Grand jury indicts Phoenix arson suspect
A grand jury added a methamphetamine possession charge to a string of arson and criminal mischief charges accusing Michael Jarrod Bakkela, 41, of lighting a fire in Phoenix that contributed to the Almeda fire.
Bakkela was indicted Tuesday for the new drug charge and a pair of Measure 11 arson charges, along with numerous criminal mischief and reckless endangering charges accusing him of starting a fire near the railroad tracks in Phoenix that damaged 15 properties and endangered 14 lives, according to the Jackson County District Attorney’s office. Deputy District Attorney Melissa LeRitz, who is prosecuting the case with Chief Deputy District Attorney Jeremy Markiewicz, said the grand jury heard testimony from six witnesses including two Jackson County Sheriff’s Office detectives and one fire investigator with Oregon State Police.
The two first-degree arson charges relate to a single fire that Bakkela allegedly started in Phoenix shortly after 5 p.m. Sept. 8 — some six hours after the Almeda fire started in Ashland — according to a press release from the district attorney’s office.
One of the arson charges against Bakkela alleges he intentionally started a fire near a manufactured home in the 200 block of Hoyt Lane, and the second arson charge accuses him of starting a fire at latitude and longitude GPS coordinates that appear to be property belonging to Phoenix-Talent School District.
The fire Bakkela allegedly started caused at least $600,000 in damage, prosecutors alleged in court documents filed in Jackson County Circuit Court.
The documents describe at least $50,000 in damage each to 11 properties in the 200 and 300 blocks of Hoyt Lane, another $50,000 in damages to the business Rogue Soil, and more than $1,000 to four homes in the 2300 and 2500 blocks of Voorhies Road.
Details behind Bakkela’s arrest are sealed in court records. Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia ruled Tuesday that making the affidavit of probable cause public “would be extremely prejudicial to Defendant (Bakkela) receiving a fair and impartial jury at trial.”
What’s known is that a witness reportedly called 911 at 5:09 p.m. Sept. 8 near the 1100 block of Quail Lane to report a man fitting Bakkela’s description lighting a fire near the tracks, Sheriff Nate Sickler said. A sheriff’s deputy stopped Bakkela that day for violating his parole on a prior meth possession conviction, and he was held on the parole violation warrant for several days while detectives investigated the arson charges.
Bakkela is not accused of starting the Almeda fire, which began near Almeda Drive in Ashland shortly after 11 a.m. that day. Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara said Tuesday the cause of the Ashland fire is still under investigation.
The name of a male whose body was found about a mile north of where the fire started near Almeda Drive has not yet been released.
There’s no evidence yet that Bakkela’s arson arrest is related to any other arrests, but at least one other person was arrested on charges stemming from drug and fire activity after the Almeda fire began.
Shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday, Medford police arrested David Allen Hanscom, 50, on felony meth possession charges in a stop that began when a witness allegedly spotted him using a blowtorch in the 2700 block of South Pacific Highway, according to documents filed in Jackson County Circuit Court.
A business owner putting up barricades in the area allegedly called 911 after spotting Hanscom using a propane torch and attempting to light a tree on fire.
Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau said the report was “obviously suspicious with what’s going on,” and police rushed to the area but were unable to find any damage.
Without any evidence of fire damage, police lacked probable cause to arrest Hanscom on fire-related charges, according to Budreau. They ultimately arrested him on a felony charge of possessing methamphetamine.
“There’s no link with him and the person we arrested already (on arson charges),” Budreau said.
Hanscom was released on his own recognizance Tuesday, according to Jackson County Circuit Court records. Terms of his release include no consuming alcohol or intoxicants, and no possessing “ignition devices” such as lighters, matches or torches.