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051819-adh-nws-Joel Reynolds

Joel Reynolds Jr.

A Lacomb-area man pleaded no contest to first-degree arson on Wednesday in connection with a chemical fire at the Lebanon Walmart in May that prompted evacuations and forced the store to close for nearly a week.

Joel Lee Reynolds, 50, is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 10 in Linn County Circuit Court.

During a brief hearing on Wednesday morning, defense attorney Erik Moeller said that he and the prosecution have reached an agreement under which Reynolds will serve seven-and-a-half years in prison. Judges aren’t bound to honor such negotiated settlements, but they almost always do so.

A second charge of first-degree arson is set to be dismissed at sentencing.

The crime occurred at about 12:45 p.m. on May 14 and no injuries were reported.

According to a probable cause affidavit in the case, a witness told authorities that Reynolds mixed brake fluid with pool chemicals inside the store. Those substances can be highly flammable when mixed, according to a Lebanon Fire District official who assisted investigators.

The witness, who was waiting for a friend outside Walmart, said that as Reynolds left the business, he told her the store would be “up in smoke” and police would arrive soon.

Later, Reynolds showed the witness a video on his cellular phone where chemicals were mixed and subsequently caught on fire, according to the affidavit.

Another witness told police that Reynolds had talked about wanting to set a fire at the Lebanon Walmart because he was upset with the store, court paperwork states.

In 2018, Reynolds had been trespassed the store after a theft arrest, according to the Lebanon Police Department. He was convicted in Lebanon Municipal Court of third-degree theft, a prosecutor said in a previous hearing.

Reynolds essentially admitted to causing the fire, but told investigators it was accidental, according to the affidavit. He said that he put a leaking bottle of brake fluid on a shelf with chlorine and the bottle tipped over.

“He told us that he then walked away from the area where the fire was, and as he was walking away he had a bad feeling that something bad was going to happen, and he admitted that he knew the bad thing was going to be the combustion of the two materials he just mixed,” an investigator wrote.

Toxic smoke contaminated a large portion of the Lebanon Walmart. According to the affidavit, the smoke was so thick that Lebanon firefighters couldn’t see inside the store without using thermal imaging cameras. Contamination levels were so high that police had to wait two hours to enter the store for their investigation.

About 100 employees and numerous customers were inside the store when the fire occurred, according to authorities.

Nearby businesses and several other streets also were closed due to toxic smoke the day of the fire.

In August, Reynolds posted $10,000 of his $100,000 security to be released from the Linn County Jail. He had been scheduled for a one-day trial in November.

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Kyle Odegard can be contacted at 541-812-6077 or kyle.odegard@lee.net.

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