PORTLAND, Ore. – A man arrested in connection with a Northeast Portland apartment fire that killed two people and displaced 25 others admitted to pouring gasoline on a couch and starting the fire, court documents said.
Ryan Monaco, 28, was booked into the Multnomah County Jail July 27 on charges of aggravated murder and arson constituting domestic violence. Monaco was also charged with aggravated animal abuse. He is expected to face additional charges, according to Portland police.
Police on Friday identified the two victims as 24-year-old Taher Ali Alhaji and 42-year-old Jason Miller.
A statement from Miller's family said he was “an always changing, open minded, peaceful being.” He loved skateboarding, Jiu Jitsu, mixed martial arts, animals, cooking and chess. Miller grew up in a small New Jersey town, but traveled through much of the US, his family said.
"We are devastated and though our family will never be the same, Jason’s love and strength is what is giving us the ability to continue on," said the statement from his family. They started a Gofundme page to raise money for funeral expenses.
Alhaji was from Saudi Arabia and learning English at Portland State University before pursuing a mechanical engineering major.
“I am holding up and always will be in our hearts. He will be in our hearts," said his father, Ali Taher Alhaji. "I have 11 kids. I have lost him but he is in my heart. The heart of this brother, he’s a twin.”
A dog and several reptiles also died in the fire.
The first of two counts in a secret indictment released by the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office alleges that Monaco started the fire at the apartments at 9811 NE Glisan Street and "intentionally caused the death of a human being...and intentionally caused the death of an additional human being in the course of the same criminal episode."
Monaco's girlfriend, Ashley Mercier, who lived at the three-bedroom apartment with the two people who died, told investigators that she and Monaco got into a fight in the early morning of July 23 after a night out at several bars. She left the apartment but Monaco stayed, according to court documents.
Mercier told police Monaco called her and said he had soaked her couch with gasoline and "it was the first to burn," court documents said. She learned a short time later that her apartment was on fire.
Mercier said that Monaco was very familiar with her apartment and knew there were two roommates who slept there.
Detectives interviewed Monaco on July 27. After denying being at the apartment when the fire started and knowing what caused the fire, Monaco later admitted to pouring gas on the couch. He told police he started the fire by accident by lighting a cigarette outside the apartment, court documents said. An arson detective said that explanation was "unlikely."
See the damage for yourself @ NE Glisan & 99th. Firefighters say flames sparked in 1st floor apt, traveled to 2nd. Say 1 person died. pic.twitter.com/CSAdMEPk3N— Maggie Vespa KGW (@Maggie_Vespa) July 23, 2017
Neighbors were left wondering how something like this could happen.
“It's pretty tragic. It's not a good thing,” said Bonnie Baker. “Especially with children, losing their homes or their family members or God knows what.”
Richard Holmes lives a block away from the scene and said he thinks the fire started around 2:30 a.m., for one specific reason.
“I heard an explosion. That's what I heard,” he said. “Oh, it was big.”
Firefighters have not confirmed an explosion took place.
Another neighbor, Uluf Hassan, saw video of the flames on the news and rushed to the complex to check on friends who lived there. By midday Sunday, she’d learned they were OK.
“I was really scared because I'm really close to this family. I work with them,” she said. “And I thought, 'Everybody's gone.'"
A GoFundMe account has been started for a family that lost everything they had in the fire.