Teens Behind TN Wildfires that Killed 14 Likely to be Tried as Adults

2014 wildfire in Washington state

Local authorities in Gatlinburg said they charged the two teens that allegedly started several wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains’ Chimney Tops area two weeks ago. The fires’ death toll climbed to 14 while over 130 people suffered injuries.

Prosecution recently filed criminal charges of aggravated arson and said the pair could be tried as adults. Moreover, the adolescents, who are detained at Sevier County Juvenile Detention Center, may face additional charges.

Arson Cases Very Hard to Prove

Later this week, a court would decide on requests for bond. Officials at Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said they worked ‘tirelessly’ to get to the bottom of the case. The TBI added there were countless hours of investigation and interviews, and the bureau analyzed the wildfires from ‘every angle.’

Knoxville attorney Bob Jolley explained the investigators’ main objective is to prove that the duo deliberately set property on fire and that the fire inflicted serious bodily harm. Jolly added that pure arson cases are extremely rare and just as hard to prosecute.

Investigators need an eye-witness who is either willing to give a witness account or make a statement. The Knoxville attorney also noted that it is extremely rare for juveniles to face trial as adults. In addition, they need to be over 16 years old or suspect of certain offenses if they’re under 15. Before moving the case to an adult criminal court, officials must analyze proof of the offense, see if there are any mental health problems, or whether the community demands the transfer.

Jolly stated that the last circumstance is the easiest to prove. In the meantime, a judge will take into account other factors before approving the teens to face trial as adults. He will analyze the juvenile record of the two and whether a juvenile court would give them better treatment than an adult one.

On Wednesday, authorities said the two teens will be able to request a detention hearing over the next 72 hours. In the hearing, a juvenile court judge will rule on the bond request.

Gatlinburg Residents Glad to See Life Return to Normal

The mayor of the city of Gatlinburg, Mike Werner, said the news that two adolescents are locked and charged with arson is ‘heartbreaking.’

Pigeon Forge Fire Department chief Tony Watson who has a 16-year-old child wondered about the future of the two teens if authorities bring more charges against them. Additional charges could stem from the deaths and injuries fires caused to people.

Watson who has an extensive experience with wildfires in Eastern Tennessee said that “a lot” of similar incidents involved humans. However, proving that poses many difficulties, Watson acknowledged.

The arrests, on the other hand, are  reassuring signs for many residents in Gatlinburg that life is getting back to normal. One family lost both their home and their 3-decade-old business in the fires.

Local officials pledged to improve the local codes and warning system against wildfires in the future.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park fire started Nov. 23. Officials initially said a ‘human-cause’ triggered it but they filed no charges until this week. Strong winds fueled the blaze which reached the inhabited areas in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg cities. The fire damaged about 1,780 structures, killed 14 people, and harmed dozens more. Authorities displaced thousands of people.
Image Source: Climatecentral