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.