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U.S. Will Not Prosecute Fire Starter

Law: Criminal intent is lacking in the case of lost woman who set a bush ablaze, leading to a huge wildfire, official says.

July 19, 2002|From Associated Press

HEBER-OVERGAARD, Ariz. — Federal authorities won't prosecute a woman who set a signal fire that exploded and merged with another blaze to form the largest wildfire in state history, Arizona's federal prosecutor said Thursday.

U.S. Atty. Paul K. Charlton said there was insufficient evidence of criminal intent on Valinda Elliott's part. He said the facts would have supported a defense that she acted out of necessity.

"A reasonable person could have expected this fire to remain contained," Charlton said.

Residents attending Charlton's news conference in a school gymnasium booed the announcement and shouted, "No!" A man threw a charred log onto the floor and was taken away by police.

Elliott, 31, a Phoenix resident, said she had been lost for two nights on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in eastern Arizona when she set fire to a small bush June 20 in an attempt to signal a news helicopter, which rescued her.

The fire she started, named the Chediski fire, eventually merged with another called the Rodeo fire. The combined inferno destroyed at least 467 homes, scorched nearly 469,000 acres and forced about 30,000 people to flee their homes before it was contained earlier this month.

"If there was some other way I could have gotten that helicopter's attention, I would have used it," Elliott had said previously.

Calls to Elliott's attorney, David Michael Cantor, and her home weren't immediately returned. The Arizona Republic reported on its Web site that Elliott left Phoenix on Thursday for a media interview in New York.

Authorities said the Rodeo fire was started by Leonard Gregg, 29, who pleaded not guilty to federal charges July 3 and awaits trial. Gregg, a part-time firefighter and resident of the economically depressed reservation, set fire to dry grass in hopes of earning $8 an hour as part of a fire crew, according to court documents.

His arrest touched a nerve on the reservation, where some officials said Gregg was being singled out while Elliott remained free.

Reno Johnson, chief of staff for the chairman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, said most tribal members would feel disappointed by the decision.

He called it unfair to charge a tribal member in the Rodeo fire while declining to prosecute the white woman who set the Chediski fire.

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