Earlier this week I wrote about a new report commissioned by Seattle business leaders which found that 100 homeless people in the city were responsible for more than 3,500 criminal cases. These so-called “prolific offenders” all had drug habits and about a third of them also had mental problems. But because they were homeless and their crimes were usually petty burglaries or theft, they were cycled through the justice system and released back onto the streets time and time again. The problem with that approach was put in stark relief this week by the arrest of Matthew Hooper, a 38-year-old homeless man who police say is responsible for a string of arsons.
Detectives believe the man set five fires at businesses between October 28th and November 28th, including:
An office complex in the 200 block of Etruria Street on October 28th, 2018.
An Elks lodge in the 3000 block of 3rd Avenue NW on November 8th.
A lumber yard in the 300 block of West Ewing Street on November 10th.
A gymnasium in the 1400 block of Northwest 52nd Street on November 19th.
And a restaurant 5400 block of Ballard Avenue Northwest on November 28th.
Back in November, the Seattle Times reported the lumber yard fire was one of the biggest fires in recent Seattle history and did an estimated $4.3 million dollars in damage:
It took only seven minutes from the first alarm for the fire to build to a big conflagration, the largest in the city since 2010, burning two buildings to the ground and damaging three others, Scoggins said. At the height of the firefight, he said, firefighters were pumping 12,000 gallons of water a minute onto the blaze that shot flames 100 feet into the night sky…
He said 142 firefighters joined the operation, with fire crews from Bellevue, Mercer Island, Tukwila and Renton coming to help backfill the city’s fire stations and respond to emergency calls.
“We basically had two-thirds of the city at this fire. That’s significant to note because those 911 calls don’t stop just because you have a large event in one single place,” Scoggins said, thanking the other departments for their support.
Hooper was identified because he left behind the red cap of a bottle of lighter fluid with his DNA on it at one of the fires. But here’s the important point, this string of arsons for which Hooper has now been arrested were not his first interactions with police. In fact, when he was identified through DNA, police didn’t have to look far for him. He was already in jail:
Hooper was located at Whatcom County Jail, where he was in custody facing charges for malicious mischief, burglary and theft, according to the jail log. When interviewed by Seattle police at the jail, he admitted to lighting the fires at the Ballard Smoke House, lumberyard and insurance company office in North Queen Anne, according to police.
KIRO 7 reports that Hooper has been arrested 23 previous times. And yet, somehow he was back on the streets of Seattle setting fire to people’s businesses. Yesterday My Northwest published a piece by Dori Monson stating the obvious:
There is absolutely no way that Matthew Hooper should have been a free man out on the streets. He had six convictions over 13 years — assault, harassment, trespass, property destruction…
We’ve got a bunch of bleeding hearts telling us over and over again that all we need is more tax money. A head tax on Amazon, a property tax increase from you. If you do that, things will be better…
We are fools if we give them another penny. But we are equally great fools if we don’t demand that they take the money we’re already spending — since the majority of people on the streets don’t want services and have chosen a lifestyle on the streets — and force people into rehab or, if they refuse, jail. We have to stop allowing this to just continue.
There are plenty of activists concerned that we don’t “criminalize” the homeless but how about we just criminalize crime? If someone has been arrested 23 times and convicted half a dozen times and is a drug addict who isn’t going to stop, maybe we need to make sure that person is off the street before they do something really terrible. It’s a minor miracle that Hooper didn’t kill anyone. He said he waited until no one was around because the purpose of the fires was to “protect himself.” But as Monson notes, he set a fire in the carport of an apartment building and if firefighters hadn’t arrived so quickly, that fire could have engulfed a building full of sleeping people. Seattle’s homeless, prolific offenders need to be dealt instead of shuffled through the system and quietly ignored.
Here’s a local news report on the lumber yard fire: