The Truck Stopped Here: Findley sought arrest after lighting up his couch.
The Truck Stopped Here: Findley sought arrest after lighting up his couch. Credit: Courtesy of Chris Nye

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Kevin Findley says the medication he took to ease his paranoid schizophrenia stopped working in March.

“My food was tasting funny. I wasn’t sleeping. I was paranoid,” he says.

Findley, a 41-year-old D.C. native, says he drank three cases of beer in three days. He went to the Department of Mental Health’s outpatient center at 35 K St. NE and told them how much he’d been boozing.

He says they told him to come back with all his clothes and they would put him in a detox program. But when he returned with his stuff, he says, they just told him to take his meds and turned him away. He didn’t understand why they didn’t put him in a program.

It wasn’t long before Findley ditched his pills altogether. On April 14, around 5 p.m., he gathered some papers in his apartment in the Woodner building on 16th Street NW and put them on the couch. He used the stove to light some incense sticks and placed the lighted sticks on the papers. He waited to make sure a fire started, then left.

Chris Nye, 22, could smell something burning from his studio next to Findley’s. He went into the hallway and saw smoke seeping from under his neighbor’s door. He knocked. “Kevin, are you in there?”

He ran downstairs and alerted a building manager, who called 911. Firefighters arrived and put out the fire in 15 minutes, before it could damage other apartments.

Oh man, Nye remembers thinking, this is terrible for Kevin.

Nye was afraid Findley had been inside, but firefighters told him nobody was in there.

As smoke poured out of his ninth-floor windows, Findley walked a mile down 16th Street, took a right on V Street, and told police officers in the Third District headquarters on the 1600 block that he’d just started a fire at his place up the street. Moments later, fire investigators found him waiting for them, sitting cross-legged in the police station’s lobby. They took him to an interview room, videotaped his confession, and arrested him.

Olivia Hall, a manager at the Woodner building, says the fire caused an estimated $15,000 worth of damage. She says she was shocked to learn Findley torched his place. She used to speak to him in the lobby every day. He always had a sunny disposition.

“I never seen him down, not one time,” she says. “He was a sweetheart. He wanted a wife. He wanted to get married. I really miss him.”

Nye, a student at American University, had moved into the apartment next door to Findley’s last August. It wasn’t long before Findley started knocking on his door, the first time to sell him a bike for $25. Usually, though, Findley knocked because he wanted a couple of bucks for the bus, or for laundry, or for cigarettes, or because he needed a beer. He sometimes repaid Nye or offered him food. But he didn’t want to hang out or talk too much. After stretches when he’d been knocking every other day, Findley could sense Nye getting tired of him and would back off for a while.

“He was clearly kind of a lonely man—a sad kind of guy,” says Nye. “You could kind of tell nobody ever came to see him. He had a quality you would call sweetness. He was genuine. When he asked for stuff, he was apologetic.”

Findley says nobody comes to see him at the D.C. Jail. Through plastic glass in a visitor’s room, he says that for the short term, he’s glad to be locked up. He’s back on his meds. His only thought as he walked to the police station from his apartment was of getting help, of getting some stability in his life. “I don’t want to hurt anybody,” he says. He blames himself for what he did.

On May 27, Findley appeared at a hearing in D.C. Superior Court. Prosecutors were planning to drop arson charges to get a guilty plea for destruction of property, which could send Findley to prison for 10 years.

“At the time I was off the schedule—off my medicine. I wasn’t doing too good,” Findley told Judge Robert Richter.

Richter seemed skeptical of Findley’s legal strategy.

“Did you feel you could control what you were doing, or did your mental problems force you to set the fire?” the judge asked.

Findley stuttered. Richter asked if Findley’s meds were helping him understand what was happening in the courtroom. Findley said he knew what he was doing and understood the proceedings.

“He knew what he was doing was wrong,” said Findley’s public defender, Premal Dhalia. “He did it in an effort to get attention.”

Richter repeatedly asked Findley if he’d spoken to his lawyer about making an insanity defense. If a jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity, the judge said, “You would be sent to St. Elizabeths, and you might not have to stay a long time.”

Findley’s had competency screenings before. In 2003, after being charged with misdemeanor destruction of property for breaking a Dell computer and a large glass picture frame at the offices of the D.C. Department of Mental Health, a licensed clinical psychologist found him competent to stand trial after interviewing him for 50 minutes.

According to court documents, Findley said he smoked crack when he had some money, smoked weed when somebody wanted to share, and drank a 24-ounce can of beer every other day. He told the psychologist that he sometimes hallucinated, that voices in his head told him he wasn’t going to make it, and that he could “smell cocaine coming down the street.” Those details aside, the psychologist found Findley stable and aware of what was going on.

The psychologist’s report indicates that Findley’s history of public mental health treatment began in 1987. He had been admitted for inpatient services with the District at least 16 times and had been hospitalized numerous times in private facilities like Howard University Hospital and the Psychiatric Institute of Washington.

The Woodner apartment building rents a few rooms to people who qualify for subsidized housing through the Green Door, a nonprofit organization that seeks to help people with mental illness reenter society. Representatives of Green Door would not confirm whether Findley got his apartment through that program.

Court records show that Findley has been charged with more than a dozen crimes since 1984, from shoplifting to felony robbery. And lighting up his apartment wasn’t his first fire—he pleaded guilty to felony arson in 1995 for trying to torch a District-owned building.

So it was a familiar routine for Findley in court. He told Richter that he understood his options. “I want to make sure I get some help,” he said. But he wasn’t interested in going to St. Elizabeths, where he has been before. He’d made up his mind. “I plead guilty to destruction of property.”