Birch Bay man acquitted of arson after fire at former puppy mill

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 28, 2013 

BIRCH BAY - A former puppy mill owner has been found not guilty of igniting a fire that destroyed his soon-to-be foreclosed Birch Bay house earlier this year.

After a trial in Whatcom County Superior Court, the jury acquitted Kenneth Martin Cassell, 60, of first-degree arson last week. The jury found him guilty of a separate count of unlawful carrying of a concealed weapon.

Afterward, Cassell's attorney, Jonathan Raney, called the prosecution's case a "sloppy job." The charges, Raney argued, were rooted in guesswork rather than the hard evidence of the home's charred remains.

Cassell, a breeder of mini Australian shepherds, kept puppies in his barn for many years. In court and in media interviews, he repeatedly denied allegations that they lived in squalor. But his 48 dogs were seized in April 2012, during the lead-up to a trial that ended with convictions for animal cruelty and running a so-called puppy mill. Late last year, Whatcom County District Court Commissioner Tony Parise banned Cassell from owning animals for life.

On the morning of Feb. 13, Cassell left an apparent suicide note on the door of the dilapidated red barn. He had given everything he owned to his neighbor for dollar, barricaded his driveway with a large red steel recycling container and driven to Bellingham in a gray 1994 Ford F-250. He armed himself with a .357 Magnum revolver and enough ammo to reload once, according to charging documents.

Whatcom County Prosecutor David McEachran accused Cassell of starting the blaze "as an act of finality."

Raney responded in court paperwork: "Lacking sufficient evidence to pile additional charges on Mr. Cassell and being burdened with a factually weak case, the State is seeking to 'try' him instead for the offense of Animal Cruelty And Being a Horrible Person Who is Capable of And Disposed Towards Any Evil Act Including Arson" (sic).

Firefighters knocked down the flames, then backed off when they found a gas can - and no victim - inside. They didn't know where Cassell, a target shooter, had gone. But they knew he had guns. Neighbors told law enforcement Cassell had cleared brush from his property, to have a better shot at intruders. So firefighters backed hundreds of feet away and let the flames rekindle.

A SWAT team moved in. Just as deputies prepared to sweep the barn, Cassell was arrested on a sidewalk outside the Whatcom County Courthouse, about 17 miles from the home. He was charged with arson.

It's clear Cassell held grudges. He despised the Whatcom Humane Society. And according to charging documents, he was angry with Commissioner Parise and the public defender in the animal cruelty case. The home had been scheduled for auction several days after the fire, as prosecutors noted in charging documents. On Thursday, May 23, McEachran said he's still concerned for the safety of those Whatcom County officials.

But Raney contended Cassell didn't plan to hurt anyone but himself on the morning of Feb. 13. And Cassell would have killed himself, Raney added, "if it hadn't been a nice day." Instead he went for a walk downtown, where he was arrested.

Whatcom County Fire Marshal Will Anderson, lead investigator of the blaze, testified in support of the arson charge. But jurors weren't convinced beyond a reasonable doubt: The rekindle left difficult-to-decipher burn patterns, according to Raney.

"It seems to be the State's position that Mr. Cassell burned down his house to revenge himself upon the Court, his lawyer and Animal Control," Raney wrote. "How does that work? Are any of these folks in the slightest degree harmed if in fact he did so?"

It took 1 1/2 days for jurors to reach verdicts on both counts.

Superior Court Judge Deborra Garrett sentenced Cassell to 90 days in jail for the misdemeanor firearm violation. He has already been released from jail because of time served.

Cassell is a Canadian citizen. Because he's a legal permanent resident of the United States, he's allowed to own guns.

He is appealing his recent animal cruelty convictions.

Reach Caleb Hutton at 360-715-2276 or caleb.hutton@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Dispatcher blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/dispatcher or follow him on Twitter at @bhamcrime.

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