News

Mentally ill man suspected in Walgreens arson

Parolee, 45, linked by video and DNA from a discarded T-shirt, court records report

A 45-year-old parolee with a history of mental illness is suspected of starting the four-alarm July 1 fire that destroyed the historic 1900 Walgreens building at 310 University Ave. in downtown Palo Alto, according to court records released Monday.

The man was identified as Donald Ray Williams of East Palo Alto in an affidavit filed by Agent Gabrielle Solleder of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The affidavit, filed last Friday in the federal District Court in San Francisco, supported the criminal complaint of United States of America v. Donald Ray Williams. In it, Williams was accused of "maliciously damaging or destroying, by means of fire, a building used in interstate commerce" -- relating to goods from other states sold in Walgreens. Solleder stated she conducted an investigation with cooperation from Palo Alto and Redwood City police. The affidavit listed several pieces of evidence against Williams, including DNA. Clothing confiscated from Williams' bedroom in his parents' East Palo Alto home matched that worn by a man in video surveillance of the site, the affidavit stated. The man is seen climbing onto the roof, and fire starts shortly thereafter in the video. A canine detected incendiary materials on the clothing, the report stated. In addition, the video showed the man removing a white T-shirt before climbing up, according to police. Solleder later interviewed a witness who reported seeing the man throw the T-shirt in the trash bin. A white T-shirt recovered from a trash bin behind the fire site was tested in late September and found to contain Williams' DNA, the affidavit stated. A transient from downtown Palo Alto, Victor Spence, told Palo Alto police on July 2 that a certain man had a history of climbing onto the Walgreens roof. After police showed Spence four photographs of people known to frequent downtown Palo Alto, Spence said the man was probably Williams, the police report noted. On July 6, Solleder and Palo Alto Police Det. Adrienne Moore interviewed Williams, who denied that he had ever been in the alley behind Walgreens or on the building's roof. When ask if he knew anything the July 1 blaze, "Williams quickly answered, 'No, I don't know nothing about no fire,'" according to Moore's report. Williams told Moore and Solleder he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder but did not take his medicine because he didn't like the way it made him feel, the report said. Moore also interviewed Rosie Williams, the suspect's mother, who said her son is "always home" by 9:30 p.m. and thought he was "probably" home on the evening of the fire. But neither she nor her husband remembered specifically seeing or hearing their son come home that night, the police report stated. In early August, Williams was also arrested in relation to a series of arson grass fires in Portola Valley, but was released due to what police said was insufficient evidence, while continuing the investigation. However, he was then held for a parole violation and has been in San Mateo County jail every since. The Walgreens fire destroyed the roof of the building and weakened the concrete structure, believed to date from 1900. Walgreens recently donated 89 boxes of salvaged goods from the store to the East Palo Alto YMCA. A Subway sandwich shop on the ground floor was forced to close, and several nearby stores were temporarily shut down. The offices upstairs had been vacant, including the former Palo Alto bureau of the San Jose Mercury News. Traffic and business on University were disrupted for weeks while officials reinforced the walls to prevent a collapse. The building was demolished last month. The July 1 fire was reported about 9:35 p.m. and burned or smoldered for most of the night.

Comments

Posted by Brock, a resident of University South
on Oct 11, 2007 at 3:14 pm

Geeze. Please re-open the sanitariums. For the grace of god.


Posted by Joel, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 12, 2007 at 8:12 am

Is no one putting 2 stories in the paper together? The Walgreen's arson suspect and the East Palo Alto man who was shot are the same age and have the exact same name. Is this coincidence or are they the same person?


Posted by Dubious, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 12, 2007 at 9:47 am

Can we say "fall guy"? He's clearly wacko and can take the rap for the real perps. It's great that the only "witness" is another homeless man.


Posted by Peter, a resident of Professorville
on Oct 12, 2007 at 11:14 am

welcome to modern-day america, where the only way to get some help is to burn something down.


Posted by just thinking, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 12, 2007 at 11:35 am

Dubious-
In case you didn't notice, Williams wasn't referred to as "homeless", in fact the article states evidence was recovered in his bedroom at his parents home.

Joel - I could find a reference to Williams being shot, but PAW did report someone with the same name in San Mateo County Jail on charges related to foothills fires.


Posted by Ben W, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 12, 2007 at 11:47 am

Peter raises a good point. Do you think they'd fix the streets in front of my house if I burned wodn city hall?


Posted by John, a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 12, 2007 at 1:56 pm

It's interesting how the homeless problem comes around and goes around. The whinos and bums and crazies used to be kicked out of the cities to the small towns. Now the small towns don't have much of a problem anymore, but the cities do. With San Francisco about to crack down, maybe they will be back in the towns again.

Instead of kicking the problem around, there should be federal money to house the unhoused. However, and this is where I completely disagree with the homeless advocates, they should be COMPELLED to take what is offered. There should be no chronic homeless in America. Giuliani got it done in NYC. It IS possible.


Posted by trust, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 12, 2007 at 4:59 pm

cant always trust easy explanations from police. people have been accused cause theyre african american men. police actually write false reports and LIE about so called ''weapons'' they find, if you call them on it , they give some snide comment , mocking what you say. karma will fix that.


Posted by Answer, a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 22, 2007 at 2:40 am

Yep, that's what the police do, they all get together and come up with an innocent man to blame it on. This time Palo Alto PD, a force of 100, convinced the entire ATF National Response Team to blame it on poor Donald Williams, another innocent black man targeted by the conspiring police. So what that he was on parole, because what he got convicted of was probably just another police scheme, right? So what there was DNA evidence in this case that isn't proof...well actually it is but it's not like there was an eyewitness in this case...well actually there was. It's not like he was arrested for any other arson...wait he was arrested in the San Mateo foothills arson. He as let go in that one due to lack of evidence but I am sure Trust and other likes him have some conspiracy theory for that to. It would seem to me they arrested the right man even in the San Mateo case but because we are a nation of laws and Palo Alto PD (and most other agencies I know of) are the good guys, they let him go when directed to by the DA's office. Nah...Trust is probably right; this is all one big conspiracy to keep the black man down. Oh wait, the lead PAPD investigator and PAPD press officer for the case (Moore and Brown) are both black. Oh well, I am sure Trust can explain that for us....


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