ARSON! Lents duplex intentionally torched, officials say

This story has more twists and turns than a snake on a hot rock! Find out why neighbors on this dead-end street off SE Woodstock Blvd. say they’re glad the house is destroyed. We’ve got exclusive photos

Portland Fire & Rescue firefighters cut ventilation holes in the roof of this duplex as flames consume the interior of the front unit.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Many things about the 5:30 p.m. blaze that charred a single-story duplex in Lents, a block west of the I-205/Woodstock onramp, on April 28, were unusual.

Although the fire was reported at 6325 SE 93rd Avenue, firefighters saw thick, black clouds of smoke over SE Henry Street – a street south, but with no roadway connection. Some Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) truck crews set lines from their rigs at SE 93rd and Henry Sreet, and pulled water lines through yards to attack the inferno.

Other PF&R crews pulled south on SE 93rd Avenue from SE Woodstock Boulevard, drove down to the house where it dead-ends, and attacked the fire from that side.

PF&R firefighters from Truck 25 tend the water lines from SE Henry Street, one block south of the blaze.

“When the fire companies were arriving, we realized the unusual layout of the neighborhood made access a little difficult,” PF&R District 3 Battalion Chief Chris Babcock told us at the scene. “There was a lot of smoke was showing. Because we had companies coming in from two different sides, we were able to get water on the fire in pretty short order.”

When we ourselves arrived on-scene at the SE Henry Street side just minutes after the alarm was sounded, the intensity of this blaze was apparent – the 1,404 square foot rental duplex was charred from every window and door opening.

As crews douse the flames inside the structure, the crew of Truck 25 address flare-ups on the roof.

Attacking the fire from both sides of the structure, firefighters quickly knock down the raging fire.

As we spoke with Babcock, flames again started licking up from the eves on the south side; firefighters cut loose the burning wood and shingles and let them fall.

“This was an intense fire,” Babcock noted. “Firefighters were surprised at how fast the fire moved through this duplex, destroying one unit and damaging the other. Portland General Electric is on-scene, shutting down the electrical service – even the electrical meters were pretty badly damaged. Because of what firefighters have found, PF&R Investigators are on the way.”

While putting out the fire, PF&R Firefighter Mitchell Gragg, with Station 25 on SE 52nd Avenue, injured his knee. “He was treated at the scene for his injury, and is back on duty,” said bureau spokesman Paul Corah.

A PGE worker shows a firefighter the electricity meters he removed, melted by the intense fire.

A “drug house”, neighbors say
As we walked to and from the smoldering structure along SE 93rd Avenue, three sets of neighbors stopped us to talk – they all had had something unusual to say about the duplex.

“I’m happy to see it burn,” said one neighbor, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisal from a resident of the house that he characterized as a drug dealer. “It’s bad for the family that lived on the other side, but everyone around here knows this is a drug house.”

We asked if he saw cars come and go at the house. “No, not many cars,” he replied. “But there sure are a lot of people on bikes walking up to the house, staying for a few minutes and leaving.”

Incident commanders were concerned because initial reports indicated that one of the units contained oxygen tanks and possibly chemicals used to manufacture drugs, said PF&R’s Corah. “Firefighters were urged to use extreme caution in fighting this fire because of these potential safety hazards.”

Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Commander William Walker checked the address in their database and confirmed, “This is an address known to us to be frequented by drug users; a complaint filed earlier this year.”

Firefighters continue to snuff out small fires that reignite.

Man, now homeless, claims neighbor set blaze
Seeing our press credential, a man, standing by his car, motions to us. “Come over here, I’ll tell you all about this,” said a man who identified himself as part of the family who occupied the other side of the now-charred duplex.

“I’m Dana,” he began, speaking into our audio recorder. “The neighbors that lived in front of me, this afternoon between 4:30 and five o’clock, the gentleman and his girlfriend got into a fight. I went over there and tried to calm everything down so nobody gets hurt; hoping one of them would go out of the house, and go about his business.”

The next-door renter continued, “In the process, she barricades herself in the bedroom.  About 30 or 40 minutes after that, the house is on fire. She’s the one that set the house on fire.”

We asked Dana why he was sure the woman set the blaze.

“I know for a fact that she did it,” Dana replied. “I saw her jump out of the bedroom window. There’s a front door, and a patio door – if there was an accidental fire, you’d go out the door, right? Why would you jump out the bedroom window and walk away?”

As we talked, Dana pointed to a woman walking north on SE 93rd Avenue. “That’s her. That’s the woman that burned our house. Now I’m homeless. I don’t know what I’m going to do; I’ve got my granddaughter here.”

A PF&R investigator and firefighter try to speak with a woman – she’s busy talking on her cell phone – whom they requested stay in the area.

Investigator questions suspect

As Dana turned to comfort his granddaughter, a Portland Fire & Rescue Investigator drove up and parked her vehicle. As she got our of her truck, and caught up with a firefighter and Battalion Chief Babcock are following the woman Dana identified as “Jessica” or Jacinda” – the woman he said started the fire.

Before long, two more PF&R fire investigators arrive at the scene, as did Portland Police Bureau officers.

At 8:08 p.m., a woman who called herself 32-year-old Jacinda Ann White was placed under arrest in connection with the fire. “Investigators determined that the fire was intentionally set in the duplex in which White was associated with,” Corah stated.

“The woman is charged with six counts of ‘Measure 11’ Arson I with a set bail of $1.5million,” Corah added. The six counts of Measure 11 Arson I represent the two individuals in the fire unit and the four individuals persons in the neighboring unit.”

This is 26-year-old Justina Eileen Cole – now in jail on 6 counts of a Measure 11 crime, Arson in the First Degree.

Identity deception discovered
At 2:45 pm on April 29, Corah had another announcement – yet another unusual factor in this case. “Portland Fire Investigators have determined that the actual identity of the individual arrested in connection with this fire is 26-year-old Justina Eileen Cole.”

MCDC records snow that Cole is being held on two counts of Arson in the First Degree, for a total bail of $1,500,000, and two additional Multnomah County “holds”.

American Red Cross Disaster Action Team responders assisted Dana and his family by providing immediate lodging, food, clothing, counseling, and assistance with other needs.

Damage to the burned duplex is currently estimated, PF&R investigators say, at $150,000.

Firefighters work to fully douse the blaze until past 7:00 p.m.

© 2011 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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