A manhunt for a suspected arsonist and convicted puppy mill owner brought SWAT personnel and TV station helicopters to Birch Bay last week, but the ordeal ended peacefully when Kenneth Martin Cassell was apprehended in Bellingham.
Fire District 7 firefighters and Whatcom County Sheriff’s deputies responded at 8:40 a.m. February 13 to a residential structure fire at 7115 W. 40th Street in Birch Bay (near Kickerville Road). A SWAT team was called in after authorities began to fear the missing owner was armed and unstable.
Suspected arson, conversations with neighbors and notes of an undisclosed nature found on the property led authorities to
initiate a criminal investigation focused on the property owner, 61-year-old Cassell, said officials from the sheriff’s office.
Previously, Cassell was convicted of running a puppy mill at the site in November 2012. Documentation filed with the Whatcom County Auditor’s Office reveals that the property had been foreclosed on and scheduled for auction February 15.
SWAT personnel were just about to enter a barn on the property to search for Cassell when he was picked up in Bellingham. According to the sheriff’s office, a county employee reported seeing Cassell’s vehicle on Commercial Street in Bellingham early in the afternoon on Wednesday. Deputies and Bellingham police officers made contact with Cassell soon after as he attempted to enter the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center on Prospect Street. Cassell was found to be carrying a loaded handgun in his waistband at the time.
The on-duty sergeant at the scene of the structure fire, which appeared to be fueled by accelerants, called in the SWAT team following conversations with neighbors.
“Some of the neighbors provided us with information, and there was mention of the possibility of weapons,” said Whatcom County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Scott Rossmiller. “He is known to own weapons, which is not against the law, but some were concerned that he was in a frame of mind where he might harm himself or other people.” Rossmiller said the sheriff’s special response team was training in the area and was called in to clear an outbuilding on the property.
“Whether or not this individual may have been in there, we didn’t have any information either way at the time,” Rossmiller said. “So, better safe than sorry. We had the guys who are specially trained to clear the building.”
The SWAT team approached a barn on the property with the assistance of a light armored vehicle (LAV). Just as the SWAT
team was preparing to clear the building, officers received word that Cassell had been detained in Bellingham.
“We made the decision to back off at that time because we had no information that would lead us to believe there were any other threats in the area,” Rossmiller said.
Authorities alerted nearby residents and most of the vacated the area before SWAT arrived. After the SWAT team was called off, firefighters moved in and contained the blaze to prevent it from spreading, but allowed what was left of the doublewide mobile home to burn down.
According to documentation filed with the Whatcom County Auditor on October 1, 2012, Cassell has more than $9,000 in past due mortgage payments on the property, and still owes about $60,000 of the mortgage.
To those on scene, the event Wednesday morning initially brought to mind an incident in California the day before, when cop-killer Christopher Dorner got into a shoot out with San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies at a Bear Mountain cabin in the mountains outside Los Angeles and the cabin burned down.
“Was the Bear Mountain incident in the back of everyone’s minds? Of course, but it didn’t affect how we responded to the incident today,” Rossmiller said. “The way we approached the situation today was exactly how we would have approached it two weeks ago, and exactly how we will approach it in the future.”
Last November, Cassell was convicted of three counts of animal cruelty and one count of violating Washington State’s dog breeding laws. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail or work release along with an order to never own another animal
No one was hurt in the blaze, and firefighters and SWAT police found no animals on the property.
Cassell was arrested on charges of first degree arson. The sheriff’s office said they are continuing to investigate the matter, and other charges will likely be presented to the prosecuting attorney’s office. Cassell was booked into the Whatcom County Jail.