Cause of Deadly Medford Apartment Fire Remains a Mystery

A fire at the Cedar Tree apartment complex caused the death of one family's little girl, but investigators say they still don't know for certain what caused it.

Posted: Feb. 14, 2019 5:27 PM
Updated: Feb. 14, 2019 5:47 PM

MEDFORD, Ore. — The cause of a devastating apartment fire in Medford during the first few days of November remains unknown, City of Medford Emergency Manager Melissa Cano revealed on Thursday.

"After months of investigating, Medford Fire-Rescue (MFR) has deemed the cause of the Cedar Tree Apartment Fire to be undetermined, barring any new information," Cano said in a statement.

The fire broke out around 5:30 a.m. on the morning of November 2 in the Cedar Tree apartments at 2300 E Barnett Road in Medford. Several families, including young children, were forced to evacuate with the aid of firefighters as the flames spread.

Two young girls, 3-year-old Amelia and a 5-year-old Olivia Chapman, were injured in the fire. Olivia later died in the hospital from burns she sustained.

Investigators believed that the fire's cause had something to do with a mystery surrounding 53-year-old Tonya Johnson, the woman who lived adjacent to the Chapmans.

"You may remember, while the firefight was taking place, Medford Police Department (MPD) was not only blocking a stretch of East Barnett Road for emergency vehicles, but assisting with a search for an unaccounted for resident in the initial burning unit," Cano said. "Detectives ultimately determined the female had been in a serious auto vs. pedestrian crash on South Pacific Highway in Medford the previous evening."

The woman who had been hit in that crash was Johnson. She was in the hospital with serious injuries when the fire broke out — originating, investigators thought, from her apartment.

"While her potential connection to the fire was initially under investigation, Detectives waited for her to recover before conducting an interview," Cano said.

It wasn't until January 14, when Johnson had sufficiently recovered from her injuries, that a Medford Police detective and a Medford Fire investigator spoke with her. But according to Cano, Johnson could not recall "any events pertaining to neither the motor vehicle accident, nor the fire that occurred at her apartment."

With no further information to go on, Medford Police has suspended its investigation.

"While Fire Investigators have been able to determine that the fire originated in the front room of Johnson’s apartment, the ignition source remains unclear as there were multiple possible causes within the room," Cano said. "Fire Investigators need to be able to eliminate all other ignition sources, without a doubt, in order to deem a specific cause to an investigation."

Anyone with new information pertaining to the fire is asked to contact the Criminal Investigations Division of the Medford Police Department at (541) 774-2230.

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