Man suspected of burning down his Birch Bay home that was in foreclosure

After a three-hour manhunt, a man once convicted of running a puppy mill was arrested on suspicion of burning down his own Birch Bay-area home to avoid foreclosure Wednesday afternoon.

Fire engines rolled up to Kenneth Martin Cassell’s doublewide mobile home, 7115 W. 40th Drive, to find the front gate barricaded by a big red scrap metal container at 8:45 a.m.

“The tracks of the forklift were still fresh,” witness Richard Roosma said. “The gates were locked with a chain.”

Already, flames were shooting through the home’s roof. Heavy dark gray smoke billowed into the sky. Firefighters knocked down the brunt of the fire within an hour. They searched the home. Cassell was nowhere to be found.

Neighbors nervously talked of a handwritten note — addressed to “whom it may concern,” saying Cassell had sold everything he owned to a friend for a dollar — posted on the door of a barn near the home. Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said several notes were found at the scene, but deputies weren’t ready to release what they said.

Cassell had a history of making threats to animal control officers when he was under investigation for abusing his dogs. Fearing Cassell might have holed up in the barn with a rifle, sheriff’s deputies ordered everyone to evacuate.

“I don’t care if the building burns down. Let it burn,” Fire Marshal Will Anderson told firefighters. “My concern is you guys.”

As a sheriff’s SWAT team assembled and loaded into an armored car to search the property, the blaze regained strength and sent flames 30 feet into the air.

At 12:25 p.m., just as deputies were about to swarm the barn, Cassell’s truck was found miles away in downtown Bellingham. Then a deputy saw Cassell standing outside the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave. He was detained as he walked into the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center, 13 Prospect St., with a loaded .357 Magnum revolver in his waistband, according to the sheriff’s office.

Deputies had “very serious” concerns about Cassell’s mental health and what he planned to do downtown with the gun, Elfo said. The handwritten notes, and some things Cassell had said to his neighbors, made deputies think he has grievances with county officials and animal control officers.

Cassell was booked into jail on suspicion of first-degree arson and unlawful possession of a firearm.

His house was scheduled to be sold at auction at 11 a.m. Friday. He’s more than $9,000 in arrears and hasn’t paid his monthly mortgage since September 2011. He still owes about $60,000 principal on the mortgage, according to documents signed about five months ago.

The house didn’t have electricity. Several gas cans were found at the scene. Firefighters suspect Cassell started the fire himself.

“Well, nobody’s saying that,” said Fire District 7 Battalion Chief Jerry Martin. “But that’s the belief.”

Cassell was convicted of three counts of animal cruelty and one count of violating the state’s dog breeding law in late 2012. He was acquitted of 11 other counts of abusing specific dogs. According to the Whatcom Humane Society, his mini Australian shepherds were let outside only to breed and given no access to water. At the time, Cassell denied those allegations in an interview with The Bellingham Herald.

He was ordered to serve 10 days in jail and banned from ever owning animals again.

Before the economy tanked, Cassell worked as a welder. In the past few years he’d relied more and more on his breeding business.

“It’s not even a matter of him starting over,” said his public defender, Amy Jones, at the sentencing hearing over the animal cruelty. “He’s wiped out and can’t start over.”

He was heartbroken after losing his dogs.

“I’m not sleeping tonight,” he said shortly after they got confiscated. “To have them taken, to not have them here, it hurts. It hurts.”

Since then, the humane society reported, all of the dogs have been given to nonprofit adoption agencies or adopted into new homes.