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Little Caesars owner acquitted in arson trial

A jury has acquitted the former owner of a Little Caesars pizza shop in Ashland of all counts in an arson conspiracy trial.

Medford resident Mark Alan McAlister, 52, faced three counts of conspiracy to commit arson after investigators alleged he asked handyman Brian Vernon Morris to break a natural gas line, leave a candle burning and try to burn or blow up the pizza shop on the back side of the Market of Choice grocery complex in February 2014.

A badly mangled and twisted natural gas line was introduced into evidence in the trial, but the prosecution struggled to prove McAlister would gain financially from destroying his business.

McAlister testified his business insurance would have compensated him only for rebuilding and would not allow him to cash out on the franchise.

McAlister testified he put $250,000 into the franchise but got only $50,000 out of it after Little Caesars corporate officials threatened to pull his franchisee license when they learned of the arson conspiracy charges against him.

After days of testimony, the jury started deliberating at about 11 a.m. Wednesday and returned not-guilty verdicts at about 5:30 p.m. that evening, prompting tears of joy and relief from the McAlister family, defense attorney Peter Carini said.

"Behind me I could hear crying from the relief and exhaustion of this hell they've been living in," Carini said Thursday. "I had a tear in my eye, too."

McAlister had faced a five-year prison sentence on each of the three counts, Carini said.

Carini said Jackson County Deputy District Attorney Nick Geil did as well as he could with the case, but Carini called it flawed from the beginning. Geil did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the case.

"The person they were relying on to make their case was a bald-faced liar," Carini said of Morris the handyman.

Speculating on how the natural gas line was damaged so severely, Carini said perhaps Morris was upset that McAlister would not hire him as a regular employee at Little Caesars, but only for odd jobs at the restaurant and at a barn. Carini said McAlister felt sorry for Morris and his children and would give him bits of work.

Carini said McAlister asked Morris to undertake a drug urine test, but Morris did not go in for the test.

The handyman may have tried to burn the pizza shop so he would have odd jobs to do repairing the damage, or he may have been trying to steal the valuable tankless water heater that was fed by the natural gas line, Carini surmised.

Morris pleaded guilty to attempted arson in October 2015, but his sentencing was delayed until after he testified as a witness in McAlister's trial. Morris is due to appear in court Monday to be sentenced.

Taking to the witness stand to defend himself during the trial, McAlister said he graduated from Southern Oregon University, worked for years as a teacher in Alaska, then returned to the Rogue Valley after retiring. He said he continued to work hard and invest in area businesses.

McAlister said Morris was lying when Morris claimed to have tried to set the Little Caesars alight for three nights in a row at McAlister's behest.

In 2013, McAlister pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Alaska to violating the Airborne Hunting Act. He was fined $15,025.

In another case, McAlister and his wife successfully appealed an Oregon Department of Revenue decision that attempted to block them from claiming $22,195 in cleaning and maintenance expenses for a mini-storage business in 2009.

The couple also tried to argue they were not full-year Oregon residents for tax purposes and had lived full-time in Alaska until July 2009. However, the appeals court ruled they had changed their status from nonresident to Oregon resident as of May 2009 and legally were Oregon residents for the 2009 tax year.

As for Morris, his convictions include contempt of court for failing to make child support payments, driving under the influence of intoxicants and driving with a suspended license, Oregon court records show.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.