Homeless Ore. Woman Arrested for Arsons

July 26--Police arrested a homeless woman Thursday on charges she set as many as four fires around Medford over a 12-hour period.

Whether Debra Irene Johns, 57, who is well-known to police, is attached to 19 other arson fires in a spree that began June 25 is still unknown, Medford police said.

"(She's) certainly a person that we're looking at strongly," Medford police Chief Tim George said Friday in a press conference. "I can't say that it's going to be all of them."

Johns, who police said was a transient, was arraigned Friday on charges of second-degree arson and reckless burning. She remained in the Jackson County Jail on Friday on $54,000 bail, records show.

Police allege Johns tried to set a fire at Beavertooth Oak, a hardwood wholesale store in the 400 block of South Fir Street, at 8:55 p.m. Wednesday. Police also suspect her of trying to break into the building.

A witness reported seeing a man with shoulder-length brown hair and a thin build running from the scene. Jail records list Johns as standing 5-foot-7, weighing 160 pounds and having brown hair.

At 8:04 a.m. Thursday, Medford police and fire agencies responded to a fire in a palm tree in Hawthorne Park.

A third intentionally set fire was found nearby. During a search of the area, Medford Officer Tom Sweeney spotted Johns on the Bear Creek Greenway north of the park. Johns tried to flee on foot while dropping tissue paper from her pockets, but police caught up to her and arrested her, George said.

"She's not a stranger to us. We've had multiple contacts and multiple arrests with her in the past," George said.

Johns is also a likely suspect in a small fire set in the women's public bathroom at the Jackson County Jail Wednesday evening, investigators said. It's not known whether she is responsible for another Thursday fire that burned through dozens of wooden fruit crates across the street from the Tree Top plant, reported at 3:33 a.m., or a smoldering bush found a few hours later in the 200 block of South Holly Street.

Johns has not been connected to 19 other fires officials believe is part of a monthlong arson spree, though police have her at the top of the list.

"She is our No. 1 suspect in the other arsons," Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau said.

Court records show Johns has a lengthy criminal history in Jackson County that goes back to 2004, including convictions for methamphetamine possession, unlawful entry into a motor vehicle and second-degree assault.

Investigators say the string of arsons began with a June 25 inferno in a historic warehouse at 220 N. Fir St. The former fruit-packing plant that most recently was home to Miscellany Antiques burned to the ground.

A slew of additional fires, sometimes multiple ones within the span of a few hours, followed around west Medford. Many were reported in alleys, often near fences or outbuildings. Officials are confident one person is responsible for a majority of the cases, if not all of them.

The number of fire starts was often a strain on fire resources, with responders sometimes just getting one fire out before they needed to rush to another one nearby.

"That was kind of a unique experience for us," said Brian Fish, operations chief for Medford Fire-Rescue. "It kept our personnel busy, for sure."

The frequency of the fires put firefighters on heightened alert, Fish added. Fire investigators, who typically wait until scenes are clear to poke through the rubble, showed up to many of the recent arsons shortly after crews arrived.

"We were really aware," Fish said.

Copyright 2014 - Mail Tribune, Medford, Ore.

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