A Whatcom County woman must spend 4 ½ years in prison for burning down a Ferndale house on New Year’s Day 2014, killing a woman who was inside.
Katherine Marie Sofie, also known as Kathy Benson, 53, pleaded guilty to manslaughter, arson, and assault Wednesday, Jan. 6, for setting fire to a house on the outskirts of Ferndale city limits.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent was driving past the house at 4839 Rural Ave. at 10:08 p.m. Jan. 1 when she saw flames in the darkness. She pounded on the door but got no answer. The house was engulfed in flames within about six minutes.
Close to an hour later, as firefighters battled the flames, the second floor collapsed, and a burned body fell down with it.
Police learned a young woman, Mindy Rene Rhoads, had gone to sleep that night in the house. An autopsy showed she died from smoke inhalation. She was 23.
Detectives found out that on New Year’s Eve another woman, Sofie, had made drunken comments about how she wanted to “burn that house down,” according to charging papers. Her ex-boyfriend, Lawrence Michael “Mike” Wasisco, 49, had been staying at the home, scrapping metal with permission of the property owner. The house was about to be demolished, with the land deed being transferred to the Lummi tribe.
“If (I) can’t have anything in the house, then he can’t have nothing,” Sofie told one unnamed witness, according to charging papers. Several others reported hearing her make similar comments in the days before the fire.
How exactly the fire started remains a mystery to police.
On the evening of New Year’s Day, Sofie drove to the house with a friend, Amanda Bryant, to look for a cellphone. Bryant later told police she went to a barn to look for rocks, and at some point, according to the charges, Sofie urged her to get back in the car and leave, because she’d “lit that (expletive) on fire.” According to Bryant, Sofie said she was serious, and that the house was going to be demolished the next day anyway.
At 11:03 p.m., a few minutes before the fire was reported, Sofie parked at the Silver Reef Casino, where she met Wasisco and one of his friends. She had a smirk on her face as she walked past him, and security footage showed them get into a confrontation.
That night Wasisco drove to the scene of the fire. He told authorities he believed Rhoads had been in the house. He denied having a role in the fire or Rhoads’ death, and a few days later he took a polygraph test, passing it.
The next week Sofie’s daughter, Britani, gave police a written statement that her mother had come home on New Year’s around midnight and, according to her, Sofie seemed worried. She was crying: She couldn’t believe that a girl was dead. Britani pulled up a Facebook picture of Rhoads, she told police, and Sofie cried and would not look at the pictures.
Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Eric Richey charged Sofie with murder in the first degree in late April 2014.
Problems with the case
How exactly the fire started remains a mystery to police. Investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ruled out electrical, mechanical and chemical causes, and suspect the fire was started by a handheld lighter or matches held up against any number of flammable items stored in a garage.
A jury trial, Richey said, likely would have been a battle of expert testimony. One expert defense witness raised questions — fair questions, in the view of the prosecutor’s office — about the forensic conclusion that the fire had been an arson, not an accident.
Eventually the prosecutor reached a plea deal with Sofie and her public defender, Alan Chalfie. At a hearing on Wednesday, Richey outlined a few other weak points in the case against Sofie.
For one thing, he said, there was a lack of credibility, and willingness to testify, on the part of key witnesses who were Sofie’s friends. Those witnesses had criminal history. Some had active warrants.
Also, police could not find a motive for why Sofie would harm Rhoads, and there was no clear evidence showing that Sofie knew someone was in the house.
In letters, Rhoads’ family pointed to the fact that her truck had been parked outside the house. Detective Melanie Campos of Ferndale police told the judge in court it was dark when the fire broke out, and the truck had been obscured behind brush and beneath a deteriorated tree.
We have a very hard time believing that Kathy was unaware that Mindy was in that house.
Heather Trent, sister of victim Mindy Rhoads
Sofie entered Alford pleas to manslaughter in the second degree and arson in the first degree, and an In Re Barr plea to assault in the second degree. An Alford plea means Sofie maintains her innocence but admits there’s enough evidence to convict her. The In Re Barr plea means she did not commit that exact crime, but she’ll admit to a legal fiction as part of a plea bargain, instead of the original charge — murder.
She’s considered convicted of all three crimes.
Sofie had no felony history. Under state sentencing guidelines, she faced up to 54 months in prison. Rhoads’ family told the Superior Court judge, Deborra Garrett, that the suggested sentence was a “slap on the hand.”
Rhoads was born the second of three identical triplets. Her sister, Heather Trent, described in a letter to the judge how the past two years had been filled with grief, rage and pain.
“I venture to say after losing our precious Mindy we lost a lot more than any outsider could ever understand,” she told the judge Wednesday. “We lost our family identity.”
She asked Judge Garrett to put Sofie in prison for at least 20 years, “to partially compensate for the indescribable suffering she has caused us all.”
“We have a very hard time believing that Kathy was unaware that Mindy was in that house,” Trent said. “To us, it seems like Mindy’s life was OK for someone to take away.”
Rhoads’ aunt, Vicki Lockhart, told the judge the family would never get used to losing one of the triplets.
“When we talk about the three girls, or to them, the names Heather, Mindy and Leah roll off our tongues like water,” she said, through tears. Lockhart asked the judge: “If Katherine Sofie gets away with murder, what heinous crime will she commit next?”
The public defender, Alan Chalfie, argued that there were holes in the story — unexplained gaps in some witness’ stories; a linchpin witness, Amanda Bryant, failing to see or report the alleged arson; the strange path of the flames into the home — that weakened the state’s case, and made the plea bargain reasonable.
“I understand that this is not satisfactory to everyone,” Chalfie said. “It wouldn’t be satisfactory to me, if I suffered the loss of a loved one, and I understand that the reaction (of Rhoads’ family) is more than understandable. But it’s what … state law is understood to be the appropriate range for the crimes that have been acknowledged here.”
Garrett took a five-minute break to review and ponder the case. She returned to announce — “with very little happiness” — that she was bound to hand down the maximum allowed by the law, 4 ½ years, and no more. She suggested she would have ordered more prison time if she had legal authority to do so. The plea deal made sense, given the risks both sides would be taking if the case went to trial, Garrett said.
“The evidence here is not black and white, and this is not a case that either side can go to trial on with assurance that they’re very likely to win,” Garrett said.
Asked if she had anything to say before sentencing, Sofie replied: “I don’t think so, your honor.”