Investigators have made no arrests in connection to a string of arsons that destroyed two buildings on campus this summer.
From late May through early June, Pullman firefighters had their hands full chasing four intentional fires set in early morning hours on university property. The first, on May 22, burned the Nez Perce Village community center beyond repair.
The second fire, just four days later, left the Chief Joseph Village community center in charred ruins.
The third fire caused roughly $80,000 in damage to lab equipment on May 29 at McCoy Hall. Then, a small fire broke out on June 5 in the Fine Arts parking garage, causing no serious damage.
Pullman Fire Chief Scott LaVielle said it is likely the same person committed the community center arsons. Flammable liquids, like gasoline, were used to ignite both community centers, LaVielle said.
Whoever lit the fires did not use any other fuels, such as furniture, to support the blazes that engulfed the community centers, he said.
Due to the lack of flammable liquids evidence at the McCoy Hall and the Fine Arts parking garage burn sites, investigators suspect a copycat, or copycats, started the final two arsons, LaVielle said.
But Assistant Chief Steve Hansen with the WSU Police said until there is evidence of a copycat, the investigators will continue connecting all four arsons together.
LaVielle said the four arsons are likely a sign of pyromania, the urge to light fires for gratification or relief. Whoever lit the fires probably observed the blazes from a safe location and enjoyed watching the flames as the firemen worked to extinguish them.
“These people are sick,” he said. “These (are) people who unfortunately have the uncontrollable urge to start a fire for whatever reason, and they’ll go ahead and do that. Our hopes are they’re in jail somewhere on some other charge because things haven’t happened.”
Investigators do not have a good profile on the arsonist and have only narrowed down the gender of the suspect to a male, Hansen said.
Forensic evidence found at the McCoy Hall has been sent to the State Patrol Crime Lab in Cheney, he said. The police continue to await results before pursuing further leads.
The investigation has led police to check hospitals for burn victims that sought treatment on the days the fires occurred. Often, arsonists suffer burns from their fires, allowing police to track them down and make an arrest at the hospital.
Police have reviewed gas station surveillance video from around the time of the fires, as well, but analysis of the footage remains inconclusive, Hansen said.
The WSU Police have increased nighttime foot patrols, purchased 15 new surveillance cameras and created an investigative arson task force that also includes the WSU fire marshal, the Pullman Fire Department and Pullman Police.
LaVielle is sure the extra emphasis has deterred anyone from setting more fires.
However despite the absence of an arrest, students should not worry about future arsons, Hansen said. Instead, they should be vigilant and report anything unusual to the police.
Corey Cook, a junior accounting major and Chief Joseph Village resident, said there haven’t been any signs of paranoia among the residents of the area and that everyone is still in good spirits.
“I go to the Rec every morning at about 5:30 so I actually got to pass by as they were going on,” Cook said. “So it was pretty much a sense of deja-vu with these two (other fires).”
The university will look to demolish the remains of the community centers in the next two weeks, said Terry Boston, the assistant vice-president of Student Affairs and Enrollment.
The estimate to repair and replace the damages from the four arsons is approximately $860,000. However, the university is still working with an insurance company to nail down a final cost, Boston said.
University officials will gather student feedback throughout the semester on what should be built in place of the community centers, Boston said. Two options are to build new community centers or apartments, he said.
Planning for the locations of the community centers will take place in the spring, Boston said.