanted to speak, Schmitt said simply, "I'm very sorry for what I did" (The Seattle Times, October 5, 1991). Judge Trumbull then sentenced him to 20 years in prison, saying she was appalled at the more lenient sentence jointly recommended by the prosecutor and defense attorney.
The fires in the two shopping centers dealt a serious blow to a town center that was already on financially wobbly ground. West Plaza, built in the early 1960s and home to four businesses, reopened 20 months later. But East Plaza, which had housed seven businesses, was ripped down and replaced with a large gymnastics center. "It took the pizzazz out of the downtown corridor," Councilman John Zambrano told The Seattle Times in 2006.
West Plaza, built in the early 1960s and home to four businesses, reopened 20 months later. But East Plaza, which had housed seven businesses, was ripped down and replaced with a large gymnastics center. "It took the pizzazz out of the downtown corridor," Councilman John Zambrano said (The Seattle Times, April 7, 2006).