The Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office charged 31-year-old Christopher James Jackson Jr. with first-degree reckless burning, second-degree burglary and malicious prosecution on Tuesday for allegedly breaking into a vacant restaurant building on Harrison Avenue in Centralia, lighting a fire that ultimately destroyed the building on Sunday and then trying to blame the incident on another person.
Jackson was arrested on suspicion of arson Sunday morning and was detained on a 72-hour probable cause hold pending the completion of investigative reports.
While Judge Joely Yeager initially set Jackson’s bail at $500,000 on Monday pending charges, she lowered his bail to $250,000 Tuesday to balance the reality of Jackson’s financial situation with the court’s community safety concerns. Yeager also cited concerns about interference with the administration of justice and Jackson’s past warrant history as reasons for not lowering the bail further.
Officers with the Centralia Police Department arrested Jackson Sunday morning after they spoke with him in the vicinity of the fire at 933 Harrison Ave.
Jackson was the first person to report the fire Sunday morning, according to an affidavit of probable cause filed in Lewis County Superior Court on Monday.
The Lewis County 911 Communications Center dispatched fire and law personnel to the fire shortly after 7 a.m. on Sunday.
Riverside Fire Authority and multiple mutual aid crews from nearby agencies, including Lewis County Fire District 6 and the West Thurston Fire Authority, successfully extinguished the fire on Sunday and prevented it from spreading to nearby structures.
The building itself was a total loss. The structure was severely unstable and at risk for collapse when firefighters extinguished the bulk of the fire, prompting Tyler Rentals out of Chehalis and staff from Centralia Public Works to use an excavator to knock down the remaining structure.
No injuries resulting from Sunday’s blaze were reported.
Jackson reportedly talked with fire personnel at the scene and then approached a Centralia sergeant and identified another man as “a likely suspect in the fire,” according to the affidavit.
An officer familiar with the man Jackson named reportedly saw the man in downtown Centralia earlier that day “and it was close enough to the time the fire started for him to not be involved due to the distances involved,” according to the affidavit.
When questioned further, Jackson “would slightly change his story of what took place,” according to the affidavit. “Because Jackson was the first person to call in the fire at that location, (an officer) suspected he may have been the one to start it.”
When the officer pressed Jackson about details of his story, Jackson allegedly “admitted he was inside the building when ash from his cigarette landed on a computer chair, which then ignited.”
Jackson allegedly said he then gathered his belongings, noticed the fire had grown, left the building and called 911.
“During his conversation with (the officer), Jackson cried and said he felt bad for causing the fire,” according to the affidavit.
A Centralia detective sergeant who has training in fire investigation advised that “ash from a cigarette wouldn’t get hot enough to ignite a chair,” indicating “the fire had been started by other means,” according to the affidavit.
When the detective sergeant interviewed Jackson at the Lewis County Jail on Monday, Jackson allegedly continued to blame the other man for starting the fire “but eventually admitted to accidentally starting the fire himself,” according to a supplemental affidavit filed in Lewis County Superior Court on Tuesday.
This time, however, Jackson allegedly said he lit a Sterno can — a brand of jellied, denatured alcohol primarily used in food service for buffet heating — on fire “to stay warm.” After lighting his cigarette, he “accidentally knocked the Sterno can off the table it was on when he went to grab his phone.”
When the can hit the ground, “fluid spilled on the floor and onto the structure of the building,” according to the supplemental affidavit. “Jackson said he tried to put the fire out, receiving burns on his hands from the attempt.”
Jackson reportedly had visible blistering on his hand and burn marks on his jacket “that appeared consistent with someone smoking a controlled substance and dropping the pipe on themselves” when an officer spoke with him on Sunday.
When he was arrested, Jackson reportedly had a cigarette lighter on his person, 30 fentanyl pills and paraphernalia used to inhale controlled substances, according to the initial affidavit filed on Monday.
Jackson had not been charged with possession of a controlled substance as of Tuesday.
While The Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office initially considered charging Jackson with first-degree arson, a class A felony with a maximum penalty of life in prison, he is not currently facing an arson charge.
First-degree reckless burning and malicious prosecution are both class C felonies with maximum penalties of five years in prison.
Second-degree burglary is a class B felony with a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
The malicious prosecution charge stems from Jackson allegedly trying to blame another man for the fire and the second-degree burglary charge stems from Jackson allegedly breaking into the vacant restaurant before the fire started.
While no one was inside the building when firefighters arrived Sunday morning, the structure has been frequently broken into and used by people experiencing homelessness, according to the Centralia Police Department.
The Centralia Police Department last did a security check on the building on Friday, March 3, after officers got a report that people were gaining access through a broken window.
During the security check, an officer reportedly contacted Jackson, who was exiting from the side of the building.
Jackson allegedly admitted to “having been inside the building on prior occasions” and said he had secured the broken window from the inside with a piece of wood, according to the affidavit.
Officers confirmed the building was secure before advising Jackson not to enter the building again and leaving the scene.
Inside the building, officers reportedly saw “there were feces, drug paraphernalia and it appeared that the cushions from the booths had been arranged on the floor for people to sit on.”
While the Centralia Police Department initially reported Jackson was a Chehalis resident and later identified him as “a transient who has recently been in the Lewis County area,” defense attorney Rachael Tiller informed the court Monday that Jackson lives with family in Centralia and has been employed there full-time as a union tree trimmer for the last four years.
“He has strong ties to the area,” Tiller said Monday.
Jackson’s arraignment hearing is scheduled for Thursday, March 16.