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May 2, 2014 at 11:27 AM

Man pleads guilty to arson at Seattle gay nightclub

A man accused of setting a fire inside a crowded Capitol Hill gay nightclub on New Year’s Eve pleaded guilty to arson this afternoon in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

Musab Mohammed Masmari, 30, was charged in a felony information in federal court yesterday after previously having been charged with first-degree arson in King County Superior Court.

He signed a plea agreement in which federal prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to recommend a prison sentence of five years, although the maximum penalty is 20 years. Sentencing is scheduled for July 31.

The federal takeover of the case lends weight to allegations that Musmari’s crime is terrorism- or hate-related. The case is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Greenberg, who supervises the Joint Terrorism Task Force. He said the motive for the arson will be addressed at Musmari’s sentencing.

A friend of Musmari contacted the FBI in early January to say that he was concerned that Musmari “may be planning some terrorist activity,” according to search-warrant documents filed earlier in King County Superior Court. The friend, who was not identified by authorities, worked as a confidential informant for the FBI and Seattle police after the fire, the documents say.

The friend also told investigators that Musmari, on a number of occasions, expressed his “distaste for homosexual people” and thought they “should be exterminated,” the documents said.

Police say that Musmari avoided a security check at Neighbours by entering an adjacent bar called Therapy Lounge. He then passed through an interior door between the bars into the two-floor dance club and was seen on surveillance footage walking around with an object that appeared large enough to contain a 1-gallon gas can, according to the state charging documents.

Musmari allegedly fled the club within seconds of flames first appearing on the footage, the papers say. Club patrons and a bartender quickly doused the blaze with a fire extinguisher.

There were more than 750 people inside the club that night, authorities said.

Police released grainy surveillance photos of the suspect in January, and several people called in tips to police, including the friend named in the warrant, according to information presented in the arson case.

Days before his arrest on Feb. 1, Musmari — who also goes by the surnames Masmari and Al Masmari — booked a one-way flight to Turkey. He was arrested as he was preparing to leave for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, police said.

Musmari was born in California, but his family returned to Libya when he was an infant; he came back to the United States permanently in 2009, according to charging paperwork filed in the arson case.

Comments | More in The Blotter | Topics: arson, Seattle Police Department, terrorism

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