Arson charges dropped against teens in Gatlinburg wildfire

GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 30: The remains of a home smolder in the wake of a wildfire November 30, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed. Drought conditions and high winds helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

The prosecution dropped all charges Friday against two juveniles who were accused of starting last year’s deadly wildfires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Instead, District Attorney James Dunn said the “unprecedented, unexpected and unforeseeable wind” was the primary reason a fire at Chimney Tops II, an area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, spread outside the park into nearby Gatlinburg.

“But for the winds that reached speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour, it is highly unlikely and improbable that the Chimney Tops II fire would have left the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and reached Gatlinburg,” District Attorney James Dunn said in a statement.

The massive Gatlinburg wildfires, which began in November, caused the deaths of 14 people, injured 175 others and destroyed homes and towns all around eastern Tennessee.

Damage was estimated at more than $500 million, according to Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters.

‘Multiple fires with multiple points of origin’

Prosecutors arrested two juveniles on December 7 and charged them with aggravated arson, and they threatened the possibility of more charges down the line.

“Everything is on the table,” Dunn said at the time.

However, a comprehensive review of the evidence — including more than 100 witnesses, expert reports and thousands of pages of documents — failed to establish a clear link between the juveniles’ acts in the national park and the destructive Gatlinburg fires, Dunn said in his statement.

Along with the wind, multiple downed power lines caused other ignition points in the Gatlinburg area, complicating the case.

“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,” Dunn said.

Given that the evidence did not prove the juveniles’ acts spread outside the park, Dunn forwarded the case to federal authorities, who have jurisdiction over potentially criminal acts in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Dana Soehn, spokeswoman for the park, said the National Park Service will present the case to the US attorney’s office.

Greg Isaacs, an attorney for one of the accused youths, said that prosecutors initially engaged in an “unfortunate rush to judgment” in levying aggravated arson charges.

“My client and the other juvenile, based on the proof and the evidence, did not cause the death and devastation in Gatlinburg. Period,” he said.

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