Arson trial, day 2: Clues lie in metal debris
As expert after expert pointed to dented metal debris in the rubble of what was once a mountain home near Lost Creek Lake as signs of the explosion’s origin, Michael Charles McNall’s lawyer made dogged attempts to cast doubt on what appeared to be prosecutors’ most damning piece of evidence.
McNall was standing trial Wednesday for a second day in Jackson County Circuit Court on arson and attempted aggravated theft charges surrounding the April 9, 2016, explosion at his home at 225 Flounce Rock Road in Prospect.
Oregon State Police arson detectives, a deputy state fire marshal, an independent fire investigator and a Portland-based forensic engineer all pointed to a propane ball valve found in the garage below the home that appeared to have been manually turned to the open position, and was missing an end cap that building codes would have required when the home was constructed in 2005.
Forensic engineer Bernard Maddox testified that by his calculation, it would’ve taken about 24 minutes for an open propane valve to fill the roughly 800-square-foot garage with a fuel mixture rich enough to be combustible.
McNall’s lawyer, John Kolego of Eugene, peppered the experts with questions such as their certainty that the ball valve was used for propane — not water — and asked whether they inspected Teflon tape at the pipe’s fittings. None could testify with certainty whether the pipe sealant was designed for gas rather than water.
Deputy State Fire Marshal Jeff Henderson, who found the fully opened valve on the property, testified that it was “the only ball valve” they found and that the handle had been moved from a perpendicular closed position to a parallel open position; however, when the valve was removed from a paper evidence bag after three years in storage, the fire-damaged handle had detached.
Oregon State Police arson detective Joseph Feland testified that the explosion started in the garage based on evidence that included a cast iron bathtub nearly turned inside out and a metal garage door that was warped, but not torn.
The nature of the damage to metal items was evidence that the explosion stemmed from a “low-order” explosive such as fuel vapor, rather than a high-order explosive such as C-4 or nitroglycerin, experts said. Investigators were unable to determine what actually sparked the explosion, but testified it wouldn't take much -- even the click of a thermostat would do it.
Robert Newell, a lawyer representing Pacific Retirement Services, made an appearance during a short recess of the jury Wednesday afternoon, touching on two witnesses expected to be called Thursday: PRS Chief Financial Officer Mary Schoeggl and a lawyer for the company, which owns Rogue Valley Manor. Saying “witnesses are entitled to representation,” Newell indicated he plans to oversee their testimony.
“A lot of their knowledge is going to be subject to attorney-client protections,” Newell told Judge David Orr.
McNall had claimed to investigators and the Mail Tribune in 2016 that he believed the explosion was deliberately set and that it involved documents and other information he was keeping for PRS. PRS Chief Executive Officer Brian McLemore told the Mail Tribune that McNall had made “numerous false allegations” against PRS since the company terminated a contract with the McNalls a year prior.
McNall told investigators he’d had multiple run-ins with mysterious men, including two men “wearing white.” McNall told police just after the explosion that the mysterious men tried to serve him papers before he brandished a gun and told them they were trespassing.
In a taped interview a week after the explosion, McNall had no new information about the men for OSP Detective Craig Rice beyond “maybe short hair.”
Separately, Jackson County sheriff’s Detective David Seese testified about his agency’s struggles to corroborate what was reported as a home-invasion attack in October 2015 in which McNall’s wife, Karyl McNall, said she was assaulted and needed to be hospitalized.
The vehicle description provided in October was vague, Seese testified, described only as a “black Mercedes” with no model or plate information for investigators to work with. McNall told police he’d contacted the FBI, but Seese testified he found no FBI cases involving Mike or Karyl McNall.
McNall provided sheriff’s deputies files he said had been taken from his security camera, but the files were unplayable. Seese got software to open the video from camera system manufacturer Lorex, but the videos had no visual information.
“It was just a black screen,” Seese testified.
McNall told police his digital video recorder had since purged the recording.
Insurance investigator Tiffany Channel with Safeco parent company Liberty Mutual testified that she interviewed McNall about his finances in the days after the explosion, but received “ambiguous” answers. She learned at the time that McNall hadn’t paid taxes since 2007, had virtually no savings, only paid bills once they were past due and intermingled his business and personal accounts.
“They personally lived off the business revenue,” Channel said.
McNall is separately involved in litigation with the insurance company over the unpaid renters insurance policy — in which items claimed exceeded his $300,000 coverage. He has thus far collected only $5,000 from the insurance company.
McNall’s trial is expected to continue Thursday.