Prosecutors drop state charges against juveniles accused of starting deadly Gatlinburg wildfires
Attorney Greg Isaacs told Local 8 News that state charges have been dropped against two juveniles accused of starting the 2016 Gatlinburg wildfires. The wildfires were labeled as the state's largest and deadliest wildfire in the last century. The firestorms started in an area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park called the Chimney Tops on November 23. TEMA reports that 14,000 people evacuated Sevier County on November 28.
According to Isaacs, 4th Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn filed the order dismissing the charges.
The investigation led by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation with the assistance of the National Park Service and local law enforcement is complete. Officials said the investigation consisted of thousands of investigative hours, over 100 witness and expert interviews, and thousands of pages of documents, recordings and images.
Sevier County and Gatlinburg issued a joint statement: "Sevier County and Gatlinburg 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."
Investigators said the State is unable to prove the criminal responsibility of two juveniles beyond a reasonable doubt for the devastation that happened outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park due to the high wind speeds that spread the Chimney Tops II fire from the Great Smoky Mountains to Gatlinburg and parts of Sevier County.
Authorities told Local 8 News the minors could still face federal charges even though the state charges have been dropped.
The National Park Service Investigative Services Branch released the following statement to Local 8 News: "The National Park Service Investigative Services Branch will continue to work with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. As the next step, the National Park Service will present the case to the US Attorney’s office."
The US Attorney's Office released the following statement to Local 8 News: "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."
The Gatlinburg wildfires killed 14 people and damaged thousands of structures. Many wildfire victims have since expressed concern about a lack of information regarding the two juveniles that were originally charged with aggravated arson on December 7, 2016, for their roles in allegedly starting the November 2016 wildfires.
At a press conference Friday, Attorney Greg Isaacs described the case as one the most complex juvenile prosecutions in the state of Tennessee. Isaacs apparently without doubt said, "My client and the other juvenile based on the proof and evidence did not cause the death and devastation in Gatlinburg period."
Isaacs also expressed his belief that the November 23 Chimney Top Fires did not cause the Gatlinburg fires. "People aren't looking for scapegoats, they're looking for answers. This is the beginning of answering questions that need to be answered." He continued, "Hopefully this will be a step towards finding answers, healing, and closure."
Chimney Tops II fire starts
Spot fires from Chimney Tops II fire spreads outside the containment area
During the day, smoke fills downtown Gatlinburg and winds pick up; At night, a few mandatory evacuation issues are ordered, with door-to-door evacuations in some areas. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park closes. Families flee their homes.
Shelters are set up, where people remain for more than a week.
Officials begin to name victims who lost their lives in the wildfires.
Four days after evacuations, families are able to drive past the Gatlinburg checkpoint to visit their homes.
Officials announce two juveniles are responsible for wildfires.
City of Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park re-open, though several spots within the park are still closed.
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters says all fires have been extinguished, both in cities and in the park.
Local 8 News reports more than 100 people are filing a lawsuit against the National Parks Service regarding the wildfires.
Karyssa Steele, granddaughter of Pam Johnson, who passed away from the fires, said she was still trying to process the news that the charges had been dropped Friday.
"My reaction? I lost it, broke down in tears and I'm still trying to calm myself," she said in a statement to Local 8 News. "Still trying to process all of this! It's very heartbreaking not being able to have justice, to know that these teens are getting away with this. They can't even imagine what it was like for everyone to go through this tragedy. People lost their homes, but more importantly people lost their lives. The fear of fire that we all still have. I'll never look at fire again the same. There will always be this emptiness inside me, because I lost not only my Nana but she was also my best friend. I was able to get some closure, but after hearing all the charges have been dropped makes me angry. I just hope something like this never happens again."
May Vance of Gatlinburg died of a heart attack in the wildfires. Her husband, Jimmy, talked to Local 8 News:
"We are now seven months down the road and my family is no closer to knowing why we were not warned to leave the mountain and who or what caused the fires that killed my beloved wife of 53 years. If the government has evidence that the fires were caused by another source, it should be disclosed immediately. May was a loving wife, mother, and grandmother and we miss her deeply."