Man sentenced to 11 years for Phoenix fire
A man was sentenced to 11 years in prison Monday for his role in a fast-moving fire near the railroad tracks that spread to more than a dozen properties before merging with the massively destructive Almeda fire Sept. 8, 2020.
Michael Jarrod Bakkela, 43, was sentenced by Jackson County Circuit Court Judge David Hoppe to 132 months in prison after pleading no contest last week to felony arson and criminal mischief charges stemming from a fire he allegedly started about 4:30 p.m., on railroad tracks near Dano Way in Phoenix, about the same time the Almeda fire was spreading.
One witness in the 1100 block of Quail Lane reportedly saw Bakkela use a truck to pull open a locked railroad gate in the area before driving the truck down the rails and getting high-centered on the tracks, where the vehicle came to rest in tall grass, according to a detailed news release from the District Attorney’s office. A railroad employee reportedly saw Bakkela with oil on his arms carrying a gas can near the vehicle.
About 5 p.m. that day, a resident hosing down her backyard, about 600 feet from Bakkela, reportedly saw smoke near the truck. That witness called for her husband, who stopped Bakkela at gunpoint until law enforcement arrived.
Bakkela reportedly told a Jackson County sheriff’s deputy he was trying to start the stalled truck by putting gas directly into the engine, and was able to get it going about 20 feet until the truck started smoking. Police searched Bakkela and reportedly found a lighter, a flare, butane, methamphetamine, pliers, a switch mechanism, and a bottle of two-cycle engine oil.
According to Chief Deputy District Attorney Jeremy Markiewicz, no signs of accelerants were found in “several soil samples” near the fire.
According to Markiewicz, an arson investigator determined that the fire started about 15 feet in front of the truck.
Bakkela’s defense lawyer Donald Scales, Markiewicz and Hoppe each stated on the record that they do not believe Bakkela is a suspect in the blaze that started the Almeda fire in Ashland.
“That case is still being investigated,” Markiewicz said of the Almeda fire, calling it “a priority — a top priority — of local law enforcement.”
Markiewicz said in court that the resolution of the case was not ideal, but it “brings finality.”
“It delivers signed, sealed and delivered convictions,” Markiewicz said.
Bakkela pleaded no-contest May 4 to one charge of first-degree arson, 16 counts of criminal mischief and two misdemeanor counts of first-degree animal abuse. He said little during the hearing.
Although it’s not an admission of guilt, a no-contest plea carries the same legal consequences as a guilty plea. Scales, Bakkela’s lawyer, said his client is remorseful for behavior that was “reckless.”
“Mr. Bakkela maintains there was never an intent to start the fire,” Scales said in court. “He understands he was in a place he shouldn’t have been.”
Outside the courtroom, Scales and private investigator Krystal Daniel disputed the role of sticks and described the truck involved as a vehicle belonging to a family friend. Scales said Bakkela was trying to use the railroad tracks to get to White City to help a friend’s girlfriend “who didn’t need rescuing.”
“It was a chaotic day,” Scales said.
“He had no business being on that railroad track,” Scales added.
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