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Hohl Fire suspect makes first court appearance

Firefighters try their best to put out the blaze on Railroad Avenue that started early on Monday, Feb. 18. // Photo by Zoe Deal

By Zoe Buchli and Esther Chong

A 57-year-old Bellingham man was arrested on suspicion of reckless burning in the first degree on Wednesday, Feb. 27, in connection with the Feb. 18 fire at Hohl Feed and Seed, according to a city of Bellingham press release by the Mayor’s Office.

Paul J. Wolfe was booked into Whatcom County Jail on Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 12:14 p.m. according to the Whatcom County Jail Roster, and remains in custody as of Monday, March 4, at 3:00 p.m..

At Wolfe’s preliminary appearance at the Whatcom County Courthouse on Thursday, Feb. 28, Whatcom County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Kellen Kooistra read the probable cause statement and said the Bellingham Fire Department investigated the fire and determined its origin was at the brick chimney in the back of the building.

Still images of the people in the alcove were distributed to the local media to get the public’s help in identifying them, Kooistra said, and two Whatcom County residents contacted the Bellingham Police Department and were able to identify Roger Payne as being in the alcove.     

The police department contacted Payne who said that he was with Wolfe in the area and started the fire in the chimney to get warm, Kooistra said.

Payne said that within minutes he and Wolfe could see sparks and flames coming out of the top of the chimney and that he and wolfe panicked and left the area.

Payne also told police he saw smoke coming from the Hohl Feed and Seed building before leaving the area in a taxi while Wolfe left on foot, Kooistra said.

The Bellingham Police Department then interviewed Wolfe, who said he didn’t start the fire.

In the defense response, Public Defender Darrin Hall said the fire was not intentional and does not suggest Wolfe is a danger to the community.

The temperature in Bellingham dropped as low as 25 degrees Fahrenheit on the morning of the fire, according to the AccuWeather report for Feb. 18. On Feb. 11, a week before the fire, community members demanded that the city provide more shelter for people when temperatures are below freezing.

“Every way you look at it, this is a tragedy in many ways. We lost a historic building, a long-standing local business, the small animals that perished. Also we have the tragedy of an unsheltered person who’s just trying to keep warm, allegedly, on that night,” Court Commissioner Angela A. Cuevas said.

Kooistra said the video footage shows at 3:35 a.m. two people entered the small alcove behind the pet store building near the brick chimney and remained there for about 30 minutes, and at approximately 4:00 a.m, two people are seen leaving the alcove on the surveillance camera footage.

At about 4:05 a.m., he said, what appears to be a third person runs into the alcove while flames were visible and tries to remove what appears to be a backpack before running out of the area.

Kooistra said the prosecutor’s office spoke with the owner of Hohl Feed and Seed, who asked the prosecutor’s office to pass along his request for a reasonably high bail given the damage done to the business. Cuevas set bail at $50,000.

Cuevas said the maximum penalty for this offense is up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. However, Hall said people who are found guilty of this offense typically serve one to three months in jail.

Reckless burning in the first degree is a class C felony, according to Washington State Law.

Wolfe’s arraignment is scheduled for Friday, March 8, at 9 a.m..

This article was updated on March 8, 2019 to correct the name of Roger Payne, which was previously stated at Robert Payne.

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