Updated: 05-01-2003 12:44:23 PM

Men Charged with Negligent Homicide in Ore. Firefighters' Deaths

Andrew Sirocchi
Courtesy of The World

COQUILLE - Two men charged in connection with the deaths of three firefighters who perished battling a warehouse blaze on Nov. 25 pleaded innocent Monday morning to charges of criminally negligent homicide.

Jonathan E. Inskeep, 58, and Verlin Glen Villines, 61, appeared in the Coos County courthouse wearing black street clothes and flanked by their attorneys, who entered the pleas on their behalf. Neither man spoke during the hearing.

"We're prepared to enter a not guilty plea and request a 12-person jury trial," said Inskeep's Coos Bay attorney Nick Nylander.

Nylander added that the defense will not ask for the cases to be separated.

Inskeep and Villines left the Coos County courthouse with their attorneys and would not speak with media.

In charging the men with three counts of criminally negligent homicide, the District Attorney's Office contends the pair installed a parts-cleaning furnace identified by state investigators as the cause of the fire without the required permits and inspection.

Career firefighter Lt. Randall Carpenter, 46, a Coos Bay resident and a firefighter for 15 years, died when the roof of the Farwest Truck & Auto Supply in downtown Coos Bay collapsed. Volunteer firefighters Robert Hanners, 33, and Jeff E. Common, 30, also died battling the blaze.

Chief Deputy District Attorney R. Paul Frasier declined to discuss the charges Monday, citing fears that pre-trial publicity could impact the case.

"Too much of the facts in public and you could get a change of venue," Frasier said.

District Attorney Paul Burgett said in January that the charges allege the men failed to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the unpermitted furnace would cause a fire.

No gag order has been issued but the D.A.'s office has kept information about the case closed. Charges against Villines and Inskeep were filed in January, following a two-month investigation by the State Fire Marshal's Office, Oregon State Police and the Coos Bay Police Department. The D.A. also sealed a final report from the Fire Marshal's Office.

Preliminary findings released shortly after the fire indicated heat from an oven at Automotive Machine Services, owned by Inskeep and operating independently inside Farwest, caused the combustion of roofing materials that burst the building into flames.

After the fire marshal's report was issued, the city of Coos Bay announced it could not find any permits for the oven or its flue and that no inspection had been done after the equipment was installed. The city found that the flue violated building codes because it did not extend the required length above the roof.

The District Attorney's office has said Villines is the contractor who installed the equipment.

In a separate turn of events, Inskeep also has filed a notice of claim with the city of Coos Bay, reserving the right to file suit against the municipality.

According to a letter addressed to the city, "the claim arises out of negligent building code and fire inspections and the negligent fire fighting techniques and strategies performed by employees and/or officers and representatives of the city of Coos Bay."

Nylander and Inskeep both have declined to discuss the notice. The claim allows Inskeep six years to file a suit against the city.

Meanwhile, Circuit Judge Martin Stone set a two-week trial beginning Dec. 1. Each count of criminally negligent homicide is punishable with up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.

A pretrial hearing is scheduled for Nov. 17. Stone ordered all motions to be filed by Oct. 20.

Villines' attorney David Terry, of Roseburg, said he had scheduling conflicts that would prevent him from representing his client prior to December.

Nylander added that many of the investigations into the fatal fire remain ongoing and the additional time will allow for that information to come in.

A final report by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration was scheduled to be released this month, but the agency has yet to conclude its investigation. OSHA's investigation focuses on safety issues and whether the fire department followed proper procedural guidelines during the blaze. In addition to OSHA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is conducting its own investigation. Final results could be a year off.