Washington man indicted in fires at Jehovah’s Witness halls

SEATTLE — A Washington state man who is already in federal custody on weapons and hate crime charges has been indicted in a series of arsons at Jehovah’s Witness kingdom halls, authorities announced Wednesday.

This U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms photo provided by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle, shows damage from an arson that destroyed the Jehovah’s Witness kingdom hall in Olympia, Wash., on July 3, 2018. Mikey Diamond Starrett, 50, of Olympia, was indicted by a federal grand jury Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, on charges that he set that fire as well as two others at Jehovah’s Witness halls in the area. Starrett has previously insisted that he is innocent. (ATF/U.S. Attorney’s Office via AP) (Uncredited/ATF/U.S. Attorney’s Office)

Seattle U.S. Attorney Nick Brown said in a news release that the new charges against 50-year-old Mikey Diamond Starrett, also known as Michael Jason Layes, are part of the Justice Department’s efforts to target hate crimes, which have been on the rise nationally.

Starrett, who describes himself as a longtime wildlife biologist and wetland scientist in court papers and in his online resume, was arrested in September 2021 on charges that he shot up a Jehovah’s Witness hall in Yelm, near Olympia, in 2018 and that he unlawfully possessed a modified shotgun.

Prosecutors said that when he was arrested, Starrett was also under investigation for seven arsons at Jehovah’s Witness halls in Pierce, Mason and Thurston counties from 2018 to 2020, including a fire that was set while people were inside. Investigators recovered six guns, including the shotgun, when they searched the home where he had been staying, they said.

Late Tuesday, a federal grand jury in Seattle issued a new indictment charging him in three of the 2018 fires — one at a hall in Tumwater, and two at a hall in Olympia, including one that destroyed the building. There are no allegations that anyone was injured in the fires.

Starrett now faces three additional counts of damage to religious property, which is a hate crime, and three counts of using fire to commit a federal felony in connection with arsons at Jehovah’s Witness halls in Tumwater and Olympia in 2018.

Starrett is due to be arraigned next week. His attorney, Lance Hester, didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment. But in a letter to a federal magistrate judge in October 2021, Starrett insisted that he didn’t attack the worship halls.

“The prosecutor claimed I’m a danger to society. This is simply not true,” he wrote. “It was stated that I was under investigation for several attacks against Jehovah Witnesses (JW) churches. I am innocent.”

Prosecutors have said that electronic evidence placed devices owned and controlled by Starrett were at or near the scenes of some of the arsons, that accounts registered to him were used to search for information about the halls and the religion, and that an individual matching him and a car matching his were captured on surveillance video at some of the scenes.

Furthermore, they said that several friends and family members told law enforcement that Starrett believed he was haunted by the spirits of an ex-girlfriend’s deceased Jehovah’s Witness relatives, and that he hated the religion. The friends and family members also reported that he used drugs and alcohol heavily and had serious mental health issues.

In a follow-up letter to the court, Starrett also denied using drugs or being haunted by spirits: “I smoke American Spirits brand cigarettes. There must be some confusion?”

Robert Hendriks, a spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, issued a statement thanking law enforcement.

“We commend them for never giving up on the investigation over the past several years,” Hendriks said. “Persons of faith gathering in houses of worship have the right to feel safe and be safe. This indictment is one more step to ensure that our Kingdom Halls remain that safe spiritual and physical place for our congregants and the community.”

Jonathan T. McPherson, the ATF’s special agent in charge in Seattle, said in a news release that investigators have been working tirelessly on the case since 2018.

“We hope this indictment helps calm the fears of those in the Pierce and Thurston county areas through the knowledge that Layes is being prosecuted for his alleged crimes,” McPherson said.

Starrett could face decades in prison if convicted.

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