ashland.news
February 22, 2024

Update: Homeless campers had ‘hair on fire,’ witnesses say

A tent identified as Rick Bevel's is marked as a crime scene on Tuesday. Ashland.news photo by Morgan Rothborne
January 16, 2024

Small propane tank allegedly used as weapon; timeline shows medics arrived before police

By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news

Three people were injured and two suspects arrested when an altercation involving a propane tank led to a fire Monday evening in the sleeping area on the lawn behind the Ashland Police Department and City Council chamber complex at 1175 E. Main St. 

“There was an altercation stemming from an argument over a thieving allegation,”  said Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara. “Two people physically attacked one person who was sitting outside a tent. One of the suspects hit the primary victim with a bottle. The other suspect hit the primary victim with a small propane tank.”

The interior of Rick Bevel’s burned tent on the Ashland night lawn camping area. Ashland.news photo by Morgan Rothborne

When the propane tank broke, the gas ignited, burning the primary victim on the ground and two people in a nearby tent, O’Meara said. All three burn victims were taken to the hospital. 

A 16-ounce green propane tank sitting on a cooler outside a green tent with a melted door Tuesday morning was not the one used in the attack, authorities said. That one had been collected as evidence. The green tent was surrounded by crime scene tape with what appeared to be blood splattered on a dog bowl and on blankets inside. 

Suspects Jocelyn Christopher Cotner, 47, and Noah Rey (aka Nova) Brennan, 19, were lodged in the Jackson County Jail with charges of second-degree assault, menacing, and reckless endangerment, O’Meara said. Both were still in custody late Tuesday on $100,000 bail, jail records showed, and each also had two additional charges of third degree assault listed.

The altercation was initiated by a person who appeared intoxicated, a pair of night lawn guests said Tuesday morning. James Brown and Buckley Demuth said they witnessed the incident, which they said began with the person they knew only as Chris saying “somebody stole his vodka. Next thing I know there’s this big explosion, the drunk guy (and two others) are all on fire,” Demuth said. 

In his anger about the supposed theft, Chris tampered with the hose on a propane tank, causing an explosion, Demuth said. 

Another person who said he witnessed the incident but declined to give his name said another person, Brennan, challenged Chris after he sat down on the lawn. Brennan had been brandishing a bottle of what appeared to be vodka, the witness said, then he heard glass breaking and Cotner shouting. 

“(He) was holding a little green propane tank by the top, he was holding it up over his head,” the witness said. “As soon as the glass broke, maybe five seconds, I heard a puff and I saw a white cloud. I saw (his) arm extend into that cloud, and his arm coming out of that cloud with fire.”

A call for an explosion on the night lawn reached 911 dispatch at 8:35 p.m. Ashland police officers arrived on the scene at 8:47. The delay in response is “not what we strive for,” and he will be checking with dispatch about why there was a delay, O’Meara said. Talent police and Ashland Fire & Rescue personnel also responded, authorities said.

“The cops didn’t get here for a while. I was yelling, ‘Help! Help!’ at the top of my lungs,” Brown said. 

Ashland Fire & Rescue Deputy Fire Chief Marshall Rasor stated a battalion chief with a squad unit including dual role paramedics was on scene at 8:39 p.m. Due to the number of victims, a total of four units responded from AF&R, Rasor said. 

Three fire victims were transported to Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in serious condition Monday night, said Debbie Niesewander, an advocate for Ashland homeless people.

Night lawn guests use small propane powered heaters for warmth, she said. She stated she has advocated with the city of Ashland for alternative heating options for guests multiple times. 

It was a “full house,” Monday evening when the fire occurred, Brown said, estimating around 27 people were on the lawn including a woman with two children. 

Niesewander stated she is working to find alternative shelter for the kids who witnessed people “with their heads on fire,” and are struggling with the experience. 

“The one good thing is, we got the cameras,” Niesewander said. 

The city of Ashland has installed security cameras at the site, informally known as the “night lawn,” and called the “dusk-to-dawn camping site” by the city.

In an email, Acting City Manager Sabrina Cotta confirmed the city is in possession of video of the incident. Cotta expressed gratitude to first responders and concern for the victims. 

“The city is looking into the incident … I was sorry to hear about the incident and am wishing those impacted a swift recovery,” she said. 

Neisewander said beyond the dueling stories, the night lawn is unstable. 

“People are getting sick, the rats are into everything. I’m out there almost every day. But I can’t say, ‘No don’t do that,’ ‘No you can’t have that,’ I’m nobody. There’s no host, there’s no supervision, there’s people out there in crisis. … The number of times I’ve gone before council and told’em they’re just creating more instability,” she said. “I haven’t gotten a good answer in a long time.” 

Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at morganr@ashland.news.

Jan. 16: The original article said the small propane tank still at the campsite Tuesday morning was the one used in the attack; it was not.

Jan. 17: Additional information added throughout the article. Names of alleged victims and the gender identity of one of the arrestees removed. Jocelyn Christopher Cotner’s age changed to 47, the age in Cotner’s jail record. Spelling of Noah Brennan’s last name corrected. The time originally said to be when Ashland police were dispatched was actually when they arrived.

Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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