Unsolved Mysteries Wiki

Composites of suspicious men seen near the Blackstock Lumber fire

Real Name: Unknown
Aliases: None Known
Wanted For: Arson, Murder
Missing Since: September 1989

Matt Johnson


Details: The Seattle Police Department is searching for the person or persons who may have set fire to the lumberyard Blackstock Lumber Company in Seattle on September 9, 1989. This unidentified arsonist has been connected to over twenty fires in and around Seattle. The Blackstock Lumber fire occurred around 10pm; twenty fire trucks responded to the four-alarm blaze. When the first truck arrived, the fire appeared to be controllable. However, the fire soon spread to other parts of the lumberyard and became one of the biggest fires in recent Seattle history.
Thirty-two-year-old Matt Johnson and his partner Bill Meredith were two of the first firefighters inside the building. The roof had exploded while they were inside; both Matt and Bill were overcome by an intense heat. The lack of oxygen and intense heat left Matt unable to move. Bill became lost and disoriented in the fire but was eventually able to escape. Tragically, Matt's body was found in the rubble the next day. Matt left behind a wife and a fifteen-month-old son.
At first, fire investigators assumed that the fire had been started accidentally by a vagrant that was trying to keep warm. Investigator Dennis Fowler, however, discovered a pattern in the ruins that matched the signature of a serial arsonist that he had been tracking for years. Fowler first encountered the arsonist in 1984 when Seattle's Carpet Exchange Warehouse burned down in less than twenty minutes. The fire was so intense that it melted concrete and warped steel beams.
After the Blackstock lumberyard fire, the Seattle Fire Department began investigating on a national scale. They found at least twenty other fires in both the United States and Canada that seemed to be started by the same individual, known as the "King of Arsonists". The fires set by this arsonist were especially dangerous because the oxygen in their water only made the fire burn faster and hotter. One factor that made the arsonist difficult to track was that he used a fuel of unknown origin; an accelerant that left behind no residue, called a "high temperature accelerant" or HTA. It generated temperatures between 5000 and 7000 degrees, three times hotter than a normal fire.
A series of tests were done with various types of fuels in order to determine which one the arsonist used. On March 25, 1990, the Seattle Fire Department set a test fire in an empty shopping center; the entire complex was destroyed within minutes. The fire helped narrow down the types of fuel that the arsonist used. The fuel, which the Seattle Fire Department has kept secret, was a mixture of several common ingredients that were readily available. However, only someone with a specific knowledge of chemistry would know how to put all of the ingredients together. Fowler believes that the arsonist actually hires other people to set the fires.
The only fire that produced eyewitnesses was the Blackstock lumberyard fire. One eyewitness had read about the fire in the newspaper and realized that he had been in the area about fifteen minutes prior to when the alarm was called in. He was driving along the road of the lumberyard when he noticed a 1970s or 1980s Mercedes coming out of a parking lot at the lumberyard. He felt that this was unusual because of the time of night.
Another eyewitness claimed that she saw a suspicious man after the fire was set. While the crowds were looking at the fire in progress, the man was apparently walking away from the area, paying no attention to the large fire nearby. She felt that the man's actions were suspicious. Investigators believe that the man was the arsonist and that he had set the fire and waited until crowds gathered before he walked away from the scene.
Under hypnosis, the two eyewitnesses described two different men; both are not considered suspects, but police would like to question them. The man driving the Mercedes was between thirty-five and forty years old (in 1992), with gray hair, mustache, beard, and receding hairline. The man seen leaving the fire was 6'0", well-dressed, in his early or mid thirties (in 1992), with an athletic build, dark complexion, and dark hair.
The arson fires have claimed the lives of at least two firefighters, Matt Johnson and Paul Heidenreich, who died in a 1982 warehouse fire. The fires have taken place in Spokane, Yakima, Seattle, and Bellingham, as well as in California, Florida, and British Columbia. Authorities are currently investigating suspicious insurance claims for fires across the nation for connections to the arsonist.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the September 30, 1992 episode.
Results: Unresolved. In 1993, Paul Keller was arrested for several arson fires in Seattle. Originally, he was thought to be the arsonist. At his trial, he admitted to setting one of the fires attributed to the "King of Arsonists". However, the fires that he set usually used gasoline and were not as sophisticated as the ones allegedly set by the arsonist. He also did not match either of the sketches of the suspects.
In February 1993, Seattle police announced that they were looking for two men who they wanted to question regarding the Blackstock lumberyard fire. The men were identified after tips came in regarding the sketches of possible suspects in the case. One man was from Illinois and had a criminal history that included being hired as a professional arsonist. The other man, who was reportedly seen driving away from the lumberyard before the fire was reported, was believed to be from the Seattle area. It is not known if the men were ever located or questioned.
In February 1995, a new investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms into the Blackstock lumberyard fire determined that it was an accident. Investigators concluded that "high temperature accelerants" were not the cause. Instead, they determined that transients most likely started the fire accidentally while trying to keep warm. Lumber and chemicals stored at the facility then caused the fire to reach such high temperatures. Finally, a 440-volt electrical line still connected to a live power panel is believed to have helped spread the fire and cause sparks and "pyrotechnics" seen by witnesses. The Seattle Police Department changed the cause of the fire to "undetermined".
ATF investigator Steve Carmen released a report about HTAs. He reviewed the fire that Fowler and his team set at the shopping center and determined that it did not even reach the temperatures that allegedly occurred during the previous HTA arson fires. The shopping center also was not destroyed by the fire, as Fowler had claimed. He also determined that many of the fires that were believed to have been caused by HTAs were not caused by them; instead, either standard accelerants were used or the fires were accidents. However, authorities have yet to close all of the cases allegedly linked to the "King of Arsonists".
Fowler passed away in 2016 at the age of seventy-six.