Reno arson suspect served prison time for murder
RENO – A woman who served prison time for second-degree murder was arrested Wednesday and accused of setting the blaze that killed six people and gutted much of a historic brick building in the downtown casino district.
Valerie Moore, 47, a casino cook, was arrested on arson and murder charges in Tuesday night’s fire at the Mizpah Hotel that police said began when she set fire to a mattress.
Hotel workers and neighbors, who described Moore as “nice” and a “good tenant,” said she had been drinking and may have lost control after an argument with another tenant.
Moore was booked into the Washoe County Jail at 5 a.m. Wednesday on suspicion of first-degree arson and six counts of first-degree murder. An additional parole violation charge was added, Washoe County Sheriff’s Deputy Brooke L. Keast said.
Authorities said there was no record that Moore had hired a lawyer.
Keast said she had no immediate details but confirmed that Moore served time in prison for second-degree murder.
“The original charge she had (resulting in the parole violation) was second-degree murder and use of a deadly weapon, but we don’t know where that charge was from. They are looking into that,” Keast told The Associated Press.
State corrections records obtained by the AP show Moore was serving time on a charge of second-degree murder with use of a deadly weapon out of Washoe County in September 2003 when a prison guard was arrested for trying to smuggle two-heroin-filled balloons into her at the Southern Nevada Women’s Correctional Facility in North Las Vegas.
Investigators alleged that the guard, Constance Edwards, 33 was providing Moore with cocaine and heroin and received $50 to $200 every time she brought contraband into the prison, sometimes hidden in her bra.
Moore was convicted Sept. 24, 1987, in Washoe County District Court for a killing on Feb. 27 of that year. She started serving two life sentences on Nov. 5, 1987, but was released on parole in June 2005, state corrections records show.
Neighbors and hotel workers described Moore as a normally pleasant woman.
“When I see her picture flashed up on the (TV) screen, it looks like she’s a monster, but she was a real nice person,” said Sharon Steele, the hotel’s general manager.
“She was a really good tenant. She just had way, way too much to drink yesterday, causing trouble all day,” Steele told The Associated Press.
Steven Purcell, 53, the hotel’s front desk clerk, said Moore asked him to escort her from a nearby liquor store to the hotel late Tuesday afternoon.
“She seemed lucid and in a good mood at the time,” Purcell told AP. “But sometimes, she was erratic and irrational and possibly self-medicated.”
The fire was the city’s deadliest in more than 40 years and came two days after the 133rd anniversary of an 1873 fire that destroyed more than 100 buildings in Reno.
It broke out about 10 p.m. Tuesday and swept through the three-story building a block from the downtown fire station.
About 30 people were injured, mostly with minor injuries. Authorities reported that seven people were hospitalized, two in critical condition in Reno. One person was flown to a burn center in California.
The building was used primarily as a residential hotel. Because of its age, it did not have sprinklers but was equipped with smoke alarms, which probably saved many lives, Reno Fire Division Chief Marty Scheuerman said.
“There could have been a lot more fatalities and injuries than there were,” Scheuerman said.
“The fire crews that arrived on scene performed heroically to get people out of the windows because there was no other way out,” he said.
Firefighters said they did not know of anyone still missing in the rubble, but they had yet to search some areas. The roof collapsed, and authorities said the building would have to be shored up.
“We’re going to have to go in with big timbers and wood to make it safe enough so it won’t fall down on inspectors and responders,” Scheuerman said.
Police Chief Michael Poehlman said the blaze was started when Moore set fire to a mattress in the hotel.
Maxie Birch, 42, an acquaintance of Moore who lived down the hall from her, said he told police Moore set fire to a mattress that she leaned against his hotel room door.
Moore was angered when Birch refused to open the door to discuss an earlier incident in which police responded to an argument between Moore and another tenant, he said.
Moore’s drunken behavior was out of character, and she was friendly and sober when he saw her earlier in the day, Birch said.
“She always seemed like a normal, friendly person,” Birch said. “She didn’t seem like a crazy person. But something happened last night to push her over the edge. She just flipped. I don’t know what caused her to flip.”
Police said 60 to 80 people were inside the 84-year-old, recently renovated hotel when the fire started. It quickly engulfed the north wing of the hotel, near Harrah’s casino, though none of the downtown high-rise hotel-casinos were threatened.
It was Reno’s deadliest fire since 1962, when six people died at the Golden Hotel, fire department spokesman Steve Frady said.
The Mizpah was built in 1922 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Fire officials said they did not know whether the building could be saved.
You can help
WHAT: The Reno Sparks Gospel Mission is expanding its coat drive to collect items for the victims of Tuesday night’s Mizpah Hotel fire.
WHERE: Community Assistance Center, 315 Record St.
CALL: Those who cannot make the coat drive, but who would still like to donate, may call the Mission at 323-7999.
NOTE: The Mission got its start at the historic hotel 43 years ago.
Donations are being accepted by the American Red Cross and clothes may be dropped off at the Salvation Army.
Salvation Army stores accepting items:
• 2300 Valley Road, Reno, call 688-4559
• 341 S. Wells Ave, Reno, call 689-2240
• 1925 Sutro St, Reno, call 688-4588
Donate online at:
American Red Cross
1190 Corporate Blvd. Reno, call 856-1000
Donate online at: