As the Ashland homeless man acquitted in the Oak Knoll fire case was about to be released from jail Dec. 10, his defense attorney was asked: What do you think will happen to John Thiry?
“He’ll probably be back in jail within a week,” public defender Andy Vandergaw said.
READ – Everything about Oak Knolls fire, from the Ashland Tidings
It took a little longer than he predicted — about six weeks — but he was right. On Jan. 22, Ashland police arrested Thiry after witnesses said he threw a 3-foot orange traffic pin off the Ashland Street bridge and onto Interstate 5, then allegedly began screaming at people in the Rite Aid parking lot to give him money.
A grand jury on Tuesday indicted Thiry on a felony charge of throwing an object off an overpass and misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and recklessly endangering another person.
“He’s definitely one of the people who have fallen through the cracks in our system, and he’s going to keep falling unless he gets the help he needs,” said Vandergaw, who no longer represents Thiry. “There are gobs of people I represent — half a dozen right now — who have serious mental health problems that have never been addressed, so they’re in and out of prison and they’ll continue to be.”
Thiry, who turned 41 on Friday, is believed to be mentally ill, according to Vandergaw and community members who say they frequently witness him behaving erratically in south Ashland, not far from a field where investigators believe he started the city’s worst residential fire in at least a century on Aug. 24.
A Jackson County Circuit Court judge said Thiry likely did start the fire that burned 11 homes, but prosecutors didn’t prove he was aware of the dangers of his actions, a condition that needed to be met for a conviction of reckless endangerment. Immediately after the fire, as Thiry was being interviewed by police officers, he flicked a lit cigarette into dry grass, according to court testimony.
After being released from his 107-day incarceration, he took the $30 the court gave him and said he was going to buy himself a beer.
“He didn’t recognize how unsatisfactory it was for him to say that,” Vandergaw said. “He doesn’t recognize that getting beer puts him right back in the same position he was in when he was intoxicated before the fire.”
The rail-thin man appeared on Ashland’s streets later that day, walking along his old routes, listening to music on yellow headphones and acting strangely, witnesses said.
He began once again mumbling to himself, screaming at passersby and aggressively panhandling, said Kevin Willis, a cashier at the Arco station adjacent to where the fire started. Thiry also was seen frequently drinking out of large beer cans, which appeared to make his mental illness worse, Willis said.
“Mr. Thiry will tell you himself he drinks a minimum of four beers a day, and they’re the tall, big ones,” Vandergaw said.
So why was a man whom community members — police, fire victims, his defense attorney — believe has a significant mental illness and is prone to acting recklessly allowed to roam the streets of Ashland again?
What is to prevent him from flicking a cigarette in the same bone-dry field this summer? After Judge Lorenzo Mejia said Thiry didn’t know what he was doing was reckless, why wasn’t anyone trying to help him realize it was?
These are questions the Oak Knoll fire victims and many community members are asking, especially in light of last weekend’s incident, which didn’t cause a freeway crash but could have, police said.
“The case of John Thiry is actually kind of a sad commentary on the mental health system,” said Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness. “Jail is not the best place for the mentally ill, but sometimes the only way to get them into a facility is through that process.”
THE MENTAL HEALTH SYSTEM
Ashland police officers frequently saw Thiry walking the streets and acting strangely, but department officials didn’t believe — and still don’t believe — he meets the state criteria for being placed in an involuntary mental health hold, Holderness said.
“I would expect if we took him to county mental health, he’d be released very shortly thereafter, in which case, that’d be kind of a waste of our time,” he said.
Police can take people they believe are mentally unstable into custody, but they must immediately be assessed by a doctor and psychiatric nurse to see whether they meet the state criteria for a hold.
People who are suicidal, homicidal or completely unaware of their actions while they are being assessed can be placed in a hold, said Martha Hutchison, program manager for access crisis services, the county’s mental health triage unit.
“It has to be an imminent risk issue, not like it could be a risk or it might be a risk a week from now or a month from now — it’s a risk in that moment,” she said.
“That can be hard for community members, because they’re seeing something starting to build or someone starting to decline, and they find it frustrating because, legally, we can’t do anything until it’s reached this critical point.”
On Halloween in 2008, Ashland police took a man who was slicing his face open with a razor blade in the Plaza to the county mental health ward, Holderness said. Hours later, the man was released, because he was no longer determined to be an imminent risk to himself, the police chief said.
“Basically, they said, ‘Well, he can’t kill himself by slicing his face with a razor blade,’ ” Holderness said. “The mental health system is majorly underfunded — there’s not enough beds, so they’re only going to keep the worst of the worst.”
David Eisenhaure, the lead pre-commitment investigator for Jackson County Mental Health, said he vaguely remembered the case Holderness mentioned but couldn’t comment on details. Hutchison said patients are sometimes released quickly, if the doctor has determined they are no longer a threat to themselves, perhaps because they have calmed down or are no longer intoxicated.
The county’s mental health ward at Rogue Valley Medical Center has 18 beds and is frequently full, meaning new arrivals have to be transferred to other hospitals in the state, often as far away as Eugene or Portland, Eisenhaure said.
“We’ve been at 95 percent or at 100 percent capacity about 80 percent of the time since at least the first of the year,” he said. “It seems like if we’re able to get some discharges, that night the beds fill back up again.”
If a doctor does sign off on a hold for an adult in the county, the case is evaluated within five judicial days by Eisenhaure or the other pre-commitment investigator for the county mental health department. The investigators are responsible for determining whether they should ask a judge to rule on an extended hold, for up to 180 days.
People on extended holds can be transferred to a state mental hospital or other specialized facilities, or can be released early if they agree to continue therapy, Eisenhaure said.
If people don’t meet the criteria for a hold and don’t have insurance, there are few mental health resources available to them, said Eisenhaure, who has held his position for the last 20 years.
“We try to do the best we can and serve the most people we can with the resources we have, but we have to kind of pick and choose, and look at the acuteness of the illness and the severity,” he said.
“We don’t have the funding, the indigent funding, to see a lot of people the community sees roaming the streets, panhandling or obviously not taking care of themselves, maybe mumbling to themselves — people seen in Ashland and Medford quite frequently. There isn’t the funding for them, and that’s unfortunate.”
THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
Sometimes it seems the only avenue to mental health treatment for some people is to go to jail first, Holderness said.
“The best thing we can do sometimes is get them into the criminal justice system because the court has more leeway to order someone into receiving treatment,” he said.
“I certainly wouldn’t have a problem with the concept of a judge ordering Thiry to do time in a mental health facility, instead of in jail.”
But oftentimes, even in the criminal justice system, as in Thiry’s case, the mentally ill don’t receive treatment, Vandergaw said.
“The system is not designed to provide people help,” he said.
A social worker at the jail can refer inmates to Jackson County Mental Health workers, who will assess their cases to see whether they meet the qualifications for a hold. The social worker at the Jackson County Jail never referred Thiry’s case to mental health workers during his previous incarceration, likely because he didn’t believe Thiry was an imminent danger to himself or others, Eisenhaure said.
The District Attorney’s Office and defense attorneys can also decide to argue that defendants are unable to determine right from wrong or are unable to control their behavior. Lawyers essentially must prove the defendant is insane, Vandergaw said. Oregon, unlike many other states, has no diminished-capacity defense, he said.
Like many mentally ill people, Thiry appears to have good and bad days — and is not always “out of it,” Vandergaw said.
“Sure, he’s mentally ill, but the question is, at the time he’s before a judge will a psychiatrist testify that he’s a danger to himself or others?” he said. “He has days where he’s almost normal and days when he’s just not there at all.
“When I represented him, it was my opinion that he didn’t meet the criteria of insanity, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t now.”
Jackson County Mental Health workers and police declined to comment on whether Thiry has been diagnosed with a mental illness. Vandergaw said he doesn’t know whether Thiry has ever been diagnosed, but that he exhibits some behaviors Vandergaw has observed in those with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
“He does need help, but he’s not going to ask for it — that’s how mentally ill he is, he doesn’t realize and won’t accept the fact that he needs help,” Vandergaw said.
Vandergaw and other mental health advocates have been trying for several years to get Jackson County Circuit Court to establish a Mental Health Court, similar to the existing Drug Court. Mentally ill defendants could be given an option to pursue therapy and treatment in return for a lesser jail sentence, said Patricia Garoutte, who helped establish Josephine County’s Mental Health Court.
“When somebody is picked up with mental health issues, they’re put in jail, which is the worst place for someone with mental illness to go,” said Garoutte, president of the Southern Oregon chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Working with a mental health court, they can get help, they can get diagnosed, they can get medication.”
In December, the alliance met with the county district attorney, supervisors and judges to ask again for a Mental Health Court, she said.
“We got snubbed, again,” Garoutte said. “Again the thing that came up was a lack of funds. But we started this in Josephine County with very, very limited funds and we will keep fighting for it here.”
County officials believe there is simply not enough money for a Mental Health Court and related counseling services, said Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Crain, who thinks the county should use its limited resources to address the most common crimes, such as drunken driving and domestic violence.
“We have limited resources and this is a time of cutbacks, and we want to make sure we keep going with what we have at this point,” she said.
Meanwhile, John Thiry sits in Jackson County Jail, where his bail is set at $10,000. He faces one count each of first-degree throwing an object off an overpass, a Class C felony; second-degree disorderly conduct, a Class B misdemeanor; and recklessly endangering another person, a Class A misdemeanor, said Jackson County Deputy District Attorney Laura Abraham.
He is scheduled to appear in court again Wednesday and is waiting to be appointed an attorney, she said.
Abraham said Thiry may be mentally ill, but she believes he was aware of his actions during the bridge incident.
“I wouldn’t have charged him if I didn’t believe he knew what he was doing,” she said.
Thiry has a right to a trial within 60 days of his arrest and it’s unlikely he will be released from jail before then, because he lacks a permanent address and has a criminal record, Abraham said. Court records indicate Thiry has a history of felony burglary, menacing and trespassing convictions.
“I wouldn’t anticipate that he’ll be let out, but you never know, depending on crowding,” she said.
The maximum sentence Thiry could receive if convicted for the felony count of throwing an object off an overpass is 10 days in jail, because it falls in the lowest felony category, Abraham said. It’s possible he could receive more jail time if convicted of the misdemeanor charges, but Abraham has not determined whether she will pursue that, she said.
“I really couldn’t say at this time,” she said. “A lot depends on talking with the victims and what they say.”
While in jail, Thiry has access to medical treatment. But mental health and substance abuse therapy aren’t available to inmates awaiting trial, Vandergaw said.
Thiry came to Ashland about 13 years ago, after a divorce in Northern California, Vandergaw said.
He has lived on the streets for many years and Ashland residents say they’ve watched his behavior slowly become more bizarre. Vandergaw said he doesn’t know whether Thiry has family in Southern Oregon or Northern California, but he has spent most of his life in those regions.
In south Ashland, many residents said they’re relieved to know Thiry is back in jail.
“I know a lot of people feel at lot safer, knowing he’s in jail,” said longtime Ashland resident Erica Martin. “He’s been doing strange things ever since he got back from jail the first time. He needs help. He needs to go to a mental place.”
Eventually, Thiry is likely to be released from jail. As Oak Knoll residents rebuild their homes, they remain concerned there could be a repeat of last summer’s fire, said Dan Thomas, one of the victims.’
“Don’t let him out because he’s gonna hurt somebody someday,” Thomas said. “He’s getting a little more out of control.”
No one knows what will happen to John Thiry. But one thing is clear: What happens to Thiry could affect what happens to the community at large.
“I’m not a mental health specialist,” Thomas said, “but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the guy needs some help. There’s some crazy, haywire thing going on in his brain and you don’t know what he’s going to do.”
This view of 897-805 Oak Knoll Drive (from left) was assembled from photos shot the morning of Aug. 25, 2010.
All stories from the Medford Mail Tribune
Homeless man faces charges for starting fire, August 26, 2010 (PDF)
Questions remain about how Oak Knoll fire spread, August 26, 2010 (PDF)
Music of the Heart, August 28, 2010 (PDF)
A field of junk after the fire, August 31, 2010 (PDF)
Point of origin hard to trace – Investigators attempt to pin down exact spot and cause of Oak Knoll fire, September 1, 2010 (PDF version)
Costs of fighting Ashland blaze continue to mount, September 1, 2010 (PDF)
Oak Knoll fire suspect’s trial suspended, October 14, 2010 (PDF)
Thiry trial set to begin Thursday, October 13, 2010 (PDF)
Oak Knoll testimony recounts fire, December 8, 2010 (PDF)
Oak Knoll defendant offered hazy account of fire, December 10, 2010 (PDF)
Oak Knoll fire defendant found not guilty, December 11, 2010 (PDF)
Through the cracks, February 2, 2011 (PDF)
Man pleads not guilty to tossing object off an I-5 overpass, February 3, 2011 (PDF)
Thiry back in jail, March 17, 2011 (PDF)