The man accused of setting the fire on July 1, 2007 that destroyed the Walgreen's building in downtown Palo Alto was described Thursday in federal court as "Spider-Man" by a key prosecution witness because of his ability to climb a narrow pipe to the roof of the building.
The witness, Victor Spence, 70, is homeless and walks with the aid of a cane. He sleeps in the alley behind the former Walgreens building and is brought meals by two University Avenue restaurants because he helps keep the alley behind the buildings clean and breaks up the cardboard containers the restaurants leave for the trash.
Spence testified that he has known Donald Ray Williams, the man accused of setting the fire, for more than a decade by sight if not by name.
"I used to call him Spider-Man because he could climb up to the roof of Walgreens," Spence testified. "I had no idea what he was doing there."
The fire that destroyed the 1903 building at the corner of Bryant Street and University Avenue likely started on the second-floor of two office suites above Walgreens, according to earlier court testimony.
Access from the former building could be made through a ground-level door on the alley, which is locked from the outside but not the inside, according to earlier testimony.
Spence testified that he had once seen Williams leave the building from the alley door.
Under careful questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Fry, Spence, a frail-looking man, was often confused by computer monitors showing images of the building, but he spoke clearly.
"There were probably eight or 10 times I saw him shimmer up the pole, including a week before the fire," Spence testified.
Spence said that Williams was also the only person he had ever seen climb to the roof of the Walgreens building.
In his cross-examination of Spence, defense attorney Manual Araujo challenged Spence about his vision difficulties, which Spence admitted to.
But Spence, despite earlier objections from Araujo, established that he clearly knew who Williams was.
Spence said he would panhandle on University Avenue every day and he noticed Williams about a decade ago.
"He would walk by from time to time," Spence testified. "I thought he looked like he might be a street person, so I would say hi."
Testimony in the arson trial of Williams continues next Tuesday afternoon with the possible testimony of a University Avenue restaurant owner who identified Williams through a photograph she was shown only yesterday.
Araujo objected strongly to the inclusion of the photograph and the testimony of the restaurant owner, and U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel delayed the testimony of the restaurant owner from yesterday until next Tuesday.
He also instructed the prosecution to establish the reason why the photograph was only shown to the witness and the court yesterday, even though it was taken of Williams by Palo Alto police during what is called a probation search only days after the Walgreens fire, when Palo Alto police first questioned Williams.