Plea agreement reached in arson case

By Kevin Schofield, Journal contributor

On Dec. 20, Dwight Henline pled guilty to a charge of second-degree arson, as part of a plea bargain agreement in which he admitted to setting the April 2022 fire that burned down four buildings along Spring Street in Friday Harbor. The fire destroyed several local businesses housed in those buildings, including Herb’s Tavern, Crystal Seas Kayaking, Crow’s Nest Coffee and Windermere Real Estate.

The case has taken a complex path. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the King County Sheriff’s Department asked the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to help investigate the blaze. The ATF determined that the fire was likely arson, and their joint investigation gathered evidence pointing to Henline. After his arrest in late April 2022, the office of the U.S. Attorney for Western Washington filed charges in federal court, accusing him of four counts of arson under federal law. Last month his case finally came to trial, and after two weeks of testimony and three days of deliberations, it ended in a mistrial due to a hung jury.

The prospect of a retrial after a hung jury is risky to both the prosecution and the defense: both sides have seen the opposition’s case in full and learned all of its strengths and weaknesses – but both have also exposed their own weaknesses as well as their trial strategies. For that reason, it is not uncommon for cases to be settled after a mistrial.

As part of the same plea agreement, Henline also entered a guilty plea to an unrelated 2021 charge of unlawful possession of a firearm. Both the arson and firearm charges were filed under Washington State law instead of federal law, which are heard in state courts and have different sentencing guidelines. The new charges were filed in San Juan County Superior Court and subsequently transferred to King County Superior Court, in Seattle where Henline has been held in a federal detention facility since his arrest. On Dec. 20, in a single hearing, Henline was arraigned on the new state charges, entered guilty pleas, and was sentenced; the federal arson charges were then dropped.

Consistent with the plea agreement, Henline was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment for arson and eight months imprisonment for the firearm charge in terms to be served concurrently, with credit for time served since his arrest. Since he has already been detained for twenty months, the judge ordered him immediately released from prison. Also following the terms of the plea agreement, Henline will now serve one year of community custody. He is barred from returning to Friday Harbor and from contacting any of the victims of the arson. He must undergo mental health and alcohol use evaluations and is required to follow all treatment recommendations, and he is forbidden from possessing or consuming alcohol or any non-prescribed drugs. Finally, Henline is required to pay restitution to the victims of the fire, in an amount to be determined at a future hearing that has not yet been scheduled.

Under state law, a charge of second-degree arson in which no one was injured or killed carries a maximum sentence of ten years imprisonment, a fine of $20,000, or both; but the state sentencing guidelines reduce that amount based upon the “offender score,” a rating of the offender’s past history of convictions for related crimes. On a scale of 0 to 10, Henline’s offender score was calculated at 1, placing him on the low end of the sentencing guidelines: six to twelve months imprisonment for the arson charge, and three to eight months for the firearms charge. Ultimately the sentences imposed were the high end for both of those ranges: twelve months for arson and eight months for the firearm charge. That said, they are less time – even combined – than the twenty months he has already spent imprisoned while awaiting trial.

Henline’s plea agreement includes a signed admission from him that he set the fire: “On April 6, 2022 in San Juan County, WA I knowingly and maliciously caused a fire which damaged several buildings in Friday Harbor; 40 Spring Street, 50 Spring Street, 70 Spring Street/80 First Street South, and 1 Front Street.”

When asked for a comment on the resolution of the case, Emily Langlie, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney for Western Washington, said, “While the trial team is disappointed the jury did not unanimously find proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, we are pleased that Mr. Henline is taking responsibility and admitting his actions that caused millions of dollars of damage to the Friday Harbor community.”