John Day resident Brandon Cross remembered crawling on his belly to search the burning Pilot Rock home for anyone in danger. He said he spent a few frantic moments inside the house before the overwhelming heat and flames forced him to retreat.
“It burned the hair off the back of my head,” said Cross.
Pilot Rock Police Chief William Caldera in a written statement reported firefighters found the body of Larry Eugene Castro, 72, just inside the front door of his home at 439 S.W. Birch Place off Highway 395 in the small town.
Caldera also reported police arrested Angela Marie Fix, 40, of 522 S.W. Birch Place, for first-degree arson.
Cross and his girlfriend were returning to John Day after attending the Pendleton Whisky Music Fest when they saw smoke coming from the home Sunday around 1:45 a.m. Their day of fun, he said, turned into a nightmare.
“As soon as I seen the house was on fire, I started beating on the door,” Cross said, while his girlfriend called 9-1-1.
A lamp was still on in the living room, so he figured someone was home, but no one responded. Cross said he broke in.
Furniture and walls were ablaze, he said, and thick smoke hovered a mere eight inches off the floor.
“I was on my stomach crawling through the house,” he said.
Without a flashlight he relied on the flames to see. Cross said he was inside maybe a minute, though it felt like an hour, and he saw no body. Then he had to get out.
Cross said he ran to the back and spotted an open bedroom window.
“There was a teddy bear right there, and I thought there was children in the house,” he said, so he broke in through the window.
Cross said he checked in and under the bed and again found no one. But he was not done.
Smoke billowed into a small house nearby. Again he pounded on a door, and again no one answered. Cross said he forced his way in, found the lone occupant still in bed and woke him with black smoke was filling the home.
“I told him you need to get out of here and get out of here now,” Cross stated.
Together, he said, they hustled a lawnmower and gas cans out of the yard and used a hose to hold off flames creeping over dry grass in the yard.
The Pilot Rock Rural Fire Protection District and the Pilot Rock Police Department responded to the fire, along with the Pendleton Fire Department.
“The first fire units on scene found the house fully engulfed,” according to Caldera’s statement.
Once firefighters gained control of the blaze, he reported, they found the body just inside the front door.
Pilot Rock police secured the scene and received assistance with the investigation from Pendleton police, Oregon State Police Arson Unit, the state fire marshal’s office, the Umatilla County medical examiner and the district attorney’s office.
Witness statements, evidence at the scene and other leads, according to Caldera, led police on Sunday at 9:32 a.m. to arrest Fix for first-degree arson and book her into the Umatilla County Jail, Pendleton.
Castro’s neighbors described him as quiet and pleasant. They said after his wife died about four years ago he didn’t leave the one-story home.
Neighbors also said Castro’s garage caught fire a few weeks ago, and some questioned if Fix was involved in that.
Oregon Circuit Court records show Fix has multiple criminal convictions dating back to 2011 for methamphetamine possession and failure to appear. Arson is the most severe charge she has faced.
Castro’s daughter, Laurie Sammons, and her boyfriend, Zion Jacobson, came from their place in Canyon City to salvage what they could at the Pilot Rock home. Jacobson said they found some photographs and other memorabilia that helped ease the pain, but they wanted answers.
“For closure, it would be nice to know more,” he said, but he understood the police were still investigating.
Castro hailed from California and worked for the Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, Sammons said, and transfered years ago to the mill in Pilot Rock, which the company owned at the time. He was retired for a number of years, his daughter said. She was the only of his four children to live in Oregon. The rest are in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Sammons said she had last spoke to her father about four months ago and wondered about his relationship with Fix. She said one neighbor told her he urged her father to break ties with Fix, but he would not because she had nothing to rely on.
“My dad was just a very loving person and would help anyone he could,” she said.
Caldera asked anyone with information about the case to call the local dispatch center at 541-966-3651. He stated the investigation is ongoing and referred questions to the district attorney’s office.