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News / Northwest

Attempt to burglarize Eastern WA Dollar Tree store ends in $3.8 million in fire damage

By Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald
Published: April 11, 2024, 7:36am

A man who started fires in the Lower Yakima Valley causing $3.8 million in damages as part of a burglary of a Grandview Dollar Tree store has been sentenced to five years in federal prison.

Christopher Schlax, 48, of Grandview, also was ordered by U.S. Judge Stanley Bastian on Wednesday to pay restitution for the full cost of the fire damage and three years probation after his prison term.

His alleged accomplice, Gregorio Cantu, has pleaded innocent. If found guilty, he will be required to help pay the $3.8 million restitution.

Schlax is accused of setting three fires in 2022 at businesses in Grandview. The case was handled in federal court because each was owned by companies conducting interstate commerce.

The first two were planned as distractions while Schlax and Cantu burglarized the Grandview Dollar Tree. After the second fire was set, Schlax accidentally set Dollar Tree on fire, destroying the building.

Schlax set the first fire on June 27, 2022, at the Lineage Logistics warehouse at 62 Old Inland Empire Highway while Cantu acted as lookout and driver, according to court documents.

He set the fire in a pallet storage area, but it spread, causing an estimated $424,000 in damage.

Schlax and Cantu did did not burglarize Dollar Tree as planned that night, said court documents.

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But days later early in the morning of July 4, they went to the fruit bin lot of River Valley Fruit, and Schlax set another fire. River Valley Fruit’s insurance company paid out more than $1.5 million for that damage.

A few hours later, Schlax and Cantu went to Dollar Tree.

Schlax has stashed a ladder in the weeds near the building earlier in the day and used a cutting torch to get into the store. While he was trying to cut into the store’s safe with a power tool, he ignited a bottle of hand sanitizer.

Dollar Tree’s property loss was estimated at just about $1.8 million.

Crews from throughout the Yakima Valley and Benton County responded to the two July 4 fires.

Schlax also admitted to burglarizing the Grandview Market and the Ace Hardware in Sunnyside and an attempted burglary of a Naches dollar store, according to a court document.

Schlax “repeatedly set fire to the property of others with little to no thought given to subsequent effect on others,” said Courtney Pratten, assistant U.S. attorney, in a court document.

“When he set those fires, he not only damaged property that did not belong to him, but he was willing to risk the possibility of hurting both members of the public as well as first responders and law enforcement.”

Additional burglary charges

Schlax’s attorney, Nick Mirr of Yakima, said in a court document that his client has a long history of addiction.

Schlax was using methamphetamine daily and was in the process of filing for bankruptcy at the time of his arrest in connection with the fires.

Schlax said he was making “terrible choices” and would take back his actions if he could, his attorney said. Mirr also said that Schlax did not intend to harm anyone and is thankful that he did not.

The U.S. Attorneys Office for the Eastern Washington District said Schlax had past behavior “indicative of disrespect for the property of others, disrespect for the authority of law enforcement and disregard for the safety and well-being of others.”

In 1998, he pointed a .38 caliber semi-automatic handgun at a woman and threatened to kill her, according to a court document.

There also was an incident in which Schlax refused law enforcement orders to stay in his vehicle, became verbally abusive and eventually kicked out the window of a patrol vehicle, according to a court document.

Schlax still faces four second-degree burglary charges, a first-degree malicious mischief with damage of more than $5,000 charge and an harassment/threaten to kill or cause bodily injury charge in Yakima Superior Court.

The federal case was investigated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives and was prosecuted by the Eastern Washington District U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“For Mr. Schlax to intentionally start fires to distract first responders from his burglaries is especially cruel. Because of the destruction and danger he caused to the community, this sentence is clearly warranted,” said Jonathan Blais, ATF Seattle Field Division special agent in charge.