Federal prosecutors charged a Salt Lake City man Wednesday with intentionally setting a fire that destroyed a $6 million apartment complex under construction.
The felony complaint filed in U.S. District Court alleges that Dustin Jay Bowman, 34, set the Feb. 9 fire that gutted the 64,000-square-foot project at 550 E. 500 South after smoking spice in one of the units.
Bowman — an electrician who was working at the site — will make an initial court appearance on the arson charge Thursday morning before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dustin Pead. If convicted, he faces a potential penalty of up to 20 years in prison, with a five-year mandatory minimum sentence.
After several interviews with investigators, Bowman admitted that after smoking spice he entered the apartment complex and lit some cardboard on fire, according to the complaint.
Bowman became a suspect after investigators watched a surveillance camera that captured the image of a man walking through an alley immediately west of the apartment building at approximately 5:22 p.m. on Feb. 9.
The video showed a security fence opening and then a person walking along the south fence line before moving out of camera range. The same person entered the apartment building’s southwest corner and moments later could be seen exiting the building. The video captured the man leaving the construction site about 5:45 p.m.
A minute later, smoke began rising from the building.
On Feb. 13, a special agent with the Salt Lake City Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms office met with the foreman of an electrical contractor working on the project and Bowman to show them the surveillance video. Both the foreman and the agent said the individual resembled Bowman.
Bowman initially denied he was the person shown in the footage but appeared anxious during the meeting, the complaint says.
Later that evening, Bowman texted the special agent and said, "I have information on the video I could not share with you in front" of the foreman. He asked to meet with the agent.
On Feb.14, Bowman met the agent and other officers at the apartment complex and admitted he was the person shown in the surveillance video. Bowman told investigators he had entered a metal shipping container located at the construction site to smoke spice, gotten paranoid and then left. He denied entering the apartment building.
In a subsequent interview, Bowman told investigators he had used some cardboard and a BIC lighter to burn the insulation off some copper alarm wire at the site, which he intended to sell for scrap.
Bowman said the fire got out of control and he was unable to stomp it out. He then panicked and fled the building.
Bowman was arrested Feb. 14 and booked into the Salt Lake County jail on suspicion of second-degree felony arson.
Investigators re-interviewed Bowman last Saturday because some evidence at the scene was inconsistent with his story. In that interview, the complaint says, Bowman admitted that after smoking spice, he entered the apartment complex, found some cardboard, lit it on fire and tossed it at the base of cardboard-encased bathtub that was leaning against a wood wall in a first-floor unit at the south end of the building.
He told investigators that "if he intended to start a fire, then it was only to start a small fire" that damaged one or two units, according to the complaint. Pressed about why he wanted to do that, Bowman said the fire department had visited the site earlier that day and "maybe I wanted to see the fire department."
Salt Lake City Fire Department Chief Kurt Cook said ATF’s expertise was especially appreciated, "Given the severity and significant financial impact of this incident."
Bowman, who remained behind bars Wednesday in lieu of $20,000 bail, had worked about two weeks as an electrician on the project. Court records show Bowman has prior felony and misdemeanor convictions for drug offenses.
The four-alarm fire sent flames billowing into the nighttime skies and spread quickly through the complex’s exposed lumber and siding. The resulting glow could be seen as far away as Davis County.
No injuries were reported, but the complaint says a dental office next door to the project and a nearby Smith’s grocery store both sustained water damage.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.