Citing Unpredictable Winds, State Drops Charges Against Two Juveniles In Gatlinburg Wildfire

Jun 30, 2017

Blame the winds for the destructive wildfire that killed 14 people in Gatlinburg last fall.

That's according to the district attorney in Sevier County, who announced Friday that he has dropped charges against the two juveniles suspected of starting a fire in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

The case was complicated by the fact that the original fire, called Chimney Tops II, started inside the national park. DA Jimmy Dunn said that, after some confusion, the Tennessee and U.S. attorney's offices decided it fell under federal jurisdiction, meaning he could not prosecute the suspects unless he could prove "that at least one element of criminal offense occurred outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park."

Dunn's investigation found that a fire did start in the park on Nov. 23. But the Chimney Tops II fire jumped over to Gatlinburg four days later, and it wouldn't have done so without the unexpected, high-speed winds that occurred, he wrote in a statement.

Dunn also noted the winds took down power lines, which caused other fires — making it "impossible to prove which fire may have caused the death of an individual or damage to a particular structure."

Therefore, he said, he can't prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that actions of the two juveniles led to the devastation in the mountain town of Gatlinburg.

"Based upon these findings," Dunn wrote, "the state has no other option but to dismiss the charges pending in state court."

However, if the Dept. of Justice believes the two juveniles committed a crime within the park's limits, federal charges can still be brought against them. 

Greg Isaacs, the attorney for one of the boys involved, defended his client at a press conference Friday and told reporters that people in Gatlinburg should not feel frustrated by the decision.

"I think people aren't looking for scapegoats, I think they're looking for answers. And I think this is the beginning of answering questions that need to be answered — how this fire started, why it couldn't be stopped, etc.," he said.

Those answers have already been in the works for several months: The National Park Service is expected to release a report in the coming weeks auditing the response to the deadly blaze.