Last week, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office indicted two 18-year-old boys on felony arson charges.
Sam Perkins and Malik Hares are suspected of starting at least 36 fires on Mount Tabor during the summer.
Fire investigators remain tight-lipped about the ongoing investigation, and the suspects are out of custody and living with their parents until their next court appearance in early October.
The gravity of the fires is underscored by time and place. It’s the city’s hottest summer on record; in early September, when most of the fires were lit, the city was approaching a red flag warning—meaning fires were especially dangerous in the biggest urban forest in Southeast Portland.
Here are five things WW has learned about the string of fires on Mount Tabor, the ongoing investigation, and the two teenagers suspected of lighting them.
1. One neighbor mapped 33 fires. Fire investigators knew of only 10.
As an avid runner in Mt. Tabor Park, Jess, who asked that WW use only her first name out of fear of retaliation by the arson suspects, first noticed singed patches of ground in the park in mid-August. They were concentrated along Southeast Lincoln and Yamhill streets, which loop partway around the park and weave through it. The blackened swaths varied from 5 to 40 feet wide.
Word started going around the neighborhood association and on Nextdoor: This was the work of arsonists. It was unclear if anyone had reported the fires to Portland Fire & Rescue.
Neighbors launched nighttime patrols to watch for fires.
On Aug. 31, Jess and her boyfriend spent four hours mapping the coordinates of each burn patch. They mapped 33 in total. She posted her map on Reddit, sent it to park rangers, and called the fire bureau. Soon after, Jess received a call from senior fire investigator Lt. Jason Andersen.
“He said the map was the most vital piece of information they’ve gotten,” Jess says. “He said they only had five fires logged, and it wasn’t enough information to launch an investigation.”
Andersen corroborates this: “Without their help, we wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on.”
2. A probable cause affidavit offers some insight into why the two teenagers lit the fires.
Some of what investigators won’t say about their ongoing investigation is available in a probable cause affidavit that’s now public record.
The affidavit details investigators’ first contact with the defendants.
Investigators first approached Hares. He told them he didn’t light the fires but did act as chauffeur so others could. (Two parking tickets Hares received Sept. 12 in downtown Portland show he drives a black Mercedes Benz.) According to the affidavit, Hares told investigators someone else lit most of the fires.
Hares said he liked to return to the scene of a fire to watch firefighters put it out, and even spoke to them occasionally.
Hares then offered to call Perkins in front of investigators.
During that conversation, Perkins and Hares mutually scolded each other: Hares said Perkins took too long to get in the car, which he said led to its identification, and Perkins “told Hares that he was putting his foot down on a few things such as Hares was not to be on the scene anymore and Hares was not to talk to the Fire Marshal anymore or any firefighters.”
According to the affidavit, Perkins “said he did it because he liked hanging out with his friends and liked driving away after they did it.”
Screenshots of a recent Nextdoor post penned by an account under the name of Malik Hares warned neighbors of a fire. When someone asked if he’d contacted police, Hares said he had but that they told him nothing could be done at the moment. On the day of the post, Sept. 9, the city was under a red flag warning.
“Scared off a group of teenagers who looked like they were trying to do a fire…I mean who’s dumb enough to do this during the day—these tabor fires needs to stop!”
That same day someone posted about a fire along 82nd Avenue. The Hares account commented: “I saw a homeless person running from it. Hopefully he didn’t start it and hopefully gets put out.”
3. Police expedited the arrests due to safety concerns, but prosecutors took a different view.
Andersen says the fire and police bureaus arrested the suspects Sept. 11, sooner than investigators would have liked.
“Sometimes we have to make that arrest to protect the public,” Andersen says.
On Sept. 12, the DA’s office indicted Hares and Perkins on one count each of first-degree arson. They both pleaded not guilty.
Multnomah County Circuit Judge Adrian Brown then released both teenagers until their next court date. The DA’s office declined to prosecute a third teenage suspect, citing a lack of evidence.
Prosecutors told Judge Brown, however, that because the crimes did not cause serious physical harm to anyone and because the defendants did not threaten anyone with physical violence, they should not be held in jail.
Brown initially registered concern about pretrial release. But she eventually conceded.
“This is right on the line of a felony offense that would result in preventative detention,” Brown said, “and the conduct as alleged is just under that line.”
4. The two suspects are longtime friends.
According to court filings, Perkins graduated from high school and Hares dropped out after the 10th grade.
Perkins referred questions to his attorney, who declined to comment. Hares did not respond to requests for comment, and his attorney also did not return phone calls.
Both worked full time at McDonald’s, according to court records.
Their friendship goes back at least as far as Creative Science School, an alternative Portland Public Schools K-8 they both attended.
The boys were close, former classmates say, and hung out with a small group outside the mainstream.
5. Fire investigators describe the Mount Tabor fires as “just the tip of the iceberg.”
They hint the defendants may have committed other crimes. When asked if his suspicions were limited to arson, Lt. Andersen said “it could be broader.”
“It’s sort of like an iceberg,” he says. “We hit the tip of the iceberg. Now we’re trying to figure out how big the iceberg is.”
In their conversation overheard by investigators, according to the affidavit, Hares says to Perkins that “the building” on Southeast 92nd Avenue and Caruthers Street burned down. Perkins responds, “That is pretty cool.” Perkins later tells Andersen he lit a fire at a house.
A recent visit to the address revealed a charred garage behind the house and a partially burned car parked inside. The house stands three blocks from Hares’ home.