The man who set a fire inside a crowded Capitol Hill gay nightclub on New Year’s Eve was sentenced to 10 years in prison on a federal arson charge this morning in U.S. District Court in Seattle.
In a statement of responsibility submitted before this morning’s sentencing, Musab Mohammed Masmari admitted to setting the fire at Neighbours nightclub but said he had no recollection of it.
“On New Year’s Eve I bought a cheap bottle of whiskey and then drank all of it,” he wrote. “I do not remember what happened after I drank the whiskey.”
He declined to speak during his sentencing, referring to his statement.
The sentence Masmari received was double that recommended by both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the defense.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez brushed aside Masmari’s claim that he committed the crime during a drunken blackout, and said he would invoke his discretion to impose an exceptional sentence.
Martinez said that, but for the quick action of employees and patrons in evacuating the packed nightclub, a tragedy would have resulted. The club, well known in Seattle’s gay community, has been open for 30 years and was filled with more than 750 revelers when the fire was set.
Martinez said he didn’t believe Masmari’s blackout story because the crime was too well planned and Masmari tried to leave the country on a flight to Turkey. The judge took particular note of comments by Shaun Kittel, a club employee and longtime gay community advocate, who told the court he was “disgusted” with the five-year plea deal and considered the arson a “blatant attack on our lives.” He noted that the club was filled with many of the gay community’s leaders that night.
Masmari pleaded guilty to arson, which carries mandatory minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 20 years. Because he has no other real criminal history — and because prosecutors could not prove in court that the arson was a hate crime — both the U.S Attorney’s Office and Masmari’s attorneys agreed to the five-year sentence.
But Martinez was not bound by that deal, and he concluded that “common sense tells us exactly what was on Mr. Masmari’s mind when he set that fire.”
A friend of Masmari contacted the FBI in early January to say that he was concerned that Masmari “may be planning some terrorist activity,” according to search-warrant documents filed earlier in 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 Masmari, on a number of occasions, expressed his “distaste for homosexual people” and thought they “should be exterminated,” the documents said.
Police say that Masmari avoided a security check at Neighbours nightclub 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.
Masmari 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.
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, Masmari — who also goes by the surnames Musmari and Al Masmari — booked a one-way flight to Turkey. He was arrested by police as he was preparing to leave for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport,.
Masmari 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.