Firefighters respond in November 2016 to a strip mall fire on Kent’s West Hill. FILE PHOTO

Firefighters respond in November 2016 to a strip mall fire on Kent’s West Hill. FILE PHOTO

Puget Sound Fire pays $100,000 to grandmother to settle arson arrest lawsuit

Suit claimed arson investigator accused the wrong person in 2016 Dollar Store fire

Kent-based Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority paid a Des Moines grandmother $100,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit she filed last year for malicious prosecution and violation of her constitutional rights after she was arrested and charged for a fire she didn’t start in 2016 at a Kent Dollar Store and strip mall.

Attorney Sean Gillespie filed the suit Nov. 27 against Capt. Eric Pedersen, a Puget Sound Fire arson investigator, on behalf of Linda Poplawski in U.S. District Court in Seattle. King County prosecutors dropped the first-degree arson case against Poplawski shortly before her trial in August 2017 when information about another suspect came to light.

Both parties engaged in mediation and settled the case on Oct. 3, according to an email from Lindsey Arsanto, Puget Sound Fire human resource manager, to the Kent Reporter.

“In exchange for payment of $100,000, Ms. Poplawski agreed to dismiss all claims against Capt. Pedersen with prejudice,” Arsanto said. “Pursuant to the settlement agreement, Ms. Poplawski also released any and all possible claims against Capt. Pedersen’s employer, the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority, which was not a defendant in the lawsuit.

“The settlement agreement signed by Ms. Poplawski expressly provides that Capt. Pedersen and the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority deny any wrongdoing and deny all liability whatsoever for Ms. Poplawski’s claims.”

The three-alarm fire destroyed a Dollar Tree store and strip mall on Nov. 13, 2016, in the 23400 block of Pacific Highway South on the West Hill. Nobody was injured in the fire, although about 20 people were inside the Dollar Tree when the fire broke out. Seventy-five firefighters responded.

Gillespie, the attorney in the civil suit for Poplawski, disagreed with Puget Sound Fire officials that Pedersen didn’t do anything wrong.

“Pedersen had many opportunities over nine months to turn over exculpatory evidence collected in the first 24 hours of his investigation, and he failed to do it,” Gillespie said in an email. “As soon as that evidence came to light, the state dropped the charge.

“Luckily, Ms. Poplawski’s defense lawyers left no stone unturned to find the evidence and save her potentially years in prison for something she didn’t do.”

Poplawski, 66, hopes some good comes out of her lawsuit for others.

“She’s extremely grateful for their (defense attorneys) hard work and support and looking forward to moving on from that horrifying and unfair episode in her life,” Gillespie said. “She hopes her lawsuit makes it less likely to happen to someone else.”

Puget Sound Fire’s decision to pay a settlement to Poplawski was made by the agency’s insurer, Arsanto said. The U.S. District Court dismissed all claims in the lawsuit on Oct. 17.

“It is not an admission of fault or liability,” Arsanto said about the payment.

Puget Sound Fire officials declined to answer questions about whether Pedersen served any type of suspension or faced any discipline for the arrest of the wrong person. Officials also declined to address if the case remains open as far as who started the fire.

The cities of Kent, Covington, Maple Valley and SeaTac contract with Puget Sound Fire for fire and medical calls. The city of Kent contracts with Puget Sound Fire through an interlocal agreement for arson investigations, who are employees of Puget Sound Fire.

The suit claimed that Pedersen, “willfully withheld exculpatory evidence, violating her (Poplawski’s) rights under the Sixth Amendment.”

That evidence was a 911 caller who saw a man run across the street shortly after the fire and that the man told the caller he was in the store arguing with his wife, thought he was going to be caught stealing and started the fire as a distraction.

“Pedersen had independent and compelling information pointing to a previously convicted arsonist entirely unconnected to Ms. Poplawski, but he withheld that information from the defense team for the entirety of the prosecution,” according to the complaint. “The defense team did not learn of this exculpatory evidence until nine months later, when it was on the brink of trial. Even then, the evidence was provided by Kent Police only in response to a defense subpoena.”

Pedersen, who has worked more than 30 years for the fire department, arrested Poplawski for investigation of arson about two hours after the fire broke out. He based his arrest primarily on a store clerk who claimed she heard Poplawski say something about being upset about the store having no shopping carts available and then said something about burning the store down. Poplawski pleaded not guilty to the charge.

Poplawski, 64 at the time of her arrest, spent about 25 days in jail after her arrest and was on electronic home detention until June 15, 2017, according to Brian Beattie, the public defender who helped get the charge dropped.

“This highlights the importance of vigorous public defense so that innocent people are not wrongfully accused – or worse, wrongfully convicted,” Beattie said in an email for an August 2017 Kent Reporter story about the charge being dropped.


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@seattleweekly.com.

More in News & Comment

file photo
Department of Health announces QR code verification program to prove vaccination status

WA Verify is intended to make vaccine verification simpler and more efficient.

Mid-afternoon traffic on northbound Interstate 5 on Nov. 22 near Everett. Dan Bates/The Herald
Thanksgiving traffic forecast is heavier than pre-pandemic

Drivers and ferry riders could be in for long waits, depending on when they go.

Patti Cole-Trindall
King County Executive appoints Patti Cole-Tindall as interim sheriff

Cole-Tindall has a background in the sheriff’s office and county government.

Comparison map between current district map and proposed draft. (Screenshot from King County’s website)
King County proposes redistricting map, asks for feedback from public

Public invited to comment at November 30 public hearing.

Elaine Simons, former foster mother of Jesse Sarey, addresses a crowd outside the Maleng Regional Justice Center on Aug. 24, 2020, moments after Auburn Police Officer Jeff Nelson was formally charged with second-degree murder and first-degree assault in the May 31, 2019, shooting death of 26-year-old Sarey in front of a north Auburn convenience store. File photo
Jesse Sarey’s family wants people to know who the real Jesse was

He was killed by Auburn police officer Jeffrey Nelson in 2019.

A Snoqualmie Officer was involved in a shooting Tuesday night, Nov. 16. Photo courtesy of the Bellevue Police Department.
Man killed by Snoqualmie Police was homeless, living in car

The 33-year-old man who was killed by a Snoqualmie police officer late… Continue reading

The Washington State Redistricting Commission held a public meeting over Zoom on Monday night to draw the final legislative and congressional district boundaries. Most of the five-hour session was spent in "caucus meetings" which were unavailable to the viewing public. (Washington State Redistricting Commission)
Bipartisan commission fails to draw new political boundaries

For the first time in state history, the Supreme Court will define new congressional and legislative districts.

courtesy of PropertyShark
State’s richest zip codes are all in East King County, according to home value study

Medina zip code ranks among top 10 most affluent in the nation.

file photo
One-car collision on I-5 near Southcenter kills two 19-year-olds

According to the incident report, neither the passenger or driver were wearing seatbelts.

Most Read