A unanimous jury on Thursday convicted Michael Charles McNall on charges he caused the dramatic explosion that destroyed his mountain home near Lost Creek Lake in 2016, then attempted to collect $300,000 on a renters insurance policy.
McNall, 50, was taken into custody immediately after he was sentenced to nearly three years in prison following a three-day trial in Jackson County Circuit Court. Judge David Orr prohibited a farewell hug between McNall and his wife, Karyl McNall, on grounds that she had attempted to take a firearm into the courthouse earlier this week.
“I don’t think that’d be a very good idea at all,” Orr said of the farewell.
The jury initially took less than 45 minutes to reach unanimous guilty verdicts on felony charges of first-degree arson and attempted aggravated first-degree theft; however, a juror’s clerical error related to damage from the arson sent the jury back to deliberations.
The jury spent another 10 to 15 minutes retreating to chambers and re-voting that the arson damage exceeded $50,000. McNall sighed, shook his head and frowned as he waited to find out whether he could postpone going into custody.
Orr determined McNall was a flight risk, based on McNall’s lawyer’s statements about cash and foreign currency that had been found in the demolished property.
John Kolego, McNall’s Eugene lawyer, had said in court that McNall had kept roughly $8,000 in the safe. Kolego argued that it wasn’t “consistent with someone experiencing financial difficulties.”
Kolego said it didn’t make sense for his client to have blown up a house appraised at $800,000 along with $700,000 worth of property — such as McNall’s Jeep Wrangler and Chevrolet Camaro with racing modifications, and “everything that meant something to him” — all in order to collect less than half that value worth of insurance.
Kolego described the prosecution’s statements that his client had been behind on his taxes as an attempt to “blacken” his character.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Alyssa Claseman, who prosecuted the case with Deputy District Attorney Melissa LeRitz, told the jury that mentioning McNall’s tax history was reasonable because McNall’s father, Charles McNall, had cosigned a mortgage on the home in 2005 to help his son pay back taxes.
In 2007, the mortgage moved to Charles McNall’s widow, Suzy McNall, who described her relationship with her stepson as “estranged.” Michael McNall stopped paying on the mortgage in about 2014, and Suzy McNall paid $55,000 to get the home out of foreclosure in February 2016.
An insurance investigator testified that McNall hadn’t paid taxes in about nine years at the time of the explosion.
“His dad’s not around to bail him out anymore,” Claseman said. “He had to come up with a different plan.”
Five experts involved in the fire investigation testified that the explosion started from an open ball valve in the garage that'd been connected to a 500-gallon propane tank, and a forensic engineer testified Wednesday it would've taken about 24 minutes to fill the 800-square-foot garage with enough fuel to create a combustible mixture. What ignited the explosion was never determined, but deputy state fire marshals and private fire investigators testified that the slightest electrical spark could've set off the explosion with roughly a quarter-acre blast radius.
McNall had made numerous public statements professing his innocence shortly after the explosion, but McNall never testified during the trial, nor did his attorney call any witnesses.
McNall previously told investigators and the Mail Tribune that he believed the explosion had been deliberately set for reasons involving documents related to Pacific Retirement Services.
A PRS lawyer testified Thursday that the company is involved in litigation with the McNalls, and that PRS issued a letter seeking files from McNall’s medical billing business on Oct. 14. The letter was dated one day before the McNalls reported a home invasion attack.
Claseman called it preposterous that a corporation would “send goons” one day after a formal letter, saying it “doesn’t seem like something any corporation would do.”
PRS has yet to respond to a lawsuit filed by the McNalls in U.S. District Court in San Francisco in 2016. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler extended a reply deadline to March 12.
Outside the courtroom, Suzy McNall recounted the day she heard the 4,569-square-foot home in her name was destroyed by an explosion.
“I sat in front of my computer for about 10 minutes dumbstruck,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Suzy McNall lives in a Southern California assisted-living home, and hasn’t been at the property since the explosion. She is, however, hoping to return to the property this spring or summer to sell it and put it behind her.
In front of Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert, Suzy McNall said she’s “very, very grateful” for the work prosecutors put into the case surrounding her property.
Heckert commended the work of Claseman and LeRitz, saying such cases require a lot of in-depth research to piece together, along with specialized knowledge.
“Arson cases are difficult cases to present,” Heckert said.
Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.