About a half dozen people gathered Monday afternoon to remember the sad and perplexing life of John Thiry, an Ashland transient accused of setting the devastating Oak Knoll fire and who died early Monday morning at a Medford hospital.
Police responding to a welfare check at about 3 p.m. Sunday found Thiry on a bench on Ashland Street near Clover Lane, not far from Exit 14 on the south end of Ashland. They transported him to Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, where the 47-year-old died about 1:30 a.m. Monday, according to Mayor John Stromberg, who spoke before a brief moment of silence at a council study session Monday evening.
Those who came to remember Thiry met under the Clay Street bridge, where he often slept, and constructed a small memorial of wild grass and flowers in the shape of a heart.
“He’s not a vagrant, he grew up here. He was just a regular person,” said Elise Thiel, who lived next door to a Thiry family member for more than a decade. “He was a local man, not a transient. He was one of us.”
No family members attended the brief memorial, which included stories from those who knew him in the way he could be known — casually as a person who lived and died outside.
Thiry, who grew up in Ashland, walked the streets often barefoot and dirty, dressed in rags even in the winter. He was accused of setting a fire on Aug. 24, 2010, in south Ashland that jumped the freeway and destroyed 11 homes, damaged three others, and led to the 2016 death of Medford Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Mark Burns, who suffered lung damage while fighting the fire.
Thiry was later found not guilty of 24 reckless burning and reckless endangerment charges, the judge ruling the state could not prove Thiry was consciously aware of his actions or the potential consequences. But Thiry could never shake the story, which dogged him until his death.
“I met him 10 years ago, it was the winter of 2007,” said friend and homeless activist Ana Witt. “We drove by and he was sitting on a pile of snow with no coat. I gave him one of my husband’s coats.”
Witt described a man who often refused kindnesses, but who gave the impression he was, at his core, gentle and battling a demon of some sort. Thiry was described by officials as schizophrenic, although he was not in any formal program. He was cited numerous times by Ashland police for public intoxication, disorderly conduct and trespass. He was excluded from downtown, which is where the emergency shelters are located in winter.
“I don’t know how he survived,” one person said at Monday's gathering. Others described sneaking him into the shelters where he would crouch in the bathroom to sleep unseen during the worst months of winter. “Sometimes John was hard to understand. But if you gave him time, he would make sense,” said activist Barbara Bain, who is also homeless. “He had it worse than most.”
Thiry, in his last months, began rejecting food. “I don’t eat anymore,” he would say if offered food. “I could use some cash if you have it,” Thiry told those who offered him solace. He did not hold a cardboard sign, but could be seen sitting outside various spots on Ashland Street outside the downtown exclusion zone.
In better times when Thiry ate, Witt would go into Taco Bell and buy his favorite ground beef burrito. “He wasn’t allowed in. He wasn’t allowed inside anywhere, so I would get it for him. He was always so grateful,” she said. “Toward the end he didn’t have teeth anymore and his hair was falling out in patches. He was so thin, he had no flesh on his bones and it seemed to hurt if you touched him.”
With tears rolling down her face, Witt said, “How can anyone live with no love and no touch from another human being?”
She recalled his face and his way of being. “He had the most beautiful eyes to me. They were a color I hadn’t seen before,” Witt said. She added he became quiet and withdrawn in the last months of his life. “How can we do something for people like John?” she asked.
“We watched him dying on our streets for years," said Sabina Vaughn at the small memorial. "We all knew he was dying. We knew he was starving but nothing was done. I don’t understand how we let this happen. We have to change this.”
“It’s hard to know what to do," Bonnie Cohen said. "Mental illness can be so hard to treat, especially if the person isn’t treating themselves well.”
The group said small prayers, wishing Thiry a better afterlife. “Wherever you are, I wish you peace and ease,” said Cohen. “He was the most tormented person I ever met.”
No exact cause of Thiry’s death has been announced, but it appears living on the streets as he did played a role in his dying there.
“How can we learn from him? How can we continue?” asked a tearful Witt before the small gathering dispersed, leaving behind a grass heart near a small pile of what were once one person’s meager possessions.
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.