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Photos, video sought in Almeda fire investigation

Investigators are asking for surveillance footage from the moments just before and after the Almeda fire exploded Sept. 8 in a north Ashland neighborhood.

A multi-agency task force consisting of Ashland and Medford police, Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and Oregon State Police has received “hundreds of leads” in the criminal investigation into the origin of the fatal fire, according to Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara. But investigators are asking for more photographs and video footage from the area where, shortly after 11 a.m., the Almeda fire started.

Investigators are asking for photos or video taken near the Ashland dog park, Ashland BMX park and neighborhoods close to Almeda Drive, according to O’Meara.

The fire was reported at 11:04 a.m. off Almeda Drive and spread rapidly in hot, dry and windy conditions through Talent, Phoenix and parts of Medford.

The multi-agency task force has “looked into hundreds of leads,” and has received numerous photos and videos from residents, news outlets and fire crews, according to a press release issued Thursday. Anyone with photos or videos that haven’t been submitted yet are asked to call Ashland police at 541-482-5411.

Three people died in the Almeda fire, two of whom have been identified as Donald Schmidt, 55, and Violet Lobdell, 92, who were residents of Bear Lake Mobile Estates in Phoenix.

When asked for the identity of a victim whose remains were found close to the fire’s origin point, O’Meara referred the Mail Tribune and Ashland Tidings to the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s office for the person’s identity.

A message relayed from the sheriff’s office to the medical examiner’s office was not returned at press time.

Investigators reportedly had difficulty confirming the remaining fire victim’s name nearly three weeks after the fire occurred, according to a Sept. 28 news report.

A suspect accused of setting a fire in Phoenix that contributed to the Almeda fire, Michael Jarrod Bakkela, 41, is being held in the Jackson County Jail on charges that include first-degree arson, first-degree criminal mischief and first-degree animal abuse. Police say he allegedly started a fire near a manufactured home in the 200 block of Hoyt Lane that spread to a nearby neighborhood and merged with the Almeda fire.

The Jackson County District Attorney’s office says the fire linked to Bakkela caused at least half a million dollars in damage and endangered 14 lives.

Bakkela’s next court appearance is scheduled for Dec. 14. No trial date has been set, according to court records.

A suspect accused of starting fire to a van at Emigrant Lake Park on the same day the Almeda fire broke, Vance Phuc Nguyen, 45, is also being held in the Jackson County Jail on a first-degree arson charge. The vehicle fire allegedly started with gasoline and a lit cigarette. The fire was extinguished by firefighters from the Greensprings Rural Protection District who were on their way to help fight the Almeda fire, according to earlier reports.

According to a court filing Thursday from Nguyen’s court-appointed defense lawyer Michael Kellington, Nguyen may plead guilty except for insanity in the arson case.

The filing states that Kellington is “awaiting a psychiatric evaluation” for Nguyen that would determine whether the insanity defense is appropriate. Nguyen’s next court appearance is scheduled for Dec. 14.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

This Phoenix shopping center was among{ } the many homes and businesses leveled along during the Almeda fire. Ashland police Thursday asked for photos and video taken near the fire's origin in the Almeda Drive area. Mail Tribune file photo.