Suspicious death, fires near Ashland

Firefighters discovered a badly burned body in one of two cabins destroyed by separate fires along Dead Indian Memorial Road early Thursday.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters called the death and pair of fires suspicious, but he and other investigators remained tight-lipped about the case.

Details about the causes of the fires and the identity of the dead man will take time to confirm, he said.

However, friends and family suspect the victim is David Edwin Lewis, a 46-year-old father of three who lived alone at one of the hilltop cabins lost in the fires. The other was a summer home only occupied on weekends, neighbors and authorities said.

A driver on Dead Indian Memorial Road spotted and reported the first fire near the intersection with Keno Access Road just before 3 a.m., said Gene Davies, chief of the all-volunteer Greensprings Fire and Rescue. A crew of six volunteers found the small, rustic cabin at 18196 Dead Indian Memorial Road engulfed in flames, he said. Oregon Department of Forestry firefighters joined the fight against the flames. Crews used three water tanker trucks and a portable water pond to douse the flames, but the weekend retreat burned to the ground.

At about 4 a.m., 9-1-1 calls from the Ashland Mine Road area reported seeing flames on the hillside across the valley, Jackson County Fire District No. 5 Chief Dan Marshall said. As district trucks headed up from the valley below, crews from the earlier fire roughly five miles down the road spotted the flames shooting into the sky and were the first to arrive at the burning cabin, he said.

"The fire had burned undetected for a long time," Marshall said. "It was on the ground when crews arrived."

Only a concrete chimney protruded from the rubble of the rustic wood home with a loft as investigators worked Thursday morning.

After quelling the flames, which licked to the tops of neighboring trees but didn't spread into the forest, firefighters discovered the body and contacted the sheriff's department, Marshall said.

Winters said the two fires in the rural neighborhood had already garnered his department's attention as suspicious.

The Sheriff's Department, Oregon State Police, the state Fire Marshal's Office and District 5 all had investigators at the scenes of both fires throughout Thursday. Winters said a thorough investigation will take time to uncover exactly what happened.

"These things aren't solved overnight," he said.

He noted that the utter devastation of the burned buildings will make it challenging to find evidence, but the multi-agency team will tackle the job. Until details emerge, the fire and deaths must be considered suspicious, he said.

Jackson County Deputy Medical Examiner Tim Pike said the body was badly burned, but an autopsy to positively identify the victim and look for a cause of death was set tentatively for late Thursday or this morning.

In Palmer, Alaska, Linda Lewis Miller, David Lewis' sister, anxiously awaited word from authorities. She said her brother, a welder who rented and served as caretaker of the rural property overlooking the Rogue Valley, was a meticulous man who carefully maintained the home's appliances, smoke detectors and wood stove. She said she doubted that the fire was an accident or suicide, especially in light of the other fire nearby.

"It's just too coincidental," she said. "It makes me sad."

She said Lewis was an outspoken man who could have made enemies. He'd gone through an acrimonious divorce in 1999, followed by a string of misdemeanor assault and harassment convictions. He had a decades-old felony conviction for growing marijuana, which prevented him from keeping a firearm for protection, Miller said.

However, she said, he had since gotten his life on track.

He loved politics and almost certainly would have tuned in on television to watch Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin accept the historic nomination as the Republican's first female vice presidential candidate, his sister said.

He was an avid fisherman, nicknamed Fish Hook for his ability to catch a fish wherever he dropped a line, a good cook, and a devoted father, she said.

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