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Tuesday, May 4, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Two Sides Of Arsonist Paul Keller

EVERETT - As a young man, Paul Kenneth Keller volunteered through his church, visiting elderly shut-ins and comforting their families when they became ill or died.

As an adult, the same man pried off a window screen at a Seattle retirement home with 100 residents and set a $12,000 fire by holding a lighter to the empty bed of an 82-year-old resident.

These are the two sides of Paul Keller a Snohomish County judge will be asked to assess tomorrow. The sentencing of the confessed serial arsonist is expected to last two to three days.

County prosecutors say Keller is a terrorist who set at least 77 fires in four counties, indiscriminately burning down homes, churches and businesses in the worst serial-arson case in state history. They are asking for a 75-year prison sentence.

Keller's defense attorney, Royce Ferguson, is asking Judge Kathryn Trumbull to look into Keller's past to explain the crimes. He calls Keller a misunderstood man whose psychological problems, unleashed by alcohol and drug abuse, caused an upper middle-class professional to snap and destroy himself.

Keller's father, George, who turned his son in to investigators, now is organizing the drive to portray Paul Keller in a sympathetic light.

He mailed numerous letters to Keller's friends, family and clients, asking them to write to Trumbull and to a local newspaper to talk about their experience with Keller. Ferguson said the idea was to offset letters written by victims.

Access to Keller by the media has been controlled by Ferguson. He has allowed only two interviews, one with a free-lance producer who later sold hours of videotape to a Seattle television station and another with a local newspaper.

Keller won't do any more interviews because he doesn't want to appear to be "delighting in the limelight," Ferguson said.

With the focus on telling Keller's story, what's been lost is the impact of the fires on dozens of victims, some of whom are expected to speak tomorrow, prosecutors say.

"When somebody's house burns down and every single possession they had is gone, then to say it was only property does a real disservice to the victims," said Ellen Fair, one of two senior deputy prosecutors handling the case in Snohomish County.

"When we look at the videotapes (of Keller's confession), we don't see anything like remorse. At the very least he seems completely unfazed by it all," Fair said. "I think he's sorry he got caught."

But Ferguson said Keller "is not the Ted Bundy of arsons. He is not a sociopath."

Rather, Keller's life was marked by a series of traumatic episodes - from an untied umbilical cord at birth that nearly cost him his life to undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder - that Ferguson argues led to his later criminal activity.

Under the stress of bankruptcy and a failed marriage, Keller "disintegrated," Ferguson said.

Dr. Gary Grenell, a clinical psychologist who examined Keller, labeled him a pyromaniac. "Fire endowed the weak child, Paul Keller, with power," he wrote.

Keller told Grenell he did not enjoy setting the fires. "When I knew I had done them, I was sad, not excited. No joy. Just confusion or remorse. I thought, `There goes somebody's business.' "

Keller said in some cases he stayed behind to watch firefighters put out the fires because he was "interested in the methodology" of extinguishing them.

Keller said he was drunk and sometimes on drugs before setting each fire.

Fair said she questions whether alcohol or drugs played as much of a role as Keller claims. After his arrest, she said, he took investigators to many of the fire scenes, recalling in clear detail how and when he set each fire.

Another question Judge Trumbull will consider is whether Keller's condition is treatable. While prosecutors say he is too dangerous to be allowed back into society, Ferguson said a psychiatrist who examined Keller will testify during sentencing he could be successfully treated.

But the prison system can't accommodate Keller's treatment needs, Ferguson said. He called the prosecutors' 75-year sentence recommendation unrealistic, saying he will ask for a shorter prison sentence followed by some form of mandated treatment.

"The question is whether he is an evil sociopath who should be put in (prison) forever or whether we should try to redeem him."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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