At the federal district court today in Spokane, Washington, Ellreese Daniels plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges of making false statements to investigators. The federal prosecutors dropped the four federal felony charges of involuntary manslaughter related to the deaths of the four firefighters on the Thirtymile fire near Winthrop, Washington in 2001.
In addition to the four involuntary manslaughter charges, Daniels had been charged with seven counts of making false statements to investigators, a federal misdemeanor.
Daniels could have faced as much as six years in prison for each of the four manslaughter charges. Now he faces up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine for each of the two remaining misdemeanors, although the standard range is much less.
Sentencing was set for
July 23 August 18. Yesterday in an email, Daniels’ attorney, Tina Hunt, said she expected there to be a “contested sentencing hearing”.
I have mixed feelings about the plea agreement. The procedure today means that Daniels will not have to serve lengthy jail time for the felony charges, he will not have a felony conviction on his record, he probably will not lose his job with the US Forest Service, and he will not lose his retirement.
His attorney said that the defense had a strong case. This is also indicated by the fact that the federal prosecutors dropped all of the felony charges and five of the seven misdemeanor charges in return for the guilty pleas on the two misdemeanors.
If I had been in Daniels’ shoes, I may have done the same thing. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to be facing those four felony charges, serious prison time, and the loss of the job and his retirement.
Looking at the larger picture, and from a selfish perspective, this is a mixed blessing for the fire community. It would have been better for firefighters if all of the charges had been dropped, or if they had been thrown out or defeated in court.
But perhaps the next over-zealous prosecutor seeking to to beef up their resume will be less inclined to throw around ridiculous felony charges when someone makes an honest mistake on a fire.
The International Association of Wildland Fire documented with their survey the fact that many firefighters were very concerned about the harmful effects these charges would have on the fire community. In the survey, 36% said they would make themselves less available for fire assignments because of the charges that were filed against Daniels.
Making an honest mistake on a fire should not have the potential to ruin your life and the life of your family.
Photo of Ellreese Daniels courtesy of the Spokesman-Review