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Labor Day arson suspect avoids a trial on fire anniversary

Michael Jarrod Bakkela

A man accused of contributing to the 2020 Labor Day fires by allegedly setting a blaze in Phoenix after the Almeda fire was already underway has avoided a trial on an earlier crime that would have put him in front of a jury on the one-year anniversary of the historic event.

Michael Jarrod Bakkela, 42, is scheduled to change his plea next month on a misdemeanor harassment charge that accuses him of punching a witness who attempted to make a citizens arrest on Bakkela after a 2019 stolen truck crash near Central Point, according to Jackson County Circuit Court filings Tuesday morning.

The new hearing calls off a jury trial previously scheduled for Wednesday surrounding charges that Bakkela subjected a witness to “offensive physical contact” following a crash in a 1999 Dodge Ram pickup the afternoon of Nov. 13, 2019, near the intersection of Table Rock and East Vilas roads, according to a document filed by the Jackson County District Attorney’s office and an affidavit filed by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

At least two witnesses allegedly saw Bakkela flee from the wreckage of the truck, which had been reported as stolen, according to the sheriff’s office.

Bakkela allegedly punched one witness in the chest in an attempt to get away. Another witness, an off-duty Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office deputy, tackled Bakkela until local police arrived.

Bakkela has been in the Jackson County Jail since September of last year on charges accusing him of contributing to the Labor Day fires by intentionally setting another fire that caused at least $600,0000 worth of damage in Phoenix.

The first-degree arson and first-degree criminal mischief charges accuse Bakkela of intentionally setting a fire at 5:09 p.m. Sept. 8, 2020, near Quail Lane and Barnum Lane in Phoenix that destroyed 15 properties before merging with the fire that started in north Ashland and tore through the centers of Phoenix and Talent.

Bakkela is scheduled to change his plea on the harassment charge Oct. 14.

A five-day jury trial on charges related to the Almeda fire, including arson, criminal mischief, reckless endangering, first-degree animal abuse and methamphetamine possession, is scheduled to begin May 9.

Bakkela is not named as a suspect in the Almeda fire’s origin point, reported at 11:04 a.m. Sept. 8, at 164 Almeda Drive in Ashland. No suspect in that fire, linked to three fatalities, has been identified.

Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara stated in a release Tuesday that his department — in partnership with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, Oregon State Police, Medford police and in consultation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation” — is still working to solve the crime.

“Like other major cases, this case is not considered ‘closed’ and won’t be until it is seen to full resolution,” O’Meara states. “The case remains open pending more information becoming available.”

Since the Sept. 8 fire, Ashland police have worked with 18 law enforcement agencies from Oregon, Washington, California and Alabama, according to O’Meara.

“Over 200 people have been interviewed and multiple polygraph examinations have been conducted,” O’Meara stated.

Three people died in the unsolved fire. Two of those fatalities were Bear Lake Mobile Estates residents Donald Schmidt, 55, and Violet Lobdell, 92.

Anyone with information about the homicide investigation is asked to call Ashland police at 541-488-2211.

A third man whose remains were found at Bear Creek Greenway mile marker 8.9 — between the cities of Ashland and Talent — was never identified. The unidentified fire victim is described as a Black man whose height was between 5-feet-8 and 5-feet-11.

Anyone with information about the third victim is asked to call the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office at 541-774-6800.

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