As Paul K Charlton, the US attorney for Arizona, prepared to announce that he was not going to file criminal charges in the catastrophic “Chediski” fire, Overgaard resident Steve Lillie entered the gymnasium toting a charred pine log.
“I had 12 acres I was building a resort on,” Lillie said, “and this is what’s left. … There’s no accountability. No remorse. Nothing.”
When Charlton took the microphone and said, “Our decision — my decision — is not to prosecute,” Lillie, 44, stood and hurled the burned log near the half-court line, where it crashed and broke in two. “And there’s my decision!” he yelled. “You want to take me? Go ahead. That’s my life right there.”
Lillie’s was the most radical reaction to news that no criminal charges will be brought against Valinda Jo Elliott, the stranded woman who set a signal fire that merged into the biggest fire in Arizona history.
Charlton told a crowd of about 300 at Mogollon High School that Elliott did not act with criminal intent and that there is no chance a jury would convict her of arson, given the facts. Charlton said investigators spent the past month interviewing witnesses, checking cellphone logs and following other leads to confirm every detail of the account.
If anything, Charlton said, the evidence supports defense claims that Elliott’s signal fire was necessary to alert rescuers and save her own life after being lost three days in the woods.
The decision infuriated White Mountain residents who were burned out by the last month’s “Rodeo-Chediski” fire, and Apaches concerned about unequal justice because charges were filed against a tribal member who set the Rodeo half of the blaze.
Tribe may arrest her
In Whiteriver, White Mountain Apache Tribal Chairman Dallas Massey Sr. said the tribe likely will issue an arrest warrant for Elliott, possibly as early as today.
“We have a number of violations here — arson, trespassing, not respecting a closure order and possibly violating some of our game and fish statutes,” Massey said. “Nothing that the U.S. Attorney decided to do has altered our aggressive pursuit of this matter.
“Even if they weren’t sure they would have gotten a conviction, it would have been a nice gesture to all affected to try.”
It was a sentiment shared by those who attended Charlton’s press conference.
As Lillie was handcuffed and hustled outside by Navajo County Sheriff’s deputies, most of the audience booed and yelled derisively. About half the crowd stormed out of the gym in protest, unwilling to hear Charlton’s explanation.
“You take him away, but you won’t do anything to this woman who ruined so many of our lives,” yelled Carla Emmert of Overgaard.
“This is just ridiculous,” agreed Dan Caivano of Heber, chiding the deputies who arrested Lillie for disorderly conduct. “Who’s going to follow any laws around here if you’re not doing anything to her?”
Elliott was not available for comment Thursday. She and attorney David Michael Cantor flew to New York City to appear today on CBS’ The Early Show, which airs at 7 a.m. on Channel 5 (KPHO), the station whose helicopter crew rescued her.
“When Miss Elliott started the fire, she did what any reasonable person would do after being stranded for three days with no food or water,” her attorney said. “She feels bad for people who lost their homes.”
In Heber, Charlton told the crowd that investigators had confirmed every detail in the misadventures of Elliott and her employer, Ransford Olmsted, who got lost while driving to Young on a business trip.
On June 18, he said, they took a series of wrong turns and wound up out of gas on backroads in a closed section of the Indian reservation.
After spending a night together in Olmsted’s truck, Elliott climbed Chediski Peak in hopes that she could get a signal on her cellphone to call for help. Wearing flip-flops and a tank top, she became lost while trying to return to the truck and spent a night alone, sleeping on a flat rock after being frightened by a bear. The next day, Elliott set a fire to attract a nearby news helicopter, which was in the area to cover the Rodeo fire, which had been set a day earlier.
When Elliott was rescued, Charlton said, she expressed concern about the signal blaze, and was told by the helicopter crew that it would be extinguished. Charlton then showed a photograph taken two hours after the fire was set, showing that it smoldered meekly in a sparsely forested area. “A reasonable person could have expected this fire to remain contained,” he said.
But it soon exploded and joined the Rodeo fire to burn more than 468,000 acres and destroy 491 structures. The blaze cost more than $43 million to fight and forced the evacuation of about 30,000 people.
Helen Grand of Pinecrest Estates, one of nearly 200 people who lost homes in the Overgaard subdivision, was critical of Charlton.
“He does nothing, she walks away scot-free and our insurance company won’t have anything to do with us,” Grand said. “Boy, life is just wonderful these days.”
Grand’s husband, Ray, said Elliott “should be brought up here by the police and have her nose stuck in every pile of ashes she’s responsible for.”
Elliott’s fate sparked intense political debate because Leonard Gregg, 29, an Apache firefighter from Cibecue, has been indicted for setting the Rodeo fire to get work. Gregg, who made a public apology, is in Maricopa County Jail.
Some Native Americans have speculated that race was a motivating factor behind Gregg’s arrest.
Debora Euler-Ajayi, Gregg’s attorney, said: “This decision allows the tribe to bear the full brunt of the fire without acknowledging their loss. It gives them an example of White man’s justice. I expect the tribal reaction to be very strong and very unhappy.”
Federal officials have denied racism charges.Charlton met with tribal officials as well as community leaders from the Heber-Show Low area on Thursday before making the public announcement. But his private sessions apparently did not calm the passions.
“I still can’t believe that they’re doing nothing about her and a member of my tribe is looking at 10 years and a $500,000 fine,” said Waynella Collelay, who was selling tacos and frybread in Whiteriver Thursday afternoon. Boss defends Elliott Olmsted, a New River businessman who took Elliott on the ill-fated trip, expressed sympathy for the fire victims. However, he defended Elliott and praised the government for dropping the case.
“They made the right decision because we were out there innocent and we were lost and facing our lives,” he said.
But some residents don’t see it that way. They complained bitterly that Elliott never expressed sorrow, and now appears to be capitalizing on her fame with a TV appearance.
Mell Epps, the fire chief in Heber-Overgaard, said many believe Elliott should be brought to trial so there is closure, but he disagrees.
“I think we have a majority of survivors here, and I think they’re going to rally and be just fine,” he said. “We took a hit. We got wounded, but not killed.”