Seattleland: The Riddle of Musab Masmari, the Alleged Neighbours Arsonist

If prosecutors have it right, Musab Masmari intended to kill everyone in sight when he allegedly set a New Year’s Eve arson fire at Neighbours, the big dance club on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. It was an act in sharp contrast to the one earlier that afternoon, when police had found a shirtless, sweaty Masmari sitting in a tree, hacking off some of its branches. In his broken English, “He said he was doing this to save everyone,” recalls veteran Seattle Police Detective Kerry Hays.

Falling limbs, bad. Burning limbs, good? Masmari is a jumble of enigmatic contradictions. The lean, 6´1˝, trimly bearded odd-jobber—most recently a pizza deliveryman and a gas-station attendant—also passes himself off as a “cultural ambassador” to Arabic-speaking visitors. On his Facebook page, his main interest is females, he says, professing a kinship with them. Yet he has been accused of harassing women and making lewd comments. One took out a protection order to keep him at bay.

Masmari is supposedly the man seen in surveillance film holding the gas can used to splash fuel and start a fire at the gay Broadway nightclub while more than 750 people inside celebrated the New Year on December 31. Flames were quickly doused by two quick-thinking Army and Air Force service members who found an extinguisher. But the black smoke and fire set off sprinklers, soaking the celebration. According to a search warrant filed in the case, Masmari told a witness afterward that homosexuals should be “exterminated.” If so, how does that square with what he wrote on Facebook in 2011?: “Judgements [sic] and Racism, two words, different in meaning have immediate relation, they’re carrying Ugliness and Aggression, but they still exist inside us.”

Officials are still putting a case together against the suspect, who has a tendency to spit on police officers and, said a judge, may need mental help. Twice while in custody at the East Precinct after arrests, he defecated in his pants in protest, according to court records. But uncertainties abound, starting with his name. In Superior Court, where he’s charged with felony arson, he is 30-year-old Musab Mohammad Musmari, with a “u,” born in California and raised in Benghazi, Libya. In Municipal Court, where he appeared 16 times last year on misdemeanor charges from parking tickets and traffic violations to assault, property damage, obstructing an officer, and being drunk behind the wheel of his parked car, he is Musab M. Masmari, formerly of Capitol Hill, late of Bellevue, earlier of Kirkland. (He is also known as Musab Al Musmari, but insisted in one court filing that Masmari is the correct spelling).

As Musab Musmari, he was arrested this month for the alleged torch job after having been effectively handed over to police by citizens. Many recognized him in suspect photos and videos and called in solid tips. It wasn’t the first time Masmari had spread fear on the Hill, nor the first time the public had helped apprehend him.

Last July, a man named Matt was standing outside the Deluxe Bar & Grill when Masmari suddenly came at him with half a pool cue in hand, cursing and spitting. The two went to the pavement. Matt got hit on the head but wrestled away the cue. Masmari got loose, then ran—and the crowd tackled him. According to the victim, Masmari was mad at him because of earlier run-ins. Matt had talked to police about Masmari being passed out in his Mitsubishi convertible, and Masmari had been harassing him since: Just the day before, Masmari swung his car head-on into Matt’s traffic lane, forcing him to pull over abruptly, he said.

Masmari was arrested and, in December, went to trial. His attorney asked the court to bar testimony about Masmari’s state of mind, prior convictions, or his “terrorizing the community or being banned from certain Capitol Hill establishments.” A jury convicted him of assault. About three weeks later, he allegedly tried to burn down Neighbours.

On January 16, while cops were beginning to focus on him, Masmari was in Municipal Court being sentenced to 30 days in jail for the assault. A judge also thought he might need a mental-health checkup. Masmari wasn’t having it. He posted a $5,000 appeal bond, staying his sentence, and took the case to Superior Court. Two weeks later, headed for the airport and an overseas flight, he was arrested for arson. He’s now being held on $1 million bail.

Masmari has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney says his client is innocent. Masmari has perhaps made his own statement in a Facebook post, a variation on a Palestinian poem called “Eye to Eye.” It begins, “You think you know all about terrorism, but you don’t know it the way I do.” It concludes: “So American, don’t tell me you know about the things I feel and see. I’m terrorized in my own land, and I’m the terrorist?”

Journalist and author Rick Anderson writes about sex, crime, money, and politics, which tend to be the same thing.

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