Burning Sensationalism

By Jonah Spangenthal-Lee November 27, 2009

In this week’s Stranger, my former colleagues ask “Why Did It Take Police So Long to Catch the Alleged Greenwood Arsonist?” Their post-mortem of the investigation, found here, implies that were it not for, the Stranger says, an “arguably slow investigation,” police could have locked up Kevin Todd Swalwell—the man accused of setting fire to nearly a dozen North Seattle homes and businesses—months ago.

I gotta say, when I was still at the paper, if the Seattle Times had run an op-ed like that, say, about how police should’ve gone out and rounded up convicted pot dealers before Hempfest, Dan Savage would’ve sicced me on that story in a heartbeat for a monster hit piece.

So, it’s hard to resist criticizing this week’s faulty Stranger editorial in which they argue that the police should have ignored Swalwell’s legal rights in order to wrap up a complicated arson investigation a bit quicker:


  [C]ourt documents show that police had clues as early as this summer that Swalwell—a neighborhood fixture with a criminal record as a repeat arsonist—was the culprit. […] 

Records filed in King County Superior Court say that Swalwell, 46, was a suspect in the investigation and had been identified "at the scene of at least four of the fires." Swalwell's criminal record also shows he was convicted of five counts of arson in 1995, one count of arson in 1983, and other crimes, including theft.

The Stranger’s case against SPD seems to hinge upon two facts in the investigation: that Swalwell, who has a history of arson, was well known in the Greenwood area; and that police found a handprint left on a bottle of lighter fluid left at the scene of a fire.

Sorry, but that’s not enough for police to make an arrest that would’ve held up in court.

“Probable cause did not exist,” says Seattle Police Department spokesman Sean Whitcomb. “But [Swalwell] was a person of interest. We were looking at him and watching him.” 

While prosecutors wouldn’t speak specifically to Swalwell’s case, they echoed the department’s sentiments about the need for solid evidence before locking someone up.

“You don’t want to arrest prematurely,” says King County Deputy Prosecutor Ian Goodhew “You want to establish enough evidence to take [a suspect] to trial and convict him. Investigators can certainly look at prior convictions to guide their investigations, but prior convictions are not a basis on which you can charge a person.” 

What’s perhaps most troubling about the Stranger’s argument is their apparent newfound apathy for due process.

So what’s due process? Without getting lost in legalese, it basically means that prosecutors and police must be able to show you actually committed a crime before they bust you, and that they have credible evidence to support their case.

This is why police can’t just pat you down on the street because you’ve got long hair, are wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt, and were busted for smoking pot in college.

Had this been a previously convicted pot or cocaine dealer at the center of a drug investigation—who was arrested and charged simply on the basis of police finding his handprint on a film canister in a nearby alleyway—the Stranger would be criticizing the SPD for ignoring civil liberties.

It’s a slippery slope when you start picking and choosing which types of suspects the police should ignore, and which deserve due process.

If they’d jumped the gun – as the Stranger implied they should have – investigators likely would have been unable to later make a solid case. As it stands, detectives convinced Swalwell to confess.

Prosecutors say Swalwell set his first fire on June 19th in the basement of a barbecue restaurant, six months before his Nov. 12th arrest following a massive blaze in Shoreline, 

His most devastating fire, prosecutors say, was set four months later on October 23rd, when he allegedly torched several businesses near 85th and Greenwood, causing $2 million in damage.

Then he disappeared.

At that point, police had found the bottle of lighter fluid, and placed Swalwell at the scene of another fire, but that wasn’t enough to prove he actually set the fires.

Two weeks later, prosecutors say, Swalwell returned to form, setting fire to an accounting firm in Greenwood, causing $5,000 in damage. Three days later, a photo business and restaurant in Greenwood burned, causing $20,500 in total damages.

The next day, police—who had already been keeping tabs on Swalwell—put him under heavy surveillance. Without catching Swalwell in the act, police wouldn’t have much else to go on, as any other solid leads would’ve been incinerated in the fires.

Surveillance footage putting Swalwell at the Olive You fire scene wasn’t obtained at that point.

Multiple undercover cars tailed Swalwell through Greenwood on November 9th. In the early morning hours, police sat and watched as Swalwell paced around a grocery store in the neighborhood, chatted with another homeless man, and smoked a cigarette at a nearby bus stop.

Police were so focused on Swalwell that night, that KIRO sent a news van out to the scene—presumably after hearing officers tailing Swalwell on their scanner—and parked across the street from undercover officers, apparently hoping to be the first on scene when police got their man.

Detectives were, to say the least, displeased. 

Swalwell was finally arrested on November 12th after Seattle arson investigators spotted him sitting at a nearby bus stop near the scene of the Shoreline blaze. It’s unclear if or when the heavy surveillance stopped.

He was taken in to custody and hours later, detectives convinced him to confess to setting several fires. That, combined with the information already collected, would be valuable evidence for due process.

Evidence that will likely end in another conviction.

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