News & Features

Suspected Arsonist Dead After Fire at The People’s Center in Pablo

Museum and cultural center run by Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes suffered ‘significant damage’ in blaze

A man suspected of starting several arson fires in the Pablo area is dead after barricading himself inside The People’s Center and setting it ablaze on Sunday, Sept. 6.

The body of Julian Michael Draper, 33, was discovered inside a back office at the museum, educational and community center owned and operated by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Firefighters arrived on the scene late Sunday evening unaware that anyone was inside the building and found Draper’s body when they broke out a window as part of their fire containment efforts.

It wasn’t immediately clear how Draper died. His body has been sent to the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula for further analysis.

The People’s Center was constructed in the early 1990s to house cultural artifacts significant to the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribes, and the fire destroyed a number of “irreplaceable” items, according to Shelly Fyant, the Chairwoman of the CSKT Tribal Council and a former director of The People’s Center.

“I was in shock. It’s so devastating,” Fyant said of her reaction when she first received the news. “That was my baby, you know? I feel like I birthed that center in between my two kids … it’s just so devastating to see all those years of work and collecting history and artifacts and family heirlooms (destroyed).”

Fyant and current director Marie Torosian said the fire appeared to have started in the back office area before spreading to a repository where a number of artifacts were burned, including historic photographs, Eagle-feathered bustles, bone-and-bead breastplates, beaded moccasins and vests, and a collection of beaded bags. Employees are just beginning the process of sorting through the damage and will be consulting with experts from around the state in an effort to preserve or restore as many damaged items as possible.

Torosian said she will be establishing an online fundraiser to assist in the preservation and restoration efforts that lie ahead.

“It’s my hope and my goal to take what we have left and try and rebuild a facility and open back up again and continue to do our work,” she said.

Not every area of the building burned, however, and the fire mostly spared the facility’s museum and educational center, preserving dozens of one-of-a-kind pieces that were on display, including a vest worn by Salish Chief Charlo that was donated just two years ago. Torosian said she and others were allowed in the building for the first time on Monday and that the sight of the museum and educational center still intact brought her to tears.

No determination has been made on the viability of the building itself, which Torosian described as a “sturdy structure” that nonetheless suffered major damage. Firefighters at one point used a bulldozer to break through a concrete exterior wall in order to gain entrance to the facility, something made more complicated by Draper’s efforts to barricade himself inside. Torosian and Lake County Sheriff Don Bell said Draper lived nearby but otherwise had no formal connection to the facility.

The fire Draper set was apparently the second he started on Sunday, according to Bell, who said Draper was seen running from a nearby storage shop that was set on fire shortly before the blaze at The People’s Center. Less than two weeks earlier, on Aug. 26, Draper was arrested and charged with arson after he ignited a small wild land fire near the former Plum Creek sawmill in Pablo, less than a block from Sunday’s fires. Draper was out on bond at the time of his death.

Bell said no clear motive for the fires has been discovered.

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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