As fire engulfed a college library in a 1987 blaze, firefighters with the Everett, Washington, Fire Department realized one of their own was missing. As they fought their way through thick smoke and flames searching for Gary Parks, they found just one clue: his helmet sitting on a library table.
Thursday, the man responsible pleaded guilty to setting the fire that killed Parks 34 years ago. Elmer Nash Jr. was just 12, he told police, when he and friends broke into the Everett Community College library looking for childish mischief but instead sparking a deadly blaze.
Nash, 47, will be sentenced in May, bringing to a close a decades-long wait for justice, both for Parks’ family and for the fire department he served.
According to Snohomish court documents, three boys entered the library on Feb. 16, 1987, to steal items. Nash now says he broke away from the group and started a fire with books and crumpled paper. The library was not equipped with a fire extinguishing system and quickly became engulfed in flames.
A six-man team of firefighters from the Everett Fire Department entered the building to suppress the fire, including Parks. But the 18-year fire veteran became separated from the others. His fellow firefighters could not find him in the smoke-filled building before having to evacuate because of the intense heat. The blaze eventually engulfed an entire building holding the campus restaurant, campus union, and cafeteria, along with the library.
Firefighters braved the flames for 45 minutes trying to locate Parks but found only Parks’ helmet on a table inside. A captain in the department made two different attempts to locate Parks. On his second attempt, he found Parks face up in a puddle of water underneath a table in the library. Firefighters and emergency medical services rushed Parks to a local hospital, but it was too late.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms investigators concluded that an open flame had started the fire, and a joint task force of local, state, and federal authorities was formed. According to court documents, Nash was identified early on by friends and acquaintances who described encounters with the boy in which he would say he started the fire, sometimes boasting.
Since the fire in the college library claimed Parks’ life, the Everett Fire Department has carried on his legacy. Rachel Doniger, EFD public information officer, told Coffee or Die Magazine that it has ingrained the legacy of Parks within all seven fire stations via unique tributes. In a historic firehouse used for its headquarters, the department keeps a shadow box full of Parks’ things on display.
“That was the station that he responded out of to the call that day at the college fire, and it has now been refurbished as our headquarters building,” Doniger said. “In the other stations, there’s other tributes to him. He’s very much a part of the history of our department.”
In 2017, Everett Police Department Detective Mike Atwood took over the long-cold case. In the intervening years, Nash had become a career criminal, spending more time behind bars than out throughout his adult life. Atwood interviewed Nash while he was in the county jail on an unrelated charge, a session that was delayed two days as Nash suffered through the effects of withdrawals from heroin. During the interview, Nash admitted that he set the fire, but he recanted soon afterward.
However, negotiations between police, prosecutors, Nash, and his attorney continued. Finally, just over a week ago, a charge of first-degree murder was filed against Nash in Washington State Superior Court. The next day, Nash pleaded guilty at his arraignment, bringing the investigation, and the open questions, to an end.
Nash has lived a troubled life with 14 adult felonies, four juvenile felonies, and more than 50 misdemeanors. Nash’s defense attorney Philip Sayles told Coffee or Die Magazine that most of Nash’s troubles stem from drug-related offenses or theft charges.
“When you see his criminal history, you’ll see that it’s not indicative of some kind of methodical, violent madman,” Sayles said. “Elmer is not that kind of person. If somebody told him he would hurt somebody, he would never have done it — that’s not how he’s wired.”
Kathy Parks, Gary’s wife, said in a statement that she and her family are grateful for law enforcement’s pursuit of this case.
“Gary was a good man, a trusted partner, and friend you could always count on,” Kathy Parks said. “He was there to help a daughter fix her car, help a wife put on her ski boots, and never had a day he didn’t show up to work his shift at the Everett Fire Department. We are so very grateful to the detectives who never gave up on this case.
“Our family will always suffer knowing Gary hasn’t reaped the fruits of his life, grandchildren, daughters’ successes, and a wife who will cherish him forever.”