SEATTLE -- A deadly fire that sent victims jumping from a fourth-floor window at an apartment building-turned motel on Seattle’s Aurora Avenue North earlier this month was apparently set in retribution over a stolen laptop, according to King County prosecutors.
Jesse Puff, 24, of Anchorage, was charged Friday with two counts of first-degree murder, first-degree arson and three counts of second-degree assault in connection with the July 13 early-morning blaze prosecutors say was started in the building’s rear stairwell with jugs of gasoline.
Days after two victims died from their injuries at Harborview Medical Center, Puff was arrested Tuesday night in Seattle's Bitter Lake neighborhood, 6 1/2 miles north of the fire scene at the Hillside Motel, located at 2473 Aurora Ave. N., charging papers say. He remains jailed in lieu of $2 million bail.
Rosanna McCurry, 32, died July 17 at Harborview, likely from inhalation of carbon monoxide, with burns to her arms, head, neck and shoulders contributing to her death, the charges say. Shadrack Baird, 24, died July 22 from a combination of inhalation injuries that burned his airway and sepsis from an infection to burns on his face, head, back and arms. The King County Medical Examiner's Office ruled both deaths homicides, say the charges.
One woman is "battling for her life," and has yet to regain consciousness, and two men are still being treated for serious injuries, the charges say.
Puff, who had been living out of his van, has been in Washington for the past two months, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Terence Carlstrom wrote in the charges.
Puff "clearly planned the attack and targeted the unit on the upper floor where the victims were. By his admission he estimated there were 10 to 12 people inside," Carlstrom wrote. "He brought the containers of gasoline with him from South Seattle, hung around the motel for over an hour before he was able to gain access to the rear stairwell, spent 12 minutes inside before exiting," then returned with several jugs of gas and went back inside.
The fire, which started 30 seconds later, is still being investigated. Additional charges "remain a distinct possibility," Carlstrom wrote.
According to the charges:
Seattle police determined Puff called 911 at least twice on July 11, at 2:47 a.m. and 5:12 a.m., and reported that his van had been broken into and he'd tracked his stolen laptop to the motel on Aurora Avenue North, where he said he looked through windows and saw drugs inside. Puff identified himself to police both times.
It wasn't until motel staff reviewed video-surveillance footage and notified officers that a man had been seen loitering around the motel and later carrying jugs of liquid into the stairwell that police suspected the fire was deliberately set, say the charges.
The video's time stamp showed a man enter the stairwell at 4:45 a.m., followed by "a huge flash" 30 seconds later, then footage of a man running out of the building with his shoes and lower legs on fire.
A minute after the flash, the video showed five people jump out a fourth-floor window; a sixth person was seen using a fire extinguisher on the blaze and a seventh was seen crawling out of the stairwell, clearly injured.
The motel security guard and a resident both recognized the man in the footage as the same man who had been there early on July 11.
The day after the fire, a Lyft driver told investigators he'd picked up a fare at a South Seattle carwash around 3 a.m. on July 13, who loaded jugs of what smelled like gas into the driver's hatchback. During the drive, the fare told the driver he was from Anchorage and that his laptop had been stolen before directing the driver to drop him off at an intersection 100 yards north of the Hillside Motel. The fare retrieved the jugs from the back of the car and walked away.
After police located and arrested Puff on Tuesday night, detectives say he identified himself in still photos taken by officers' body-worn cameras on July 11 and from a still photo taken from the motel's video footage on July 13, according to the charges.
Puff is scheduled to be arraigned Aug. 17.