Former Seattle firefighter Bob Howell on the witness stand yesterday. He and former Seattle firefighter Scott Bullene are facing hate crime charges for an alleged attack on homeless people in Occidental Park.
  • Cienna Madrid
  • Former Seattle firefighter Bob Howell on the witness stand yesterday. He and former Seattle firefighter Scott Bullene (back to camera, left) are facing hate crime charges for an alleged attack on homeless people in Occidental Park.

I have been staring at the back of Bob Howell's head for weeks now. But I had never heard him speak until yesterday, when the 47-year-old former Seattle firefighter finally took the stand to defend himself against charges that he and two friends attacked several homeless men in Pioneer Square's Occidental Park on March 15 at the Fallen Firefighters Memorial. (Here are parts one and two of my coverage of this trial.)

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What did Howell talk about first on the witness stand? His compassion for the homeless.

"My wife has an aunt who was unfortunately schizophrenic and homeless," Howell said shortly after his testimony began. "She unfortunately died on the streets," he added, before Assistant City Prosecutor Joe Everett interjected to ask the relevance of Howell's statements. Howell also expressed his enthusiasm for Seattle's FareStart program, talked about the work he did for homeless individuals as a firefighter, and spoke of the willingness he and his wife have to donate to homeless charities.

"Eighty-five percent of my job [as a Seattle firefighter] was helping the homeless," Howell said. "Passing out blankets, make sure [homeless people] could find shelter, make sure they could find food, pointing them in the right directions... patching up wounds, mak[ing] sure their welfare is okay."

It seemed Howell and his defense attorney, Norm Golden, were both eager to show the 47-year-old former firefighter in more empathetic light after days of witness and police officer testimony that painted him and his cohorts as intoxicated, belligerent assholes more than heroic, compassionate servicemen.

So what, according to Howell, sparked the fight at Seattle's Fallen Firefighters Memorial on March 15?

As Howell describes it, he was walking through Occidental Park with codefendants Scott Bullene, 46, and Mia Jarvinen, 38. Bullene was also a firefighter at the time. As the three were walking, Bullene said he saw "a gentleman before me, Mr. [Francis] Hicks."

He was talking about Francis Leo Hicks, a 47-year-old homeless man who testified directly before him at the trial. Howell said that when he saw Hicks, the man was "urinating on the two statues."

Howell then explained: "The respect for that memorial is driven into every firefighter's head from the get-go." As Howell said this, his attorney literally choked up. "Every January 5th we'd go down to the memorial... Crews would go. It's a bonding experience. We call each other brother."

Howell says he was six beers deep into the evening when he saw Hicks, a witness for the prosecution, allegedly peeing on the statues. He says he reacted as any other firefighter would: He yelled "knock it off," because it was "hugely disappointing that the memorial would be used as an outhouse."

Howell testified that in response, Hicks finished urinating, turned around, and shoved him aggressively.

"What was your reaction?" Golden asked.

"I stepped back," Howell said. "I'd just had major shoulder surgery... I kind of turned to protect my left shoulder and pushed him back with my right hand."

"Did you do that to start a fight?"

"No, I did that to protect myself."

"What happened after you shoved Mr. Hicks back?"

"At that time I heard a commotion a little bit further down the memorial, I saw an individual lying down on the bricks behind the statue of the firefighter, [and] I saw Ms. Jarvinen standing there," Howell testified. "I heard noises, I couldn't decipher what was being said. I walked over there... kind of to remove myself from the other situation."

"What was going on there?"

"I heard Mr. McDonald kind of yelling at her, she was yelling back a little bit. Then I got kicked in my ankle." (Simon McDonald testified for the prosecution on the first day of the trial. He said he was reclining on the ground next to the firefighters memorial, eating a free meal, when he heard voices raised in anger and then felt himself get kicked.)

Howell's attorney then asked about the kick Howell says he received in the ankle: "Did you see who kicked you?"

"It was Mr. McDonald," Howell said. "I kicked back."

"Did you make contact with Mr. McDonald?"

"No, I did not... It was more of a brushing away."

As Howell was "brushing away" the homeless man who was allegedly attacking him from the ground, he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. "A gentleman in a white tank top comes running, he clocks me in the right eye," Howell said. "I fall to the ground. I'm dazed. It was a very serious, hard punch. Enough to knock me down and daze me. He knocked me from a standing position to the ground. I fell forward, onto my knees, caught myself with my hand, and was trying to shake it off."

Howell identified the puncher as Hicks, who he said fled from the park after nearly cold-cocking him. After that, Howell testified that he got to his feet, found Bullene, noticed that Jarvinen was "holding an [African American] man at bay, and walked out of the park to McCoy's, where he called 911. "Because I'd been assaulted," Howell testified yesterday.

Interestingly, in Howell's 911 call, which was played for the jury two weeks ago, Howell only reported that "there's a white girl being assaulted by a black gentleman." If he also reported his own assault, I didn't hear it when the 911 call was played (and I assume the jury didn't, either).

That detail is of note because, according to Hicks, he never touched the firefighter. Hicks said he was in the park that day hanging out with his girlfriend, "just minding [his] own business," when he witnessed the defendants harassing a nearby homeless man by pulling the blanket out from under him and throwing his food.

"They were saying stuff like 'F homeless people. Get out of the park,'" Hicks testified. Then he witnessed Howell kick the homeless man in the face, at which point Hicks said he got up and said, "Stop what you're doing." Hicks said that Howell responded by throwing a punch that connected with his right eye. Then, "when I turned... another guy punched me right in my face... in my nose," Hicks said. He identified his second attacker as Bullene. "I went down. I didn't see nothing. Everything was black out. My girlfriend grabbed me and pulled me up. I don't remember anything."

Hicks says his girlfriend took him back to his tent to recover. He denies ever throwing a punch at Howell. Both the prosecution and defense submitted photos of Hicks and Howell's respective facial injuries.

The prosecution will cross-examine Howell tomorrow morning, after which Bullene is expected to testify. It's still unclear if Jarvinen will take the stand in her defense.

All of them—Howell, Bullene, and Jarvinen—have been charged with misdemeanor counts of fourth-degree assault and malicious harassment, a hate crime. If convicted, they each face a fine of up to $5,000 and up to 364 days in jail, according to the City Attorney’s Office.