by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Musab Mohammed Masmari, 30, pleaded guilty to a federal arson charge on May 2. More than 750 people were at Neighbours Nightclub on New Year's Eve, December 31, 2013, when Masmari entered the club just before midnight with a canister of gasoline, doused a stairwell with it, and then lit the stairwell on fire. Before leaving the club, Masmari set the red plastic gasoline can at the top of the stairs, creating the potential for an explosion had the fire actually reached it. Luckily, due to the fast actions of the nightclub staff and two off duty military personnel that had been drinking at the club, the fire was extinguished and Masmari's plan to burn people alive was foiled.
It is no secret that I was closely involved with this case since the very moment Masmari set fire to the nightclub. My husband and I were at Neighbours celebrating the New Year's Eve holiday and were a mere 20 feet or so away when the flames began to climb the steps leading to the upstairs mezzanine. Armed with a video camera, I instantly began to film the scene as it unfolded. Part of that footage includes the moment when a bartender, member of Neighbours security team and I found the container of gasoline at the top of the stairs - minutes after the fire had been extinguished.
Jonathan Horton, a longtime Neighbours bartender, grabbed the two gentlemen that had put the fire out and directed me to them, allowing me to film their testimony about the event that had unfolded that night. That footage, along with other footage I shot that night, has all been turned over to investigators and, perhaps more widely known, to the media.
A lot has been said about my decision to share the security footage that shows Masmari inside the club before, during, and just after the fire was set. I knew it was the right thing to do. People didn't feel safe with this guy on the loose. It was not a decision that I mulled over for very long. Seattle Police Department had released a grainy photo earlier that week and, aside from a few calls, had gotten nowhere with it. However, once I released the video footage, witnesses and people that know Masmari from the neighborhood or from attending the same mosque as he did, began to reach out and give their statements to the police.
One of those people became an FBI informant. Prosecutors say a friend of Masmari's contacted the FBI to warn them he could be planning terrorist activity. The friend also told FBI agents that Masmari had a 'deep distaste for homosexual people' and thought 'homosexuals should be exterminated.' The informant told the agents he had met Masmari at a café near a mosque both attended and that Masmari had laid out his hatred of LGBT people over the course of their conversation. He said Masmari told him he had obtained a rifle, and added that he feared Masmari might have been planning other terrorist acts.
Musab Masmari had only been named as a person of interest in the case up until the day of his arrest. He was captured trying to flee the U.S. on a one-way ticket to Turkey after three people contacted authorities to say they believed he was the man in the video circulated to the media.
Masmari had been held in King County Jail on $1 million bail. He had been charged with arson and prosecutors said he was a flight risk.
I have been extremely vocal about the fact that I believe Masmari should be charged for committing a hate crime; but even more so, he should be charged with attempted murder. I don't see what he did in any other light. The man deliberately set fire to a crowded nightclub on a holiday at the height of the celebration. What he did was attempt to murder 750 people. Yet, still, no hate crime or attempted murder charges have been filed. I'm bothered by that fact.
Masmari has signed a plea deal with prosecutors that will see them recommend he be jailed for five years. He could potentially still be jailed for twenty years, however. Judge Ricardo Martinez will preside over the sentencing hearing on July 31. Seattle Gay News will attend the hearing.
On Friday, when Masmari entered the guilty plea, Assistant United States District Attorney Todd Greenberg said, 'It's a great result for the community. The defendant took responsibility for a serious and violent crime.'
Greenberg told media, with regards to the possibility that Masmari could receive additional charges, 'Nothing has happened with it yet. One of the issues for the court at the time of sentencing will be to address the motive.'
'The collaboration in this case between the U.S. Attorney's Office, the King County Prosecutor's Office and state and federal law enforcement authorities has resulted in swift and serious consequences for the defendant,' King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said.
'Although the fire was quickly put out, Mr. Masmari's actions put hundreds of people at risk. The sentence he faces in federal court reflects the inherent danger of his actions.'
Neighbours Nightclub released a statement May 2, saying management was 'pleased with the outcome thus far.'
'We thank the community for all the support we received throughout the investigation and we definitely appreciate the many wonderful messages of love that the community shared with us after the arson,' said Neighbours.
'We would like to thank the staff for an amazing job, our customers for exiting the building quickly and in an orderly fashion, and the media for covering this story so thoroughly,' continued the statement.
In addition, Neighbours thanked the Seattle Mayor's office and the Seattle Police Department.
'We look forward to PRIDE 2014,' they concluded.
According to Susan Story from the King County Prosecutor's office, the standard charge for arson is only 21-27 months. Story said, 'Five years is a much better result.'
While I am pleased that Neighbours can begin to put this behind them and move on, I still believe Masmari should be charged with a hate crime and attempted murder. I will be at the sentencing in July; however, between now and July 31, I will also continue to call on the feds to do the right thing. Continue to read the Seattle Gay News for updates in the arson case.
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