The prosecution rested its case Thursday after playing a taped interview with John Thiry, a homeless man accused of starting an Aug. 24 fire that destroyed 11 Ashland homes.
"I looked up and I saw fire, and I tried to put it out, and I couldn't put it out," Thiry, 40, said during an interview on the night of the fire with Ashland police Officer Michael Vanderlip. "It was like in a circle. I tried to stomp it out for like a minute," Thiry continued, saying he then left the field, found a girl with a cell phone at a nearby parking area and asked her to call the fire department.
Thiry's trial before Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia opened Tuesday, with dozens of witnesses called by the prosecution, including fire investigators from three different agencies, homeowners who lost their houses in the blaze and several Ashland police officers.
Thursday's testimony ended with the tape of Thiry telling police he bought a beer, smoked a cigarette, passed out in a grassy field and woke up to nearby flames that warm and windy afternoon on Aug. 24. But he denied setting the inferno, and maintains he does not know how a ring of fire developed just feet away from him.
"I have not a clue (how it started)," Thiry said in the tape, admitting he was alone at the time.
After the fast-moving fire jumped Interstate 5 and destroyed 11 homes in the Oak Knoll subdivision in southeast Ashland, police worked late into the night performing interviews. They were led to Thiry by a fellow transient, John Marler. Marler, the first witness to testify at this week's trial, said he was in the same grassy field when he heard Thiry shouting across a drainage ditch, trying to put out the blaze.
Police found Thiry at about 2 a.m., under a nearby I-5 overpass, his arms and legs covered in black grime. Dozens of cigarette butts lay on the ground, along with about 200 matches, they said.
Vanderlip and other Ashland police officers testified they all knew Thiry, whom they described as cordial and compliant, but sometimes rambling in his conversations. Thiry often lives under overpasses or in grassy fields and is invariably smoking cigarette stubs he finds discarded in ash cans or on the street, police say.
"I'm always smoking," Thiry said on the tape.
Earlier during Thursday's testimony, Fire Marshal Margueritte Hickman said the fast-moving flames moved at 65 feet per minute on the hot, windy afternoon.
Liza Christian, whose home at 840 Oak Knoll Drive was destroyed by the fire, recounted hearing a crackling sound that proved to be her back fence igniting. She grabbed some clothes and her bike and fled in a scene she described as pandemonium.
"My heart just sank," she said as she recalled looking back at her burning home for what she knew would be the last time.
That night after the fire, Vanderlip said, he made sure he read Thiry his Miranda rights. He told Thiry the conversation was being recorded. Thiry declined to go to the police station for the interview. But he agreed to continue discussing the day's events. He even led officers to the scene of the fire.
"I can show you where the fire started," Thiry said.
He later identified the beer cans strewn around the area as his.
"I'm sure those are mine," Thiry said.
The tape ends with the sound of clicking handcuffs and a few more sentences as Thiry was arrested. He was taken to Jackson County Jail, where he has remained since.
Thiry faces 10 counts of recklessly endangering another and 14 counts of reckless burning related to the blaze that caused more than $3 million in property damage.
Thiry told Mejia late Thursday, on the advice of his defense attorney, Andy Vandergaw, he would decline to testify on his own behalf. Vandergaw rested the defense case without calling a single witness. Closing arguments are scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. today.
Sanne Specht is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4497 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.