The trial of Donald Ray Williams, charged with setting the fire that destroyed the Walgreens building in downtown Palo Alto in 2007, began Wednesday in federal court in San Jose with dramatic testimony from a store clerk and one of the first firefighters on the scene.
Walgreens had been the building's main tenant since 1967, and in recent years the second floor had been occupied by a bureau of the San Jose Mercury and other offices.
Williams, 46, faces up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted. Police said he lived with his parents in East Palo Alto prior to his arrest. He has been held without bail since his arrest in 2007.
Police said Williams had a history of mental illness and of not taking his medications to control it. At the time of his arrest he was on parole from an earlier conviction.
Jerome Perkins, a part-time store clerk at Walgreen's, and a part-time law student, testified in court that he didn't know the building was on fire until his girlfriend, waiting for him outside, called him on his cell phone to ask, "Do you know your building is on fire?"
Perkins said he just locked the store at 9 p.m., taken some trash out to a dumpster in the alley and went back into the basement -- where he heard a fire alarm. Other employees, upstairs, did not hear the alarm.
"I checked the microwave in the break room to see if something was burning," Perkins testified, saying he did smell smoke.
He rushed upstairs to the main store area where the smell of smoke was stronger. Then his girlfriend called him and he got the other employees out of the building.
Acting Fire Captain Bobby Davis testified that he was on Engine #1 from the Alma Street station, and arrived at the building within three or four minutes of being dispatched.
Davis saw black smoke rising from the roof and radioed to other fire crews en route to tell them what he saw.
Davis said he and two other firefighters used an ax to break through a glass door leading up to two second-floor office suites, bringing in a hose line.
Upstairs, "The smoke was denser, it was lot hotter and visibility was less," he testified, although they couldn't yet see any flames.
After rounding a corner and going through a doorway, the smoke became more dense, he said.
"Something was going," Davis said. "That's when we saw the flames lapping out of the ceiling. We knocked them down. We hit them (with water) from down low to not let them get behind us.
"The next area was all lit up. We knocked down what we could in front of us."
Then an alarm went off signaling that the oxygen in one firefighter's bottle was getting low, so they dropped the hose line and left the building, Davis said.
Before they could refill their oxygen bottles, a battalion chief arrived and ordered all firefighters out of the building due to concern about the wood-beams supporting the roof collapsing.
"We went to a defensive mode: We hit the fire from outside," Davis testified.
Davis and his crew climbed a ladder to the roof of an adjacent building and poured water on the raging fire for the next two hours, he said.
Flames had broken through the roof in two places and sent a thick pall of smoke over downtown Palo Alto for the next several hours, with huge flames visible from blocks away.
"This was the biggest fire I had ever been in," Davis, a 14-year veteran, testified. He called it "a career fire."
In the end, the roof was partially destroyed and while the concrete exterior walls still stood the building was in danger of collapsing. It was later ordered demolished by Palo Alto building officials.
Testimony in Williams' trial continues Thursday will continue next week.
Williams was arrested after he was identified by Victor Spence, identified at the time as a transient who had been sleeping in an alley behind Walgreens. Spence approached police officers stationed at Hamilton and Bryant and said he thought the fire had been set by someone who had a history of climbing onto the roof of the building. Spence later identified Williams as "probably" the man.
Spence's report was buttressed by a videotape from a surveillance camera from an adjacent building, the Palo Alto Information Exchange (PAIX) Internet hub building, captured the image of a man climbing onto the roof of the building shortly before the fire started.
A T-shirt recovered from a nearby dumpster by a federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent had Williams' DNA on it, investigators reported.
There are federal charges against Williams because the Walgreens store was used for interstate commerce, selling goods from around the country and the world.
The federal agent is scheduled to testify Thursday, along with Spence, and the surveillance video is also scheduled to be shown in court.
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