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Arsonist gets three years probation for fire at Jackson County Jail

A woman suspected of setting a string of fires across Medford this summer was sentenced to three years probation and mental health court Tuesday under a plea agreement with the Jackson County District Attorney's Office.

Debra Johns, 57, entered a plea of no contest to a single count of first-degree arson in connection with a July 24 fire in a bathroom at the Jackson County Jail. Additional charges of second-degree arson, two counts of second-degree criminal mischief and reckless burning were dismissed as part of the deal. A second case, charging her with reckless endangering another person and second-degree disorderly conduct, also was dismissed.

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lisa Greif ordered Johns to pay restitution on all counts originally charged, despite the dismissal.

She'll also have to comply with the recommendations of Jackson County Mental Health's ACT team as part of her plea agreement.

Defense attorney Sara Collins said Johns was pleading no contest rather than guilty because she may not have taken medication for mental illness on the day in question.

Johns, clad in a green jail uniform, appeared not to understand some of Greif's questions regarding the nature of her plea, having to be prompted by Collins when asked if she understood that there was enough evidence to likely convict her at trial.

"Video and fingerprints are what linked Ms. Johns to the fire," said Deputy District Attorney Nicholas Geil.

The jail fire, which eventually burned itself out, was one of several that occurred over a 12-hour period  spanning July 23-24.  Medford police arrested Johns at Hawthorne Park several hours after the jail incident, after dispatchers took a report of two fires at the park. Johns was also charged with another fire that occurred July 23 at Beavertooth Oak on South Fir Street. Police said witnesses had seen a woman matching Johns' description running from the scene.

In addition to those four fires, police identified Johns as a suspect  in 19 other fires, including one that destroyed a historic warehouse on North Fir Street June 25,  but she was never charged. 

Johns, who is homeless, is required to live with her sister in Central Point under the terms of her sentence. If she violates her probation, she'll have to spend six months in jail and three months on post-prison supervision.

Johns was released from the jail into the care of ACT staff members about 3:30 p.m.

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471, or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.