Arrest made in suspected arson at WorkSource office in Bellingham

See the fire damage at WorkSource in Bellingham

WorkSource Whatcom, an agency that assists job-seekers with skills and advice such as interviewing, resumes and employment postings, was closed Monday, Sept. 19, 2016 because of a fire the previous day.
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WorkSource Whatcom, an agency that assists job-seekers with skills and advice such as interviewing, resumes and employment postings, was closed Monday, Sept. 19, 2016 because of a fire the previous day.

A man was arrested Sunday, Sept. 18, in the wake of a suspected arson fire that closed the WorkSource Whatcom Career Center downtown.

Michael Kevin Follett, 61, was arrested on second-degree arson and harassment charges shortly after the 1:40 p.m. fire, said Bellingham Police Lt. Mike Johnston. Meanwhile, the WorkSource office at 101 Prospect St. was closed Monday, Sept. 19, because of fire damage.

Even though WorkSource was closed Sunday, an employee was at the office and noticed the flames, using two fire extinguishers to keep the flames at bay, said Gary Smith, WorkSource regional manager.

“We lost some windows that blew out from the heat and there’s smoke and soot damage in the lobby,” Smith said. “It’s truly fortunate for us that he was there.”

Damage was evident Monday morning as a window was sealed with plywood and the building showed scorch marks from the sidewalk to the window. The front of the building was cordoned off with yellow tape.

Follett, who police said is a transient, was arrested about a half-block away as firefighters responded first to a trash can fire. The alarm quickly changed to a structure fire as flames spread and more firefighters were dispatched.

“The engine company was able to extinguish it pretty quickly,” said Assistant Chief Bill Hewett of the Bellingham Fire Department.

Johnston said Follett suffered injuries consistent with a fire and was taken in a patrol car to St. Joseph hospital for treatment and a mental health assessment. Follett was released and booked into Whatcom County Jail by 3 p.m.

A witness reported a man fitting Follett’s description near a trash can outside WorkSource where the fire started. At Bayou on Bay restaurant, 1304 Bay St., Johnston said Follett admitted starting the fire to a second witness and then to police.

“When officers contacted him, he said, ‘I lit that (expletive) on fire to get everyone’s attention,’” Johnston said.

Johnston estimated damage at $10,000, but Smith said he couldn’t comment on that figure as the building was still being inspected Monday.

WorkSource Whatcom Career Center is part of WorkSourceWA, a statewide partnership of employment and training organizations that help those seeking employment and employers who need workers. It offers job-search preparation, workshops, computers for job search and career exploration, job listings and referral, veteran services and occupational training programs, Smith said. Hundreds of clients are served daily, he said.

Smith said those who have WorkSource appointments would be served Monday and for the next two or three days. The building would be open with limited operations at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20, and he was hoping the office would be back to normal by Thursday, Sept. 22. In the interim, clients were being referred to the Bellingham Public Library to conduct research and use computers, Smith said, and information was still available at WorkSourceWA.com.

Several small outside fires have been reported recently in Bellingham, and two incidents from Wednesday, Sept. 14, were being investigated as arson by Bellingham Police. In one case, a fire was set in the driver’s seat of a parked car in the 1400 block alley between State and Forest streets.

Johnston said detectives are reviewing old cases for possible connections to the recent fires.

A probable cause hearing on the charges against Follette was held Monday afternoon. Superior Court Commissioner Alfred Heydrich set bail at $10,000.

Follett reacted with shock when a deputy prosecutor said he had confessed to the crime. Follett pointed at one of his eyes, then clapped a hand over his mouth. With a puzzled look on his face, he leaned forward and listened to the rest of the statement of probable cause.

The Bellingham Herald reporter Caleb Hutton contributed to this story.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty