Cassell found not guilty in Birch Bay fire

Published on Thu, Jun 13, 2013 by Ian Ferguson

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Kenneth Cassell, who was convicted of running a puppy mill in 2012, was found not guilty of starting a fire that destroyed his house in Birch Bay earlier this year.

Cassell bred mini Australian shepherds and kept dozens of dogs on his property. Despite his denial that the animals were kept in inhumane conditions, 48 puppies were seized in April 2012, and a subsequent trial resulted in animal cruelty convictions and a standing order from Whatcom County district commissioner Tony Parise that Cassell be prohibited to own any animal.

On February 13, sheriffs and fire fighters responded to a structure fire on Cassell’s property near Kickerville Road in Birch Bay. They found apparent suicide notes on the property and suspected that Cassell might have been setting up an ambush. A SWAT team was about to sweep the property when Cassell was apprehended on a sidewalk in Bellingham carrying a concealed, loaded .357-magnum revolver. Cassell’s house burned to the ground.

Jurors deliberated for a day and a half before reaching a not-guilty verdict on May 21. Jonathan Raney, Cassell’s defense attorney, said the verdict was based on the fact that prosecutors in criminal cases bear the burden of proof.

“The jury followed the law. I spoke with some of the jurors after the trial, and they said there was insufficient proof to reach a guilty verdict,” Raney said.

Whatcom County fire marshal Will Anderson was the lead fire investigator. He testified in support of the arson charge, but his report didn’t convince the jurors.

“It seemed to me the arson investigation was poorly done,” Raney said. “Most of the evidence was burned up in the fire, and although the investigator very clearly stated the fire was an act of arson, his investigation failed to support that assertion.”

Other than the fire investigation, Raney said the case against Cassell was fairly clean cut.

“Had the jurors come to a guilty verdict, the defendant would have had a very tough time appealing,” Raney said. “It wasn’t a slam dunk to show the gaps in the evidence for arson. The jurors took their time deliberating. In the end they followed the law.”

Cassell’s property was slated for foreclosure auction on February 15, two days after the fire occurred. The five-acre property with a doublewide house and a barn had an appraised value of $211,767, but that value hasn’t been updated since the fire. Cassell owed approximately $3,000 in unpaid taxes on the property according to the county assessor’s website.

In the same trial, Cassell was found guilty of a separate count of unlawful carrying of a concealed weapon, a misdemeanor charge.