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Estranged husband charged with arson of former home

An Ashland man who is charged with arson is being sued by his estranged wife, who is seeking damages because of the fire that destroyed their hilltop home last year.

Paul Lister Newcombe, 40, pleaded not guilty Thursday in Jackson County Circuit Court to one count of first-degree arson. His arraignment came precisely a year after flames consumed the 4,000-square-foot house at 5142 W. Griffin Creek Road that he shared with wife Jennifer Newcombe and their four children.

A Jackson County grand jury indicted Paul Newcombe Oct. 23 following a lengthy investigation by Oregon State Police. Booked in jail Thursday, Newcombe is free on his own recognizance. A pretrial conference is set for Dec. 30 in the case.

After filing for divorce in April this year, Jennifer Newcombe sued her husband in July for her share of the house's worth, as well as its contents. The total estimated value does not exceed $550,000, she claims.

Her complaint also alleges that Paul Newcombe, who now lists an address on Ashland's North Main Street, intentionally set the fire. His answer to the suit denies the allegations.

Interviewed in December about the crime, Jennifer Newcombe suggested that a suspicious man who visited her home with a friend may have burglarized it and then set the fire. Her husband, however, told her he purposely left the woodstove door open, "freaked out" when he saw flames on the floor and went to the garage for a gas can to make it look like arson, according to a statement she included in her petition for a protective order.

Paul Newcombe also filed for a protective order against his wife, stating she pushed and hit him during an argument about how the fire started. Both orders were dismissed, and the couple's divorce is set for trial Dec. 6 before Circuit Court Judge Ron Grensky. Neither Newcombe could be reached for comment.

The couple also clashed, according to Jennifer Newcombe's petition, over Paul Newcombe's attempt to borrow money for a loan on the gas station he operates near the south Ashland freeway interchange. Newcombe and Ashland Fuel, also known as Ashland Arco Inc., are the subjects of a civil suit filed in September by American Express Bank, seeking to recover a loan of $29,430.

The sound of a large explosion accompanied reports of fire at the two-story Newcombe residence at about 10:30 a.m. Nov. 21, 2012. A black plume of smoke could be seen in the city of Medford rising above the home's perch on a ridge covered by Applegate Valley Rural Fire Protection District No. 9. Crews from Medford Fire-Rescue also responded, and vehicles hauled thousands of gallons of water up long, steep driveways.

Firefighters corralled the hot, fast-moving blaze to about half of the structure and also moved vintage sports cars in the garage out of harm's way. But insurance adjusters ruled the house a total loss.

The Newcombes and their children were away when the fire broke out. Investigators said it ignited in the living room or downstairs play room.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or slemon@mailtribune.com.