Homeless man recovering from burn attack

EUGENE — James Lemmon has a message for others who sleep on the streets in the Eugene-Springfield area.

"The message is, 'Watch your frickin' back,'" Lemmon, 43, said Tuesday from a hospital bed at Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield, where he is recovering from second-degree burns suffered when police say an unknown assailant lit his coat on fire last weekend in downtown Eugene.

"If this can happen to me with 20 years on the streets, it can happen to anyone," said Lemmon, who is also known as James Kaiser.

The disturbing attack on Lemmon is the latest in a series of crimes against homeless people in Eugene.

Three local transients have been killed in the city this year, although police have not characterized any of those incidents as crimes in which suspects intentionally targeted people because they were homeless.

While investigators say they don't know what motivated Lemmon's attacker, the longtime Eugene man believes he's the victim of a hate crime.

"I do think this guy did this to me because I'm homeless," Lemmon said.

Lemmon spent the wee hours of Saturday morning panhandling in front of Rock N Rodeo, a restaurant and bar on East Seventh Avenue where he said he made about $20 that night.

He left the area and was walking his bicycle along East Broadway about 3 a.m. when someone unexpectedly bumped him from behind.

"I started to turn and say 'What's up?' but before I could, my whole arm went whoosh and burst into flames," he recalled. "It smelled like gasoline to me."

Lemmon dropped to the ground and rolled around to put out the fire. He then staggered to the nearby Campus Inn, where an employee he knows called for help.

Police and medics arrived a few minutes later, and detectives launched a criminal investigation. They sent his clothing to a crime lab to determine how exactly the fire was set.

While Lemmon — a hulking, soft-spoken man — admits he's had more than his share of scrapes with the law over the years, he feels that police are working hard to identify the person who caused serious burns to his left hand, arm, neck and face.

"They do want to catch the S.O.B.," Lemmon said.

Lemmon's attack is definitely unusual, although it's not unheard of for a homeless person to be injured or killed after someone lights them on fire.

Last year in the United States, two transients died and three more were injured in those type of attacks, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Lemmon expects to remain at RiverBend for a couple more days, until a hospital social worker can find him a place to stay temporarily while he recovers.

Nearly half of his head is red and burnt, and he'll have to wear thick bandages over his hand and arm for at least a month.

He'll be scarred physically for life, but he claims to have already put the attack behind him.

"Of course this scared me, but I'm pretty much over it," Lemmon said. "I'm not going to change the way I do things, although I am going to be a little more cautious, and try not to be out and about by myself at night."

Lemmon claims Eugene as his hometown, but says he's grown tired of the area. He's been saving money earned from odd jobs and panhandling for months and hopes to soon buy a vehicle and move to Texas to live with family.

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