Prosecutors drop charges against juveniles in deadly Tennessee wildfire

GATLINBURG (WATE) — Prosecutors have dropped charges against the two boys that were initially labeled as being responsible for starting Tennessee’s largest and deadliest wildfire this century.

Fourth Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn said the charges were dropped because it is “highly unlikely and improbably that the Chimney Tops II fire would have left the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and reached Gatlinburg. Dunn said an investigation on the fire at Chimney Tops fire is now complete and because of weather conditions, prosecutors are unable to prove criminal responsibility of the two juveniles beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Once the investigation confirmed multiple fires with multiple points of origin, it became impossible to prove which fire may have caused the death of an individual or damage to a particular structure,” said Dunn. “Based upon this evidence, the State’s case was narrowed to prosecuting conduct that occurred wholly within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

Attorney Greg Isaacs, who represents one of the boys who was originally charged with arson, said during the course of investigating the case, it also came to his firm’s attention that the Sevier County Attorney General’s Office did not have legal jurisdiction to pursue a prosecution in the park.

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“This case appeared to be an unfortunate rush to judgement,” said Isaacs. “At the same point, at the end of the day, after reviewing hundreds of documents and a lot of interaction between the defense team and prosecutors they executed a lot of good judgement in agreeing to dismiss this case in its entirety today.”

(Photo: @GreatSmokyNPS/Twitter)

If there is concurrent criminal prosecution, Dunn says there has to be a memorandum of understanding between the federal government and Tennessee. He said there were questions about if that document existed and if the state could prosecute charges in the park.

One agreement between the state of Tennessee and the National Park Service lists the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as being part of a concurrent criminal jurisdiction agreement between the State of Tennessee and the National Park Service on behalf of the Federal Government. However, a second document is an exact duplicate of the first document, except it does not mention the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Based on the second document, the U.S. Attorney’s Office would have jurisdiction over the Chimney Tops fire, not the state of Tennessee.

U.S. Attorney Nancy Stallard Harr issued a statement saying, “the U.S. Attorney’s Office is in communication with the District Attorney General’s office. A review of the evidence in this case will have to take place in order to determine whether it is appropriate to seek approval from the Attorney General to prosecute juvenile offenders in federal court.”

“I don’t want to comment on what the U.S. Attorney’s Office may or may not do. I will say based on the memorandum of understanding that we have reviewed very careful, the U.S. Attorney’s Office would have jurisdiction over any criminal offense committed in the park,” said Isaacs. “Then again, if you read the statement by the Sevier County Attorney General’s Office clearly they acknowledged that the winds were a superseded cause and it would be very difficult if not impossible to prove that the conduct of the juveniles on Chimney Tops resulted in a significant judgement.

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Oh behalf of his client, Isaacs said thoughts and prayers are with victims of the Gatlinburg fire and anyone that lost a loved one or had a loved one injured or lost property or had an interruption of business

“I think people are not looking for scapegoats. People are looking for answers,” said Isaacs. “There is no evidence that the conduct of the juveniles caused the deaths and devastation.”

Courtesy: WATE/Report It/Chris Higgins

Sevier County and Gatlinburg issued a joint statement saying they are frustrated at how complex this issue has become.

“Sevier County and Gatlinburg, along with legal counsel, are moving forward with the process of reviewing and releasing the voluminous records requests, after giving the U.S. Attorney’s office an opportunity to review the case,” they said in a joint statement.