PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Just weeks after KOIN 6 first reported a series of arsons throughout Southeast Portland’s Mt Tabor, suspects have been arrested and arson investigators are detailing how they found those they believe to be responsible.
Officials credit much of it to community members.
Jason Andersen, a senior arson investigator with Portland Fire and Rescue, says it was hard to get evidence in this case with a lack of security cameras or witnesses inside the park. Instead, he credits neighbors and locals who stepped up to watch out and document whatever they could for officials.
When investigators first learned of a series of fires set at Mt Tabor, they still seemed too small to pinpoint a connection between them.
“Mt Tabor was a very interesting case to start with. There had been a few fires that the fire department had responded to. They appeared to be a bit smaller in size,” said Andersen. “There wasn’t enough consistency or predictability initially to really identify there was a significant problem going on.”
Locals also started to take notice of what was happening.
“I came into the park thinking there were five fires,” said one woman who tipped off investigators and wished to remain anonymous. “After speaking to the investigators, they also thought there were five fires.”
But upon walking all of the park’s trails, she realized the problem was worse and with a friend, documented GPS coordinates with a watch and compiled a map of all the burned areas — which was around three dozen. Andersen says that the map helped them realize the extent and launch an investigation while working with the community.
“This exact case is a really good example of where the public actually came forth with a lot of information. They took it upon themselves to actually identify the problem and document it very well, and then really tried to reach out to as many different bureau and agency partners as they could such as the parks bureau, fire and rescue, even the police bureau as well. Once there was this documentation available for us to use, it became very apparent,” said Andersen. “We were able to get photographs, we were able to get almost real live-time information once they knew who to contact that allowed us to put the puzzle pieces together and allowed us to identify a potential suspect.”
The information included a video of people spotted and photographs of a car repeatedly seen in the area, helping investigators narrow down an owner who could be connected.
“There isn’t surveillance cameras, there isn’t a lot of witnesses that were around, typically, so once the community became heightened, it was almost like having thousands of little surveillance cameras out every night,” said Andersen. “Once we actually learned there was multiple people involved, of course the complexity evolves as well.”
The vehicle neighbors spotted was that of one of the suspects, later identified as 18-year-old Malik Hares. According to court documents, Hares reportedly posted messages on social media accusing others of the fires, while returning to scenes to talk with firefighters. Hares and another suspect, 18-year-old Samuel Perkins, pleaded not guilty, while charges were dropped against a third suspect.
KOIN 6 asked investigators why the third person was no longer charged.
“Sometimes when we’re investigating a case or making a decision on an arrest, sometimes we don’t have all the information that we really want in order to make sure we’re going to be prepared for down the road with a successful prosecution. In this case, we had to balance the public’s overall safety with where our investigative leads kind of brought us to,” said Andersen. “Typically, with the amount of evidence we had at that time, we knew we could get a lot more, but we made an arrest a little bit earlier in this case than we normally would have wanted to because we felt the public’s risk and safety to the public was what our primary concern was.”
Both Hares and Perkins have been released from custody and Andersen says officials are hopeful the behavior has been “curbed” and the fires won’t be repeated.
The woman who first tipped off investigators to the extent of damage hopes this is a lesson for others that if they see something, say something, and persist in getting that information through.
“I was relieved, but I was also sad just to see two 18-year-olds involved. They’re so young,” the woman told KOIN 6. “I’ve never, ever gotten involved with something like this before, but this has just shown me that a single person can make a difference.”
KOIN 6 News reached out to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office about fire investigators making an early arrest, only for charges to be dropped on one suspect. While they say there wasn’t enough evidence to charge the third person at this time, the investigation is ongoing and further charges could be issued.