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MailTribune.com
  • Arson suspect charged in jail fire

    Police hope to link her to other arsons in Medford spree
  • The woman who allegedly set fires at a Medford hardwood store and Hawthorne Park last week is officially being charged with setting a fire in the Jackson County Jail's public restroom.
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  • The woman who allegedly set fires at a Medford hardwood store and Hawthorne Park last week is officially being charged with setting a fire in the Jackson County Jail's public restroom.
    Debra Irene Johns, 57, whom police described as homeless, was allegedly in the restroom from 5:18 a.m. to 6:09 a.m. Thursday, July 24, based on lobby surveillance video analyzed by detectives.
    "(That) as well as forensic evidence linked her to the case," Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau said.
    The charge adds a count of first-degree arson to Johns' rap sheet. She remains in the Jackson County Jail on $95,000 bail, held on charges of second-degree arson and reckless burning, according to jail records.
    Police nabbed Johns at 8:15 a.m. Thursday after an emergency call in Hawthorne Park for a tree fire and another small blaze burning nearby. About five hours earlier, police and fire agencies had responded to a fire burning through stacks of wooden fruit bins across the street from a Tree Top plant in the 600 block of South Fir Street.
    During a search of Hawthorne Park, police saw Johns on the Bear Creek Greenway north of the park. Johns reportedly tried to flee while throwing aside bits of tissue paper. Officers caught up with her and arrested her.
    She roughly matches the description of a person with shoulder-length brown hair and a thin build who was seen running from Beavertooth Oak, 401 South Fir St., at 8:55 p.m. Wednesday, July 23, leaving a small fire behind.
    Police suspect Johns of setting the two Hawthorne Park fires, the restroom fire and the one at Beavertooth Oak. It isn't known whether she also set 19 other fires around west Medford in an apparent spree that started June 25 when a former fruit packing plant at 220 N. Fir St. burned to the ground. The fire near the Tree Top plant is also on that list.
    Many of the fires started in alleys, near fences or outbuildings during the dawn or predawn hours. Sometimes multiple fires were reported within a few hours of each other, forcing responding fire crews to jump from scene to scene. No one was hurt in any of the blazes, though one, a Grape Street house fire reported at 4 a.m. July 15, sent the sole occupant running from her home.
    Johns has not officially been tied to those fires, but remains the top suspect, investigators said. The challenge, police said, is finding sufficient evidence, which can be difficult to do in arson cases, as it often burns up in the flames.
    "We're still working on it. We believe she certainly could be responsible for a majority of those unsolved arson cases, if not all of them," Budreau said. "We'll see how far we can get."
    A preliminary hearing for Johns is set for 4 p.m. Friday court records show.
    Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.
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