By Scott North / Special to The Herald
and Eric Stevick / Herald Writer
EVERETT — It took 34 years for justice to chase down the arsonist who set the fire that destroyed the Everett Community College library and killed firefighter Gary Parks.
The culprit, it turns out, was then a troubled 12-year-old boy who struck the match during a burglary at the library and then disappeared into the night.
For 12,456 days, the firefighter’s widow was left to wonder. So, too, were friends, family and fellow firefighters, including those whose helmets began to melt as they retreated from an inferno that proved impossible to tame from the inside.
The library was essentially a two-story tinderbox with more than 48,000 books and 20,000 periodicals fueling the flames. Lost among the ashes was a rare copy of Sir Walter Raleigh’s “History of the World,” published in the early 1600s.
The damage neared $10 million, but no one dwelled on the money.
By far what mattered most on Feb. 16, 1987, was the loss of the firefighter whose tragic death people talk about to this day.
On Thursday morning, in a Snohomish County courtroom a little more than two miles from where the fatal fire raged, long-denied suspicions were confirmed and became public record. Elmer Nash, now 47, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. A recently released convict with a long criminal history, Nash over the years repeatedly admitted setting the fire, including during lengthy interviews with Everett police detectives in 2017, court papers filed Wednesday say.
County Prosecuting Attorney Adam Cornell described the patience and tenacity it took to reach the point of filing criminal charges.
The investigation “reminds us that the flames of justice are not easily extinguished, and that perseverance has a way of rewarding those who choose not to give up,” he said.
For more than three decades, detectives in the Everett Police Department kept close by a black-and-white portrait of Gary Parks. Inside the frame, the firefighter is wearing his formal dress uniform and a thin yet friendly smile. His ever-present image at the police station was a nudge to carry on. The detectives would meet his gaze and know they must continue their search for answers, no matter how long it took.
Keeping the case alive
President Ronald Reagan was well into his second term and Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” topped the Billboard charts early that February morning when an Everett police officer radioed in that he could see flames shooting 40 feet high from the EvCC campus.
More than 100 firefighters descended on the college, with Parks among the first to arrive and enter the building.
Parks, 48, died when he and five other firefighters were cut off by a wall of flames that flashed up behind them, blocking their retreat. The fire made its move when the crew was well inside the library and running dangerously low on air. They had earlier broken with policy and decided to remain inside while sending a couple of firefighters back to retrieve fresh air tanks. The fire not only stood between the team and safety, it filled the building with toxic smoke so thick that it blocked out light.
Those who survived were “buddy breathing,” sharing the last gasps of air left in their tanks as they crawled outside beneath the worst of the flames, using the firehose as a guide.
Parks, a fire engine driver, was an 18-year veteran of the department and one of its most popular people. Balding, with a bushy mustache, “Parksie” was known for his energy, his love of family, his enthusiasm for sailing and his mastery of firehouse pranks. More than 800 fire and police officers attended a memorial service for Parks, who died of smoke inhalation. His was the first and so far only line-of-duty death for Everett firefighters since a freak crash downtown in 1928 claimed three lives, including the chief, a fire lieutenant and a bystander.
The investigation swiftly determined the EvCC fire had been deliberately set. That meant the firefighter’s death was a homicide.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sent a special team to Everett. Agents joined arson investigators from the city’s police and fire departments in combing the ashes for clues. That bore little obvious fruit. The feds left after a few weeks. Before the year was out, Everett police leaders spoke openly about having exhausted all of what they considered the viable clues. At the time, a lot of attention also was paid to chronicling the missteps that contributed to the tragedy, particularly the decision not to pull all the firefighters from the building when they began to run low on air. Nobody wanted to needlessly risk more lives.
As time passed with no arrests, those who loved Parks made certain he was remembered. Every year for more than a decade, firefighters and family would gather in the February chill at the EvCC campus and tell stories about the good man who was gone.
There was a flurry of public activity in 1993 when suspicion turned toward an advertising executive from Lynnwood who also was a serial arsonist. Paul Keller was revealed as the person using flame to terrorize people living around Puget Sound. In the span of a few months, he set dozens of fires at churches, businesses and homes, sometimes more than one in the same night. After he was captured, Keller almost immediately began confessing, admitting to causing millions of dollars in damage. Eventually, he also took responsibility for setting a blaze that took the lives of three elderly women at a King County nursing home. Keller had grown up in north Everett. He publicly became a suspect in the EvCC fire after his family told investigators that in 1987 Keller had lived across the street from the college.
Through his attorney, Keller over the years steadfastly denied involvement in the EvCC arson. He also refused to talk with detectives. Investigators were open about their suspicions. They were less vocal about discoveries that tended to point away from Keller. Detectives confirmed Keller had lived in an apartment across from the college, but they didn’t disclose that his residency came well after the library burned. Claims that was spotted at the fire scene the next day also were not corroborated with hard evidence.
A shift in the EvCC arson investigation came in 2003 when Wally Friesen, then an Everett police detective, was assigned to take a fresh look. Friesen began by listening to tapes of emergency radio traffic from the night Parks died. The anguish in the firefighters’ voices reached across the years, he later said. He wasn’t alone in wanting answers — for Parks and for the people who loved him.
The files at the time contained information on more than 50 people who over the years had been suggested as potential suspects. Each needed to be looked at anew. The evidence also needed a fresh chance to speak. The fire started in papers and books piled on the floor near a book drop inside the library. That meant it almost certainly was set after the building was emptied for the night. But who would break into a library? Why? And what purpose could be served by setting the place on fire?
The EvCC arson seemed a senseless and stupid crime.
“Who does stupid crimes?” Friesen asked. His best answer: kids.
Nash was just shy of 13 when the fire destroyed the library. He was among those listed in the EvCC case files because graffiti surfaced in north Everett, blaming him for the blaze. Police questioned him in 1987, but nothing came of it. The then-teen already had felony convictions for burglary and theft. He once set a couch on fire in his home, according to court papers. One of Nash’s friends, himself then still a teen, also was questioned about the EvCC fire after family reported that he was claiming to have had a “vision” of how the blaze started. His story included details about the fire’s origins, information that at the time was not widely shared.
Other witnesses placed three young men, including Nash, outside their north Everett homes within minutes of the fire starting at the college.
Friesen followed leads but didn’t tease out actionable evidence from the suspicions. The teen who claimed to have had a vision about the fire went to prison a few years later after being convicted of playing a role in an unrelated homicide. Nash, meanwhile, was cycling in and out of prison, amassing at least 14 adult felony convictions. In court papers, he’s described as never having held a regular job outside of prison or while on work release.
Friesen retired in 2011 and the investigation passed along to capable hands.
A chance encounter
Detectives Jim Massingale and Mike Atwood developed a reputation as partners who built solid cases through hard work. In 2011, for example, their canvas of a neighborhood turned up surveillance video that showed a teenage burglar sneaking into a flower shop not long before it was destroyed by flames. The boy was convicted.
In 2016, the pair made headlines across the country after their work demonstrated that an American flag dropped off at an Everett firehouse two years earlier almost certainly was the same banner raised by firefighters over the rubble of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, just hours after the terrorist attack brought it down. The flag was the focus of a famous photograph, but it had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Thanks to the detectives’ work in Everett, it now is safely stored at the National September 11 Memorial Museum.
Atwood worked the EvCC fire with Massingale until his partner left the department to take a job with another agency. He, too, listened to the emergency radio traffic from the night Parks died. He re-examined work done on all the suspects. He concluded there was a strong circumstantial case that the fire was set by the teens who had first come under suspicion years before. He went looking for evidence.
A key break came in April 2017. Atwood was at the Snohomish County Jail in Everett to assist a federal agent in questioning a suspect in an explosives case. That man already had posted bail and was gone. While standing at the booking desk, Atwood said he recognized Nash, who by then topped his list of suspects in the EvCC arson. Nash was waiting to be booked. Atwood knew Nash from repeated encounters involving street crimes over the years.
An important milestone had passed just weeks before the chance jailhouse encounter: 30 years had come and gone since the fire that claimed Gary Parks.
Atwood decided to try to get the suspect to talk. He knew he was taking a risk.
“In my mind I’m thinking, if I play this card right now and it comes out to nothing, I’m going to be back to square one.”
Atwood asked Nash if he was open to delaying his booking for a few hours. The detective had something he wanted to discuss.
“He said, ‘The EvCC fire?’” Atwood recalled. “I almost fell over. I said, ‘As a matter of fact, yes.’”
The man agreed to talk so long as they could pick up a cheeseburger on the way to Everett police headquarters. They stopped by a McDonald’s.
At the police station, they went to an interview room, and a camera was set up, but Nash fell asleep. It appeared that he may have been using drugs earlier.
As much as he wanted to press on, to seize the momentum of the unplanned encounter and the suspect’s willingness to talk, Atwood knew there was only one responsible thing to do. The detective took Nash back to jail.
“It made me nervous letting him walk away,” Atwood said.
The detective went home but couldn’t sleep. He worried the connection might be broken and the opportunity lost.
The next day, Atwood went back to the jail for another try. Nash again agreed to talk. He ate a cheeseburger and smoked a cigarette. While the camera rolled, he was advised of and waived his rights to remain silent and to have attorneys present during questioning.
The man at first denied any role in the fire and said he couldn’t remember much from so long ago. That went on for a while. Then Atwood asked him if he was willing to submit to a polygraph. Nash agreed.
Detective Karen Kowalchyk took over while Atwood monitored via video nearby. Nash had some questions for Kowalchyk. He wanted to know what the statute of limitations would be for somebody who set the 1987 fire, Atwood said.
Kowalchyk had questions, too. She said it would be important for her polygraph test to know whether Nash had another connection to what happened at the college library in 1987.
He told her he’d been on the roof of the library the night it burned.
“That’s when I start getting excited. … He puts himself at the scene of the fire,” Atwood said. Kowalchyk had more questions. At one point, while talking about arson, she gestured with her hand, as if using a lighter.
It wasn’t like that, the suspect said. “He says with his own mouth: ‘Matchsticks,’” Atwood said.
The matchsticks statement was significant because it tracked with the “vision” reported by Nash’s teenage friend years ago, Atwood said. That person claimed his vision was of a blond-haired kid lighting the library on fire using wooden matchsticks.
Nash reportedly performed poorly on the polygraph. The detectives conferred. They agreed Kowalchyk should continue with questioning. After about 45 minutes, the suspect told her was on the library roof that night because he and two friends had broken in, hoping to find something to steal, Atwood said.
The detective said that he watched Nash carefully as the questioning progressed. The man began to lean forward and slowly fold over, eventually bringing his head to his knees. Even so, he agreed to talk some more with Atwood.
They moved to a different room, the video cameras still active. Atwood said he needed to know more about the break-in, including how the teens got inside the library.
Nash initially said he didn’t remember. They fenced a bit before details were offered. The man wanted to negotiate, at one point saying he would admit to breaking into the library, but not to setting the fire, Atwood said.
Why was the fire set?
To destroy evidence, Atwood said he was told. The burglars feared leaving fingerprints.
That was ridiculous. The library was visited by hundreds of people each day. Fingerprints likely were everywhere, the detective said he told Nash.
“We were 13 years old,” Atwood recalled the suspect telling him.
Nash initially claimed his partners in the break-in set the fire. Atwood told him that wouldn’t cut it. A long time had passed, and many were waiting for truth: the Parks family, the firefighters who narrowly escaped death, the people who then worked at the college, the people who had long worked the case.
As he talked, Atwood texted his boss, Jeraud Irving, now captain overseeing investigations for Everett police.
“Bring me Gary Parks,” he wrote.
Irving began his public safety career as a firefighter in south Snohomish County and for many years served as a volunteer for a small district. As a leader of Everett’s detectives, he always had made a priority of investigating the EvCC arson, Atwood said.
There was a knock on the interview room door. Irving carried the framed photo of Gary Parks that had hung on the wall in the detectives’ offices for years.
Atwood showed the suspect the photo. “That is the firefighter. That is Gary Parks,” he told him.
Nash has a child, a girl who lives in another state whom he rarely gets to see. The detective began talking about one of the fallen firefighter’s two daughters, someone Atwood has come to know during the investigation. He spoke of the void in her life from losing Gary Parks. He said that was true for everyone who knew the firefighter.
“I told him, ‘I know you started that fire,’” Atwood said.
“He looks at me, and he says … ‘Mike, tell his daughter that I lit this fire and I didn’t mean to hurt her dad.’”
“You tell her I lit it and it was an accident,” Nash is quoted in court papers as saying. “I never meant for no one to get hurt. I was … I was 12 years old and I was just being a dummy, being stupid, wasn’t thinking.”
Nash began to cry. “It appeared he had been holding that in for a long time,” Atwood said.
The April 2017 interview provided some answers about the EvCC fire, but it didn’t close the case. By the next day, the suspect already was backing away from his recorded statement, Atwood said. He told the detective he refused to go to prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Prosecutors told Everett police they had more work to do. Among other things, they needed to recover as much as possible every detail lost to time, and to match that against the information now in hand. For example, the college no longer had a blueprint of the former library to use in schematics. Records experts were able to retrieve a copy from state archives.
There were dozens of witnesses to track down.
“I’ve interviewed everybody in that case who is still alive,” Atwood said.
Memories of that time had faded for some. Recall was crisp for others. The investigation memorialized statements from seven people who say Nash admitted setting the blaze. It happened while he was hospitalized, convalescing from a motorcycle crash not long after the fire; while trying to impress a 10-year-old girl who was a close friend; while trying to intimidate another teen who was looking for a fight. Most of those potential witnesses decades ago first shared with investigators what they were told. Detectives’ interest in the young Nash waned after he agreed to a police interview and a polygraph not long after the fire, court papers say.
Atwood brought fresh eyes and the rigor of a meticulous investigation to unlock secrets and recover evidence that otherwise would have been lost to the years, Irving said.
“If it weren’t for Mike, we’d still be digging,” he said.
Based on the new information, ATF assigned an agent who is an arson expert to assist, Atwood said. She challenged assumptions. She also made certain that the 1987 determination that the fire was deliberately set remains forensically sound today. The effort included examining the buried foundations of the former library, which still bear scorch marks from the blaze 34 years ago.
Atwood and Irving also interviewed serial arsonist Keller, who, after years of rebuffing detectives, agreed to sit down and talk. As he has always done, Keller denied any involvement in the EvCC fire. He followed up by sending Atwood a written statement.
In the days after the fire, an ATF investigator warned that an arson probe on the scale of the EvCC fire would be complicated and that it could be a long time before any arrests were made.
There, indeed, were many odd circumstances to comb through: the campus security guard who admitted he was sleeping when the fire broke out; reports of a mysterious red car near the college that night; speculation that someone who objected to content inside the library could be to blame; the seeming incongruity of a huge, deadly inferno that was sparked without accelerants, such as gasoline.
Around the same time, Doug McNall, the fire chief in 1987, said, “I don’t think anybody lit this fire to kill a firefighter.”
In the end, both observations may have proven remarkably accurate.
On Thursday morning, in Snohomish County Superior Court, as Elmer Nash pleaded guilty to setting the fatal blaze, family members of Gary Parks — his wife, Kathy Parks, daughters Erin VanRy and Jennifer Parks as well as grandchildren — watched a remote broadcast feed as the day of reckoning finally arrived. Also monitoring the proceedings were detectives and at least one retired Everett firefighter.
Through his attorney, Nash said he was knowingly and voluntarily admitting his guilt.
“This is a well-thought-out deal,” defense attorney Philip Sayles told Judge David Kurtz. “It is not something that happened overnight.”
In plea negotiations, the prosecution and defense agreed to recommend a sentence lower than the standard sentencing range. Sayles said Nash understands that the judge does not have to follow the recommendation. His standard sentencing range as an adult would be 34 to 45 years in prison.
Under a plea agreement that takes into account he was a child at the time, Nash faces more than three years in prison.
Toward the end of the half-hour arraignment, Kurtz asked Nash: “What is your plea?”
Then came the words the firefighter’s family had so long awaited.
“Guilty, your honor.”
Sentencing is set for May 7.
‘Sorrow and anger’
Word of Nash’s guilty plea spread quickly, particularly among those connected to EvCC.
Bob Drewel, the former Snohomish County executive, was the college’s president when Parks died in the library fire. He recalled a day “so awash in sorrow and anger” as he and others tried to grapple with the twin losses. Not knowing for certain how the fire started was its own torment, and in the absence of an arrest, many who worked for the college were plagued by doubts, Drewel said. Did they really unplug the coffee pot before leaving? Could they have done something that somehow created the spark?
Drewel said Thursday brought “a remarkable sense of gratitude” for the work done by investigators and deep sadness for the “senseless, senseless tragedy” of Parks’ death. It also brought memories of how the community pulled together three decades ago, helping to rebuild the library.
“People were trying to find ways to help the college,” he said.
Rich Haldi was director of student activities when the fire destroyed the Trojan Union Building, or TUB, as it was known to folks on campus.
The building housed the library, campus radio station, cafeteria, student activities and places to meet. Students from all walks of life and academic disciplines gravitated there, and it was gone. Friends and classmates felt disconnected, unsure where to go. At the same time, they were determined to be part of the rebuilding effort.
Haldi, now 80, found solace in learning the circumstances behind Thursday’s guilty plea. He’d sometimes wondered if someone acted against EvCC out of anger.
“At least it was not somebody who was after the college,” he said.
These days, Gary Parks’ presence still can be seen and felt on the EvCC campus.
It can be found in the bronze firefighter helmet and jacket that sit on a bench along a promenade just northeast of the student union building that bears Parks’ name.
It also can be found in EvCC graduates hoping to follow in Parks’ footsteps and become firefighters.
Parks, an Air Force veteran, died on the campus where he once studied fire science under a Veterans Affairs program. His family and fellow firefighters established a Gary Parks Memorial Scholarship for the next generation of firefighters.
His presence reaches far beyond the campus, to the fire department safety policies adopted after his death and in the memories that his widow, daughters and fellow firefighters hold onto 34 years later.
And it can be found back at the Everett Police Department. His portrait isn’t going anywhere.
Scott North, who grew up in Everett, worked at The Daily Herald for more than three decades as a crime and courts reporter, investigative reporter and local news editor. During that time, he covered developments in the February 1987 arson at Everett Community College that took the life of firefighter Gary Parks. He maintained contact with sources close to the investigation after he left the paper in 2018. Today, he works for the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management.
Eric Stevick has worked at The Daily Herald for 31 years, including stints covering north Snohomish County, education and breaking news. He has been the newsroom’s local news editor for the past three years.