Crime

Bellingham woman charged with arson of her own foreclosed home

The house at 5323 E. 21st Drive, northeast of Bellingham, before a devastating fire.
The house at 5323 E. 21st Drive, northeast of Bellingham, before a devastating fire. Courtesy to the Bellingham Herald

A former branch manager of Chicago Title in Lynden has pleaded not guilty to the arson of her own home northeast of Bellingham.

The four-bedroom house at 5323 E. 21st Drive caught fire a little after 11 p.m. April 19, 2015, according to charging papers filed in Whatcom County Superior Court. Flames tore through the roof before firefighters could extinguish them.

No one was hurt, but the single-story house and attached garage were total losses.

The house was in foreclosure with a sale date set for June, because the resident, Kathleen Ruth Kooch, 48, had stopped making mortgage payments, charging papers say. She still owed more than $480,000. Kooch kept paying for insurance, however, on a coverage plan worth more than $1 million.

Hours after the fire Kooch met investigators, with finished insurance documents. She said she’d already made a claim with her insurance company, according to the charges.

“These documents would have been prepared by Kooch prior to her even seeing the fire,” charging papers say.

Kooch said she first heard her house was burning in the morning while she was at work. The home was unsellable, she continued, because of a contaminated well and water piping, according to the charges. She was moving to Lynden, where she worked as a branch manager of Chicago Title.

Kooch gave a timeline of her whereabouts on the night of the fire. She dropped off her boyfriend Steven Sigur, 52, around 8 p.m. in Bellingham; picked up a prescription from Walgreens; packed belongings at the home on 21st Drive; drove to Lynden; picked up Sigur again around midnight; worked on the computer at her office in Lynden; and returned to her Lynden home, according to court papers.

Sigur gave investigators a similar story and added he parked his vehicle in the garage, and it was lost in the fire.

Investigators with the county fire marshal’s office quickly suspected arson based on burn patterns and evidence suggesting it was sparked by matches or a lighter, charging documents indicated. The fire had started in a mudroom, between the kitchen and garage, with doors left open to help the flames spread, said Deputy Prosecutor Evan Jones.

Search warrants were carried out on the the couple’s cellphones, revealing Kooch’s phone used a cell tower off Feldman Road – 3  1/2 miles from the fire – at 10:24 p.m. and 12:28 a.m. (She made one other call, using a Lynden cell tower, at 11:23 p.m.) That doesn’t necessarily prove she was at the house when the fire started, Jones said, but it aligns with the theory that she was involved, and given the other evidence in the case, prosecutors felt there was enough evidence for criminal charges.

Kooch was formally accused of arson in the first degree in late July. She pleaded not guilty to that charge when she was summoned to court Friday, Aug. 12. At the hearing Superior Court Commissioner Martha Gross released Kooch without requiring her to post bond.

A phone call to her attorney, Doug Hyldahl, wasn’t immediately returned Monday.

Kooch has no felony record in Washington state, but she has another case pending against her.

Last year Kooch and Sigur were charged with felony theft in an alleged scheme where they forged checks from Chicago Title, and cashed them under Sigur’s other names. Charging papers say co-workers noticed her “working” on an Oak Harbor account in early May 2015, and she said an old customer asked for help, a story the customer denied when contacted, according to charging papers.

The $4,500 check was cashed a day later under Sigur’s name. Security video showed him cashing the check at U.S. Bank. A month later another check written by Kooch, worth $1,500, was forged from one name to another, according to the charges. She claimed Sigur must have stolen the checks while he visited her work.

At the time Sigur had 10 felonies on his record – assault, drug possession, burglary, theft – though his most recent conviction came in 2006. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of stolen property in the forgery case in fall 2015.

Kooch is awaiting trial in both cases.

Since last year the Lynden branch of Chicago Title has shut down and consolidated with its Bellingham office. Kooch is no longer on the staff roster.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb

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