On New Year's Eve, just after midnight, Neighbours nightclub was crowded and boisterous when, police say, someone poured gasoline down a flight of stairs and set it ablaze. The club's sprinklers helped douse the flames, someone grabbed a fire extinguisher, and the staff evacuated the crowd without injury, a small miracle considering 750 people were packed inside. Police reportedly found a gas can inside, and the unknown arsonist has remained at large ever since. "The community needs to feel safe," said Shaun Knittel, Neighbours' media relations person, who is also president of the group Social Outreach Seattle. "It's not just about Neighbours. If there is someone out there trying to hurt one business, then they might be willing to hurt another."
January 13: After reviewing the club's video surveillance footage of the crowd, cops and Neighbours staff isolated a person of interest. Using images from the video, police posted grainy photos of a man who appeared to be carrying a large object (possibly the gas can) on SPD's blog and asked the public for help identifying him.
January 16: In an unrelated case, Musab Mohamed Masmari, 30, appeared in Seattle municipal court to be sentenced for assaulting a man on the north end of Broadway last July. This wasn't Masmari's first experience with law enforcement, court records show. Masmari faced several criminal charges in 2013, including another assault, property destruction, violation of an anti-harassment order, and obstructing a police officer. Still, on this particular Thursday, the court let Masmari leave on $5,000 bail, allowing him to join a work-release program and return for a 30-day jail term in February. Capitol Hill Seattle blog would report in the next week that Masmari's work-release job was at a gas station. According to a Facebook page for Masmari, he is from Benghazi, Libya.
January 18: Staff members at Neighbours had grown frustrated that police refused to release the club's surveillance video—a potentially critical tool for identifying the person of interest. According to Knittel, police pressured them to suppress the video themselves. "The photos were out, but they were blurry, and people couldn't ID the person, because the photos were so bad," Knittel said. "The next logical thing is to release the video footage." Knittel said SPD Arson/Bomb Squad sergeant Jim Hansen wanted to protect the privacy of people in the club, an argument that "didn't make sense" to Knittel. "When someone tries to burn down a club with 750 people inside it, the investigation trumps privacy. It's not like you are in a private club." Knittel made the decision to leak the video, which aired on TV news.
January 18—23: Business owners and residents on Capitol Hill saw the video and photos and believed the man to be Masmari, a regular at nearby businesses. Several people who asked to remain anonymous said police did not return phone calls tipping them off that Masmari may be the man they're looking for. "I am disturbed that the police have not responded to the people who have made phone calls to SPD," said the owner of a cafe on Capitol Hill. The cafe banned Masmari after employees said Masmari had stuck his finger into one patron's food, ate food off yet another customer's plate, and once unzipped his pants in front of the cafe in what might have been an attempt to expose himself. "We had all the signs of him losing his shit over time," the cafe owner said. "It just got progressively worse." While he couldn't positively identify Masmari, he said, "He looks similar to that guy in the video, and he has sporadic bad behavior."
January 23: Seattle police confirmed in a voice mail to The Stranger that the person of interest in the arson case—the person they believe appears in the video—is Masmari. But when pressed for more detail, police spokespeople clammed up. Among the unanswered questions: Why did police try to suppress the surveillance video? After asking the public for help, why were police failing to return calls? Are police planning to detain and question Masmari? If so, why was Masmari not questioned when he appeared in court the previous week? All that Sergeant Hansen, who is leading the arson investigation, would say when he was reached by phone was: "We're not going talk about" the case. "It could impact aspects of our investigation." He refused to elaborate. The scope of the case is unknown at this point. Silence from SPD raises the possibility that they are not the only agency involved in this investigation. And for what it's worth, some members of the community who called in to say they believe the man in the video to be Masmari did get calls back. One woman who asked to remain anonymous said police called her back to say they "were quite aware of Musab [Masmari] and said they have received multiple calls about him." She added: "Police know him well and should have the resources available to determine if it is in fact him in the video."
January 24: More than three weeks after the fire, Knittel, the Neighbours spokesman, couldn't understand why police hadn't apprehended Masmari. "I think the police should bring him in for questioning. This is the one guy they wanted to ID, and three weeks into this [investigation], they have a name. I don't get the game that they are playing. I don't understand the delay. What are they biding their time for?"
January 27: After four days of SPD's media office refusing to answer questions from The Stranger, Detective Mark Jamieson called back. Asked why police discouraged Neighbours from releasing the video, Jamieson said, "What would be the purpose of putting out the video? We didn't see any reason to do that." Asked why SPD failed to call back people who said they had tips, he said, "I don't know." Asked if the SPD had already identified Masmari as being the man in the video when he appeared in court earlier in the month, he said, "We don't have a timeline on this." Finally, Jamieson added, "I think detectives are trying to identify the person detected in the [photos] and the video and would very much like to question that person."
Ian Goodhew, the deputy chief of staff at the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, said today, "Our primary goal is to work with police agencies to establish enough evidence to file a charge, which is what we've been doing in this case." That will require evidence—evidence from people offering information, some of whom, again, the SPD has been ignoring, while it is also trying to suppress the very video evidence that led to those tips in the first place. There may be a logical explanation for the SPD's behavior, but whatever they're doing, it's not winning over the people who were endangered by this incident or the people trying to help.
As of this date, it remains unclear whether Masmari is a suspect. As far as The Stranger knows, he's simply a person of interest in the case. Neither The Stranger, the people interviewed for this article, nor the SPD are saying that Masmari committed this crime. Meanwhile, a major question remains: Is a larger investigation under way? Sources who spoke confidentially to The Stranger said that Mona Elassiouti, the daughter of the owner of Neighbours, may be acquainted with Masmari, but The Stranger has not been able to verify this. The Stranger tried to reach Elassiouti repeatedly at her cell phone number, at her business phone number, and by emailing Neighbors's lawyer Mark Kimball, but over the course of five days Elassiouti did not reply.
January 28: As The Stranger went to press, Mayor Ed Murray sought to assuage concerns about the investigation. "Less than an hour after I officially became Seattle's first gay mayor, there was an arson at Seattle's oldest gay nightclub with a potential for considerable loss of life... I am not just invested as the chief law enforcement officer of this city in bringing this case to justice, I am personally invested," Murray said. "But we also need to let our law enforcement professionals do their job, which they are doing with utmost diligence, caution, and concern for public safety. In the end, we want a conviction, and I'm asking for patience on the part of the public."
UPDATE on January 31: Two days after this article's publication, Elassiouti called The Stranger to say she does not know Masmari. "I don't know anything about this person," she said. "I don't have any acquaintance or knowledge of this person." She declined to be interviewed further, but said she would release a statement soon.
UPDATE on February 1: Police arrested Masmari in connection with the Neighbours arson on Saturday, February 1. He was on his way to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport when he was apprehended, police said.