by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
A 30-year-old Bellevue man accused of starting a fire at Neighbours Seattle (1509 Broadway) during the New Year's Eve celebration was charged Wednesday with first-degree arson. Musab Musmari, who police had named a person of interest is being held on $1 million bail. King County prosecutors said he was on his way to the airport to use a recently purchased one-way ticket to Turkey when he was arrested last Saturday.
What Musmari is accused of is arson. But it was much more than that. It was attempted murder.
I was there.
And it was horrible.
On New Year's Eve a man matching the description of Musmari entered Neighbours with the intention of burning the building down, and everyone inside with it.
At the time Musmari allegedly set the fire, just minutes after the countdown to midnight, there were over 750 people inside the popular nightclub that has served Gay customers for three decades.
Seattle Fire Department officials tell me that, given the amount of people and the intensity in which a fire would burn if fueled by gasoline, 90 percent of the potentially hundreds of victims would die from asphyxiation before they were burned. Others, the most unlucky, would be trampled and even worse, severely burned to death.
So many things happened within 30 seconds that night it makes my head spin when I think about it. As the fire began to quickly grow, smoke and the smell of gasoline filled the air. I was just 25 feet away from the flames, which were set in the stairway nearest the Broadway entrance. By my side was my husband. We had been pouring champagne for the nightclub that night; it's a tradition and this was our second year lending a hand. Yee-Shin and I were happy to do it. Neighbours is where we spent our first Gay Pride together in 2010 and every year since. The venue is where we spent holidays, celebrated birthdays of friends, and produced a musical to raise money for marriage equality back when Referendum 74 hadn't yet qualified for the November ballot.
I tell you this because I want you to understand that Neighbours, like many neighborhood or community venues - especially the very few that have survived time, change, and the ups and downs of the economy - are much more than 'just a club.' At Neighbours you are family. It's a big club. But that doesn't mean that the bartenders, door person, management, and entertainment don't know you. In fact, most people would tell you that it is a place that so many take for granted. It is often said that Neighbours is 'where you end up' each Friday and Saturday night on the Hill. Over the past 30 years the nightclub was the first nightclub experience for many - whether they went as soon as they turned 18 years old at 2 a.m. when 18+ are allowed in, or when they first moved to town for work or school, or because they followed their family.
What I mean to say is this: My husband was in danger. My good friend, someone who I consider family, Neighbours GM Steve Tracy could have died. The entertainers from Ceasar Hart to Aleksa Manila - both treasures of this community - to the legendary Randy Schlager and bar staff like Johnathan Horton and Joe Torres were targets of a mad man and his fire. No, this was not simply just arson. This was, for everyone in the building, an attack on our lives and the lives of the people we love.
I saw the smoke almost immediately. In fact, I felt the heat first. It made the hair on my arms stand up and all I could think of was Yee-Shin. I grabbed him and as he turned around, before I could even say anything, I could tell he was seeing the same thing that I was. Black, billowing smoke was beginning to fill the air, which became heavy and toxic almost immediately. Only five seconds had passed. I yelled to my husband that there was a fire and that he needed 'to get out!'
Yee-Shin nodded and as he turned around, he began to tell people to head for the exit. People listened and one by one, began to alert the person standing next to them and so on. When I recall the events from that evening, I know logically that people were moving rather quickly. But that night it seemed as though they were moving at a snail's pace. Anxiety doesn't even begin to describe the feeling of when the thought crossed my mind that some of them might not make it out. Hell, I didn't even know if I was going to make it out. Would that be the last time I saw my beautiful husband. 'No!' I told myself and began to evacuate people, too - all the while moving towards the blaze so I could help douse the flames.
Unbeknownst to me, atop the mezzanine at the very same time, a similar scene was unfolding. Luckily, the arsonist poured gasoline on stairs that were carpeted. Had the stairway been set ablaze with fuel that was flowing freely from the stairwell onto the dance floor, the situation could've gone from bad to worse in no time. A bartender saw the fire first. He scrambled to get a fire extinguisher, but had to leave his station to do it. In that same moment, a woman and her two friends, a U.S. Army staff sergeant and an Air Force member sprang into action. The woman ushered people down the opposite stairway to safety and the two servicemembers located a fire extinguisher and quickly put out the fire before it spread. The club's sprinkler system activated, and no one was hurt.
The whole ordeal lasted all of about 30 seconds. Over half of the nightclub's nearly 800 customers were outside, safe, in the Neighbours alley and had no clue why they were out there in the first place.
Steve Tracy and I reentered the club and took a security guard and the bartender that had been closest to the fire with us. Keep in mind that this was 1 minute after the blaze was put out; the fire department was still on their way to the club. And that is when, as we walked through the gallons of water that were pouring from the ceiling onto the pool table, and we hoped not the electronic equipment below, we saw it. A plastic red gasoline container with a rag wrapped around the handle sat at the top of the stairs, against the wall, just below a window. It was full of gasoline. The intention was, one could only guess, to create an explosion.
The month-long investigation by SPD's Arson/Bomb Squad, and members of a Joint Terrorism Task Force, came to an end Sunday when Musmari was arrest. Although the investigation had frustrated some police tipsters and officials at the nightclub, the FBI and Seattle Police admit it was because of the 'numerous' tips they received from the public in the case that led to the apprehension of Musmari.
Police say one witness who came forward talked with Musmari about the situation and about his prospects for leaving the country. Police do not document how they learned Musmari had contacted a travel agent.
Musmari is a dangerous and disturbed man. Even now, he remains in jail.
After the fire and one week passed I began to get restless. It seemed as though SPD didn't have any leads or anything that they were following on the case. Neighbours officials had handed over copies of the surveillance footage that show Musmari acting suspicious and carrying something wrapped up that is the same shape as the gasoline container found at the scene of the fire. The surveillance video shows Musmari jumping a rail and entering the packed club via the smoking area at Therapy, the bar in front of Neighbours on Broadway, just before midnight. Beneath his coat, he is carrying a canister of gasoline. He proceeds to the mezzanine area where he orders a glass of water. He then goes down the stairs where the fire was set before returning to the mezzanine. Musmari does this one more time and then fire erupts just minutes later. Meanwhile, video surveillance catches Musmari escaping out of Neighbours the same way he snuck in.
SPD did not want Neighbours to release the video footage to the public because they said it would cause Musmari to skip town. Another reason they gave KIRO 7 was that they wanted to respect the privacy of the other people in the video, who might not want their image put out to the public because they were inside of a Gay bar. I felt that these reasons were not valid and leaked the footage to the media.
It worked. Neighbours had done the right thing. The safety of their guests, employees, and the nightclub's legacy of being a safe space were more important than keeping the public in the dark on what was going on with the investigation. SPD says that people began to recognize Musmari from the video footage and that he made comments to witnesses that talked to him about the arson case.
A bond hearing was delayed until Tuesday to arrange for an interpreter in the case. County prosecutors charged Musmari with arson.
The courtroom was filled with media, and a man who identified himself as a friend of Musmari's, who met him recently when renting an apartment from him in Bellevue, was swarmed by reporters. He told reporters he attended the hearing to show support for a man he didn't have 'any reason to believe' was involved in the crime.
'The investigation in this case is far from complete,' Ian Goodhew, the deputy chief of staff in the prosecutor's office, told The Stranger. He added that 'there are many witnesses still to interview and other investigative leads to chase' by the time Musmari shows up for an arraignment hearing, scheduled for February 19.
Goodhew says the goal is by that date to have additional evidence.
This wasn't the first time Musmari has found himself in trouble with the law. He is also scheduled to appear in Seattle Municipal Court to begin a 30-day jail sentence for an unrelated assault conviction.
Broadway business owners and past victims of run-ins with Musmari who said they had contacted police after seeing the Neighbours images, spoke out this week.
Wylie Bush, owner of Joe Bar says Musmari was a regular at his business for the last five years, and Musmari has frequented several other nearby bars in the area. He told The Stranger Musmari was banned from Joe Bar after he heard reports from employees that Musmari 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 Joe Bar in what might have been an attempt to expose himself.
'We had all the signs of him losing his shit over time,' Bush said. 'It just got progressively worse.'
'Musmari, who also has a record under the last name Masmari, has a string of assaults and no contact violations on Capitol Hill,' report CHS blog. 'While he has a record of Seattle assaults and arrests that increased in frequency starting last spring, there is nothing in his criminal record at the level of the attack on the longtime Gay dance club. Despite the club's long history in Gay culture, police and city officials have been careful not to call the arson attempt a hate crime or an act of terrorism.'
Last spring, Musmari was involved in a DUI incident in the 600 block of Harvard Ave. E. Prior to the arrest, Musmari worked as a delivery driver with a Capitol Hill pizza shop. Bad behavior, and some downright odd behavior, began to increase, witnesses say. In July, a Seattle woman filed for a protection order against Musmari for a series of harassing incidents. In one incident, he followed a woman and her friends (who were on foot while he was in a car) to Volunteer Park and proceeded to pick a fight with the group.
And again, as time went on, his behavior grew more erratic and dangerous. Musmari is accused of hitting a man with a pool cue in a July assault. Musmari was arrested and eventually found guilty. In the meantime, he's had multiple arrests for violating court orders. In November, he pleaded not guilty to two counts of violating a civil protection order.
Musmari had been a resident of Capitol Hill, living near Broadway and Roy. However, at a recent sentencing hearing he said he had moved to the Eastside.
His Facebook profile lists Benghazi, Libya as his hometown. Musmari has had a U.S. passport since at least 2010.
From the start, as soon as the public learned of the Benghazi connection, allegations began to surface that maybe the family, which owns Neighbours, the Elassiouti family, had a connection to Musmari. The family denied the claims immediately; however, the assertions continued to persist. Both Musmari and Elassiouti's are from North African heritage. However, according to Mona Elassiouti, the daughter of the owner of Neighbours, that is the only similarity between the family and Musmari.
Moe Elassiouti, Neighbours' owner, was born to a poor family in a small town in Egypt. He lost his father at an early age and was thrust into the role of patriarch. In his 20s, he traveled to Germany to escape Third-World poverty. Moe worked as a bartender and waiter at a local resort while attending a hotel and restaurant management school there. He met his future bride, a young German woman. The couple married and eventually settled in more tolerant Vancouver, B.C., where they opened a little cabaret on Robson Street called Sahara Nights, a Middle Eastern-style venue with belly dancers who performed nightly in a Moroccan decor. Over the course of several years, the club began to attract a Gayer clientele, which resulted in the transformation of the venue into a dance club called Neighbours.
In the early '80s, Moe expanded the business by opening Neighbours Seattle on Capitol Hill. Prior to its 1983 debut, the location was Bogart's, a beer and sandwich shop. Moe had to earn each customer. Business was slow in the beginning due to strong competition from a nearby club the Brass Rail, later known as the Brass Connection. At first Neighbours didn't serve liquor, but the Brass Rail did. People didn't want to only drink beer so Moe made the decision to offer a full bar.
The Elassiouti family fully embraced their new community. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, the role the club was thrust into was one of activism. At first the community was fragmented because of AIDS. Then, AIDS united it and the club became a place where people gathered to be a part of something, to identify with each other, comfort each other, and forget the devastating suffering for a few hours.
Still, some members of the LGBTQ community seem stuck on the idea that a straight-owned Gay nightclub is somehow problematic. Though the family has definitely profited from the business they have also given a lot back to the community. Something Neighbours continues to do. Something the Elassiouti family says they will always do. If anything, Neighbours offers a safe space for people to be who they truly are - free of judgment and shame.
'Our family has always understood and embraced the challenges of being in a minority position,' Mona Elassiouti told Seattle Gay News in a 2008 interview.' At the end of the day, discrimination is discrimination, and everyone in our family understands that. Striving for equal rights as it applies to race, religion, sexual orientation and gender has been an underlying theme behind everything we do.'
The diversity of the clientele is evident every night they are open. It is something the management, staff and ownership are extremely proud of. Everybody comes to Neighbours. In fact, diversity is considered Neighbours key to its successful three-decade existence.
Last week, The Stranger reported that sources who spoke confidentially said that Mona Elassiouti may be acquainted with Musmari, but The Stranger was not been able to verify the claims.
Mona was understandably upset that someone would make up such a claim.
'To be clear, I do not know Musmari in any capacity,' Mona said, defending herself. 'We have never been acquainted. In fact, that applies to every member of the Elassiouti family.'
She did say, however, that the Elassiouti family would like to 'especially extend our thanks and gratitude to the public.'
'Several people came forward with information about Musmari after Neighbours released video footage of him taken on NYE,' she said. 'Some of that information might have helped lead to his arrest.'
Elassiouti says that it is their hope that if Musmari is found guilty of committing arson, Musmari 'is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.'
In addition, Elassiouti said, 'We also would like to thank the media agencies that reported the facts surrounding this case and published information supplied to them by Neighbours, which facilitated the identification and subsequent arrest of Mr. Musmari.'
'My family takes comfort in knowing that in the coming months all the burning questions about the arson will be answered as investigators work to piece together the events from that evening,' said Mona.
Currently, information has surfaced that a witness had met with Musmari and spoken with him about the arson. Although Musmari never said why he started the fire, he did indicate that he didn't want to get into trouble, so once he saw that his photo and video surveillance footage had led to his being identified by witnesses, he bought a ticket to leave town. Luckily, Musmari never made the flight. He was arrested before he could reach Sea-Tac airport.
I believe in innocent until proven guilty. And I expect the man to get a fair trial. But I also expect for Musmari to be charged with more than arson. There isn't a doubt in my mind that what he did was attempted murder of 750 people. I will attend the hearings and trial in hopes that justice will be served. The city, the nightclub, and the LGBTQ community are safer tonight with Musmari behind bars.
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