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Pair plead no contest in fire case.

Byline: Winston Ross The Register-Guard

COQUILLE - Two Coos Bay men pleaded no contest on Monday to charges of recklessly endangering another person in the fire last November that took the lives of three area firefighters.

Jonathan Edward Inskeep, 58, and Verlin Glen Villines, 61, will be sentenced Monday, after a plea agreement reached with Coos County prosecutors that reduced their charges from criminally negligent homicide, a felony.

A plea of no contest means the defendants do not admit or deny the charges, and that they do not wish to contest the case. It also means the defendants agree that the state could prove its case against them beyond a reasonable doubt, Coos County District Attorney Paul Burgett said. Under Oregon law, a plea of no contest is treated the same as a guilty plea.

Recklessly endangering another person is a misdemeanor punishable on each count by up to one year in county jail and/or a fine of $5,000. Inskeep and Villines pleaded no contest to three counts each of the charge.

Burgett said he hadn't decided whether to seek the maximum yet.

"I've talked to the victims, and they're mixed about whether these guys should receive jail time," Burgett said. "Everybody feels differently about it."

Attorneys for Inskeep and Villines could not be reached late Monday.

Lt. Randall Carpenter, 46, and volunteer firefighters Jeffery Common, 30, and R. Chuck Hanners, 33, 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 a 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. 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 Nov. 25 after a fire in the mezzanine wall and ceiling burst into flames, and part of the roof caved in. Last year, the city building inspector said the oven was installed without a permit.

"I don't think for a second they ever thought anybody would die over it," Burgett said Monday. "They probably thought in their minds it would be safe."

Still, Burgett said, the stove had caused the ceiling above it to burn intermittently, over a period of months.

People had often smelled smoke, he said.

Over time, that weakened the ceiling and caused it to collapse.

"Had they installed it properly, there would have been absolutely no danger," Burgett said. "These guys need to learn a lesson."

The plea comes nearly five months after the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the City of Coos Bay $50,000 for 16 violations relating to the fire, cautioning that the city was "in no way" responsible for the firefighters' deaths.

The city appealed the fine, and it was reduced to $41,350, most of which will be used on new safety equipment for the fire department.

Winston Ross can be reached at 902-9030 or rgcoast@ oregonfast.net.
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Title Annotation:Courts; Two men face sentencing after agreeing to reduced charges in a machine shop blaze that killed three firefighters
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 11, 2003
Words:549
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