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Men plead not guilty in firefighters' deaths.

Byline: Winston Ross The Register-Guard

CORRECTION (ran 4/30/03): Paul Frasier is the prosecuting attorney in the trial against two men charged in the fire that killed three firefighters at Farwest Truck and Auto Supply in Coos Bay. His job title was incorrect in a story on Page D5 in Tuesday's paper.

COOS BAY - Two men pleaded not guilty Monday to negligent homicide charges stemming from last November's fire that caused the death of three firefighters.

Earlier this year, prosecutors charged Jonathan Edward Inskeep, 58, and Verlin Glen Villines, 61, both of Coos Bay, for the Nov. 25 deaths of firefighters Randall Carpenter, Jeffery Common and Robert Hammers.

Judge Martin Stone set a trial date for Dec. 1, due to attorneys' scheduling conflicts and a desire to wait for several upcoming reports on the blaze.

"As much as I would like to see it happen quicker, if opposing counsel's schedule is already set, there's nothing I can do about that," said defense attorney Paul Frasier.

The firefighters died in the Farwest Truck and Auto Supply building at 340 S. Second St. According to officials, the fire started in a machine shop, Automotive Machine Services, which operated as a separate business in the back of the building.

Inskeep owned and operated the machine shop. Villines is believed to have installed a propane oven that officials say was the cause of the fire.

The oven was used to clean auto parts placed inside it and heated to temperatures as high as 1,400 degrees. Officials said the fire started when a vent pipe from the oven ignited the wood structure in the back of a mezzanine that took up part of the 13,520-square-foot building.

The firemen died after a fire in the mezzanine wall and ceiling burst into flame and part of the roof caved in.

Last year, the city building inspector said the oven was installed without a permit. The City of Coos Bay issued the building a certificate of occupancy in July 2001.

Judge Stone released Villines and Inskeep on their own recognizance in January.

Their attorneys would say little about why their clients pleaded not guilty on Monday.

"While there may or may not be civil liability on the part of one or other or neither or both, we don't believe there is criminal liability," said Roseburg attorney David Terry, who is representing Villines. "My client feels absolutely terrible that firemen lost their lives in that building; but to imply that he was criminal in this case is not shown to be supported by the facts."

Inskeep has filed a tort claim against the city, a notice of intent to sue that's required by Oregon law. The claim isn't related to Inskeep's criminal case, said his Coos Bay attorney, Nick Nylander. It's simply to preserve Inskeep's rights for a civil lawsuit, at a later date.

"We're certainly reserving the right to assert that (the city bears responsibility)," Nylander said. "We think they have some exposure and/or responsibility in this thing."

Coos Bay Mayor Joe Benetti said the city's attorney has advised him that a tort claim is to be expected, as there are deadlines for filing such notices.

"I'd find it very difficult for anyone to say there's any blame to the city whatsoever," Benetti said.

There are still several unfinished or unreleased reports that could shed light on what happened last November, and who's responsible.

The state fire marshal has finished its report on the cause of the fire, but the Coos Bay District Attorney's office has asked for it to be sealed until after the trial.

The state Occupational Safety and Health Division is due to issue a report next month that might address whether firefighters had proper training and well-maintained equipment, and whether proper safety procedures were followed.

Also, a report is expected soon from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

A hearing to determine any pretrial issues is set for Nov. 17 at 9 a.m.
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Title Annotation:Courts
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 29, 2003
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