The alleged arsonist who attacked the Spokane County Democrats offices was a veteran, but so was the man he tried to take hostage

Joe Kuhn, who was a Marine, recounts his encounter with an arsonist: "He was very focused. That's what worried me about him." - COURTESY OF JOE KUHN
Courtesy of Joe Kuhn
Joe Kuhn, who was a Marine, recounts his encounter with an arsonist: "He was very focused. That's what worried me about him."

It was like a bomb had gone off. When Joe Kuhn returned to what remained of the Spokane County Democrats offices in the Teamsters Building last Thursday, he was shocked by the sheer amount of damage.

Flames had peeled paint off the doors. Ceiling tiles had collapsed. The copy machine had melted from the intensity of the heat.

"It was destroyed. The whole inside was gutted," says Kuhn, a 56-year-old Teamster. "This guy clearly intended to burn the whole building down. He wasn't just trying to torch the office."

The day before, on Dec. 9, Kuhn had been standing in that office, face-to-face with 45-year-old Peter James Yeager, who police say drove 85 miles from his apartment in the tiny town of Grand Coulee, Washington, to Spokane to attack the Spokane County Democrats' headquarters.

He'd shoved his way through the door, confronted two Democratic volunteers, and carried a handwritten "manifesto" that he wanted them to share far and wide on social media.

He was also holding what Kuhn says appeared to be a socket-set box with wires coming out of it connecting to a backpack.

It looked like a bomb. The man said it was a bomb.

"He did say several times, 'I don't want to hurt anyone, but you're not going anywhere. ... You're my new bargaining chip,'" Kuhn recalls. "By that point, he was telling me to 'come inside, close the door.'"

Effectively, Kuhn says, he'd been a hostage. Kuhn had a concealed gun, but he worried that using it could trigger the bomb.

His hostage taker snapped back and forth between placid and agitated.

"I was trying to keep the guy calm," Kuhn says. "He was very focused. That's what worried me about him."

Kuhn fell back on his de-escalation training from when he was a sergeant with the state Department of Corrections. Keep the guy talking. Don't make any quick moves. Give others time to evacuate. Establish rapport.

Establishing rapport was easy, it turned out, Kuhn says. The man asked Kuhn if he was a veteran. He was. Kuhn had served as a helicopter crew chief for the HMH-361 Flying Tigers in the Marine Corps in the '80s.

And when the purported bomber told Kuhn he was a vet, too, serving in the Marine Corps and Army Guard, Kuhn responded with the Marine Corps motto: "Semper Fi," meaning always faithful. In that moment, Kuhn says, he could see something change in the man's body language, a sort of connection snapped into place between hostage and hostage taker.

Still, the man told him to turn around and put his head up against the wall.

"He kept yelling at me, 'Don't move; don't go anywhere!'" Kuhn recalls.

But when it seemed like the man moved out of view, Kuhn seized the window of opportunity and escaped.

Yeager, police later said, didn't have a bomb. His backpack contained gasoline, motor oil, toilet paper and a camping lighter. After his bomb threat emptied the building, he set it on fire. Police arrested him as he left the Teamsters Building.

But his motivations remain unclear. How much of the attack was about politics and ideology? And how much of this was about trauma and mental health? Does it stem from the alleged arsonist's post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his time in Iraq? Or from our country's deeper breakdown?

After all, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl — who also was a Marine — says that, lately, mental health-related crisis calls have been skyrocketing.

"Right now they're about four or five times higher than they normally are," Meidl says. "Which I think is a combination of everything that's occurring from COVID to isolation to unemployment to recession to the political divide that you're hearing in the nation right now. All of that, I think, is manifesting itself in different ways."

The attack was a political one. It may have been nonpartisan — he claims the only reason he attacked the Democrats and not the GOP was the Dems' office was closer — but Yeager also told police he was trying to make an ideological point when he set fire to the building, according to court records.

Call that terrorism and Meidl won't disagree.

"If you were trying to compel a change in the politics of this country through destruction, I think someone could reasonably argue that that is a terrorist act, yeah," Meidl says.

Yeager has been charged with arson, but Meidl suggests that more charges are likely, and they're keeping federal agencies like the FBI in the loop.

The goal, Yeager allegedly told police, wasn't an intent to overthrow the government or hurt anybody, but rather to bring attention to his manifesto decrying the political elite.

But so far, the police have declined to share the full manifesto, releasing only a portion.

"If you were trying to compel a change in the politics of this country through destruction, I think someone could reasonably argue that that is a terrorist act, yeah."

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"Although I have profound respect for the grassroots movements of both the Democratic and Republican parties, sharing many of their ideals and values, we will continue domestic operations against their ruling elite as they exist in their current form," reads the selection. "Long live the Republic."

Meidl acknowledges that there are a lot of unanswered questions, including this: While Yeager told investigators he's a "lone wolf," why did he write, "We will continue domestic operations"?

"Is that one of those things where he is trying to speak for who he feels is the silent majority?" Meidl says. "Or is that his circle of friends?"

Extremism experts like those at the Anti-Defamation League note that "lone wolves" are often acting in the service of a larger extremist ideology or goal.

"Every report I've heard is that he acted alone," says Nicole Bishop, chair of the Spokane County Democrats. "[But] that's not to say that he hasn't had influence from a national dialogue that incentivizes, emboldens, and allows for drastic and violence action."

Right now, as President Donald Trump continues to fan false claims of a stolen election, the national landscape is brimming with the threats and violence. A man was shot in Olympia as members of the right-wing Proud Boys and left-wing antifascists clashed at a rally. In Michigan, the Legislature's offices were shuttered on Monday due to "credible threats of violence." Washington state House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox tweeted Monday that Washington state election staff had been targeted with "horrific threats," including "pictures, scope crosshairs and home addresses." Meanwhile, police guard the home of Gabe Sterling, a Georgia voting system official who defied Trump.

In a dark bit of symbolism, hundreds of handwritten postcards meant for Georgia special election voters were caught up in the blaze in the Spokane County Democrats. Some survived.

"There might be a few people in Georgia receiving some singed postcards from Spokane, Washington," Bishop says.

Yet so far, police haven't released anything that explicitly ties Yeager to any of these present conflicts. He's not even registered to vote in Washington. While sometimes a social media page will give a clear indication of a person's ideology, Yeager's social media presence is sparse.

A recently created Facebook page features a handful of folk songs sung by Yeager, filled with strange lyrics about Old Testament judgment, aliens and the apocalypse. The page belongs to a Peter James Yeager from California, who Yeager's cousin confirms to the Inlander is the same man arrested in Spokane.

Yeager sings about "bloodthirsty dragons" and "riot policemen calling on the telephone." He proclaims that "the Lion of Judah is near with a scythe and a scale." Yeager doesn't use the phrase "long live the Republic" on the Facebook page but does sing the phrase "long live the lights that explode through the night."

Neither Trump nor Biden are mentioned.

You can find more extreme political sentiment from some of Yeager's friends. One of his Facebook contacts — a fellow Marine veteran and the only person to endorse Yeager's LinkedIn profile — shares far-right posts about "elite pedophilia" and "organ harvesting," how COVID-19 lockdowns are about "social controls," and how the constitutional spirit was being eradicated by liberalism and "warped by power groups."

Yet Yeager's contacts also frequently talk about supporting vets with PTSD, about "the turmoil discharge creates once your time is done," and about how hard it is to adjust to the "new normal" in civilian life.

Psychotherapist Myrieme Churchill says that the trauma leftover from war is a monster that can take many forms — suicide, drug abuse, domestic violence, even extremism. She's the executive director of Parents For Peace, an organization dedicated to helping rescue loved ones from extremism.

"Hate is another way of self-medicating trauma," she says. "Belonging to extremist groups and lashing out is a way to get rid of a lot of pressure or hurt."

While Kuhn is a veteran, he's never seen combat. But he's had friends die in accidents, and he can imagine how going to war could mess with a person's mind. And that, in a small way, gives him some understanding for what happened last week.

"That made me think a little differently about it," Kuhn says. "I know we have a lot of guys who are really messed up, who probably haven't gotten help but need it."

Yet that empathy only goes so far. The vast majority of the vets who may be "totally screwed up from the war aren't doing something heinous," Kuhn says.

And now Kuhn and two Democratic volunteers, having faced down a bomb threat, are left to grapple with their own recent trauma. Lately, Kuhn's had trouble sleeping. He's angry. He's replaying the events over and over again in his head.

"It's something you're not just going to wipe out of your brain," Kuhn says. "That's one of the problems with things like PTSD. You can't just say, 'I'm not going to think about that anymore.' It doesn't work that way." ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...