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Park district security officer charged in serial arson case


John Townsend, 24, is accused of starting five fires on THPRD property last spring

Note: This story has been updated with additional details

SUBMITTED PHOTO - One of the empty houses set ablaze last spring on Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District property.TOWNSENDIt turned out that someone who was supposed to be protecting Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District properties was actually setting them on fire, according to investigators.

Washington County Sheriff's detectives on Dec. 31 arrested 24-year-old John Michael Townsend on five counts of first-degree arson for allegedly setting five fires at two locations last spring.

Townsend worked as a park patrol security officer at the time all the fires were set.

"Why he did this we don't know and may not ever know," Sheriff's spokesman Bob Ray said Thursday evening. "It's just kind of a disturbing case."

Detectives teamed up with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue deputy fire marshals to identify Townsend as the person who intentionally started the fires using road flares, according to Ray.

All of the fires were set in unoccupied homes on property the park district owned for future park development.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - A surveillance camera captured this image of the suspect, whose pockets are full of road flares that investigators say were used to start five fires at two locations.Fires were first set at 4950 N.W. Saltzman Road on April 22, 23 and 29. Additional fires were set at 20 N.W. 114th Ave. on May 19 and 20.

Sheriff's and TVF&R investigators identified Townsend as a potential suspect months ago and then continued to work the case; they presented their evidence to a Washington County grand jury on Dec. 29 and jurors returned an indictment, Ray said.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Jeff Lesowski said the secret indictment process does not allow him to release further details, including what led investigators to Townsend.

Bob Wayt, spokesman for the park district, provided the following statement:

"Obviously, we are deeply concerned by this turn of events. We employ several hundred people at the park district who conduct themselves in a professional, law-abiding manner every day. This should not be seen as a reflection on them, nor does it suggest anything about Park Patrol. Our Park Patrol employees work hard to ensure safety and security throughout the district, and that work continues."

Wayt noted that Townsend had passed a background check prior to his hiring two years ago. As an employee, he appears to have conducted himself well and had been commended for his work, Wayt added.

THPRD has suspended Townsend without pay, Wayt said.

Ray, the Sheriff's spokesman, noted that the park district's security staff is certified through the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training.

"THPRD does an excellent job," Ray added. "They're very topnotch people."

Townsend was arrested Dec. 31 at THPRD's Howard M. Terpenning Recreation Complex. He was lodged in Washington County Jail on $250,000 bail and arraigned on the charges Monday.

Townsend posted 10 percent of his bail amount ($25,000) and was released from custody Monday, according to jail records.

Townsend is represented by Whitney P. Boise, a prominent Portland attorney who has represented former Oregon First Lady Cylvia Hayes in an investigation into whether she illegally used her status as John Kitzhaber's fiancee for financial gain.

Detectives ask anyone with any information about this case to call the Washington County Sheriff's Office at 503-846-2500.