Arson charges dropped against teens in Gatlinburg wildfire case

KNOXVILLE — Prosecutors have dropped charges against two Tennessee teenagers they labeled as responsible for the state's deadliest wildfire in a century, an attorney confirmed Friday.

Defense attorney Gregory P. Isaacs said the state can't prove that the horseplay of the boys, ages 17 and 15, that sparked a fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park caused the deadly wildfires in Gatlinburg, Tenn., five days later.

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"My client and the other juvenile, based on the proof and the evidence, did not cause the death and devastation in Gatlinburg," Isaacs said during an afternoon news conference inside his in downtown Knoxville law office.

Isaacs called the case "an unfortunate rush to judgment" on the two teens.

RELATED: 2 teens arrested in Tennessee wildfires, officials say

Isaacs, who represents the younger boy, added that state prosecutors didn't have the authority to charge the pair in the first place.

The boys were hiking on the Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Nov. 23 and tossing lit matches onto the ground around the trail. Brush caught fire. The boys continued hiking down the trail. A fellow hiker with a Go-Pro happened to catch footage of them with smoke in the background. He didn’t know it was important.

Park officials decided to let the fire burn. Five days later, winds of nearly 90 mph whipped up, spreading deadly flames into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. The emergency response was fretted with flaws, including the failure to warn residents and delayed evacuations. The fire would eventually encompass more than 17,000 acres, or 26.6 square miles, killing 14 people, hurt nearly 200 more and burn more than 2,400 buildings — at the height of Sevier County’s winter tourism season.

"Our firm’s independent investigation revealed (what happened on the Chimney Tops trail) did not cause the Gatlinburg fires beyond a reasonable doubt," Isaacs said. "We want everyone to know that our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of the Gatlinburg fire... anyone that lost property or an interruption of business.

"Even though these charges were dismissed ... the identity and location of these two juveniles remains confidential," Isaacs said.

Issacs called his client, who he referred to as John Doe No. 2, a fine man from a fine family.

"A very nice, well-mannered young man, very well-spoken. And his mother is very grateful and very tearful," he said.

Jimmy Dunn, fourth Judicial District attorney general, and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn announced the arrest of the boys in December on charges of aggravated arson, accusing them of setting the fatal wildfire.

In an exclusive story published days after the charges were filed the hiker with the Go-Pro realized in the days after the deadly fires that he may have captured images of the beginning of the Chimney Tops blaze. He alerted authorities. At least one of the boys was wearing an Anderson County High School shirt, the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel reported.

But Dunn's office couldn't connect the evidentiary dots between the boys' setting of the Chimney Tops fire and the deadly fires five days later, Isaacs said.

If park officials had ordered the Chimney Tops flames doused, there would have been no fire to spread. Even if they hadn’t, no one, including the boys, could be expected to predict rogue, freakishly furious winds five days later. It’s known as “intervening causes” under the law and makes it all but impossible to prove the boys intended or even knew death would result from their match flicking, Isaacs said.

The only thing the boys could be prosecuted for was setting a fire in the park.

Isaacs said Dunn and Gwyn had not jurisdiction over crimes committed in the park.

The federal government owns national parks, and only federal officials have authority to prosecute crimes committed on federal land. In 1997, the director of the National Park Service and then-Gov. Don Sundquist reached an agreement giving local and state authorities the legal right to also prosecute cases within federal lands in Tennessee.

The News Sentinel obtained documents showing the 1997 agreement left out the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Five years later, someone took that agreement, added the park and filed it with the Secretary of State. But whoever made that change did not get approval or otherwise notify the National Park Service or the Tennessee governor’s office. Without that approval and new signatures, the agreement adding the park and filed in 2002 is not legally valid.

That means only the U.S. Attorney’s Office could prosecute the boys in the Chimney Tops fire.

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.

"It's time to move in this chapter of the Gatlinburg fires," Isaac said at the conclusion of Friday's news conference.

Follow Jamie Satterfield on Twitter: @jamiescoop

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