Ellreese Daniels' sentencing – a perspective from inside the courtroom

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We received this from Dick Mangan. It is reprinted with his permission.

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Friends – my day was spent in the Federal Courthouse in Spokane, attending the Sentencing Hearing for Ellreese Daniels.

As most of you are well aware, he was originally charged in December 2006 with 11 felonies; in May 2008, just a few days before the trial, the US Attorney offered a plea agreement of two (2) misdemeanors of making a false statement in an Administrative hearing. Rather than risk a jury trial on 11 felonies, Ellreese agreed.

The Judge sentenced Ellreese to 90 days in a “Work-Release Facility” where he’ll work a job during normal hours and then return to a lock-down center at night. He also gets 3 years probation, and will not be active again in wildfire activities on the line.

Not great by a long shot, but way better than taking a risk that a jury “of his peers” in Spokane would find him innocent of all 11 felony charges. Ellreese keeps his USFS job and future retirement, is NOT a convicted felon, and most importantly, can get on with his life after more than 7 tortured years!

Some Observations:

1. The US Attorney Tom Hopkins allowed family members of the deceased to offer comments: Karen Fitzpatrick’s mother read from a 4-5 page prepared statement, critical of Ellreese and the USFS; Devin Weaver’s father offered 15-20 minutes of emotionally charged off-the-cuff comments, again critical of Ellreese and the USFS; Jessica Johnson’s cousin talked about them growing up together like sisters, and asked the Judge to give Ellreese the maximum sentence possible; and then Tom Craven’s father talked: he said all of his 6 children were USFS firefighters: several have been in California this summer; he respects the USFS and won’t talk bad about the outfit; and said that “Ellreese was not in control of the fire or the wind” and said that Ellreese should “not spend even 1 day in jail for what happened”.

2. Hopkins kept trying to bring all of the manslaughter charges back into the play, even though they had been dropped with his approval;my notes as he talked said “boring beyond belief!”

3. Federal Defender Tina Hunt did an excellent job trying to keep the issue focused;

4. The Judge seemed concerned about Ellreese’s plea of guilty to making false statements during an investigation, and wanted to send a message that the truth is critical in investigations.

5. The Judge said specifically: “the cause of the deaths was NOT yours”‘

6. He also complimented Ellreese for overcoming a less-than-ideal youth, saying he went to Job Corps, got on with the USFS, and “you were there because you worked hard.”

7. Tina talked about the implications of this case to firefighters across the US and around the world.

8. US Attorney Hopkins accused Ellreese of not ordering shelters deployed earlier because ” it’s a sign of weakness” and that he “gambled with his crew” to be sure he had a chance for future fire OT.

9. The USFS was there in uniform supporting Ellreese: Forest Supervisor Becki Heath, Forest FMO Bobbi Scopa, and Deputy Regional Forester Cal Joyner; several Wenatchee folks as well, some on government time and others on their own; a fair mix of retirees as well, all there to support Ellreese and “the cause”

Some personal comments:

1. This should have never taken place: a well-intended US Senator and a Congressman bought off on a flawed bill-of-goods from a constituent, and here we are 6 years after PL 107-203;

2. After 40+ years in wildland fire: “there but the grace of God go I”

3. Ellreese will survive this, somewhat battered but alive and well in the end, with a USFS job and someday a retirement package;

4. In my not-always humble, non-lawyerly Forester opinion, the US Attorney in Spokane Jim McDevitt and his Assistant Tom Hopkins are poster children of what you get when Alberto Gonzales and Monica Goodling apply their “special criteria” to hiring folks for the US Justice Department;

5. Lastly, it is my view that after today, wildland firefighting will never be the same! If any mis-fortune befalls you on the fireline, my only advice is to “Lawyer UP!!”

Ellreese may still need our support, both moral and financial, in the coming months; stay tuned for further details!

Thanks for your ongoing support to date, and stay Safe on the fireline!

Dick Mangan
Blackbull Wildfire Services

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From the Associated Press:

U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle emphasized during the sentencing that Daniels was being punished for the statements, not the deaths.

“I don’t think the cause of these sad, tragic deaths was yours,” he said.

But prosecutor Tom Hopkins, who sought four months in prison and a $1,000 fine, continued to blame Daniels — as did many relatives of those who died.

“Personally, I have a hard time calling that true justice,” said Kathie FitzPatrick, mother of 18-year-old Karen FitzPatrick. “I will never have any grandchildren.”

FitzPatrick said she wore her daughter’s charred wristwatch and a pair of her daughter’s shoes into court.

“If Ellreese Daniels had not been on that fire line, my son would have probably lived,” said Ken Weaver, the father of 21-year-old Devin Weaver.

Daniels, of Lake Wenatchee, did not speak. His public defender, Tina Hunt, said her client was a scapegoat for decisions made by numerous Forest Service supervisors and employees, and that the deaths were the result of a dangerous wildfire that ran amok.

“What Mr. Daniels did up there that day was not the sole cause of those firefighter deaths,” Hunt said. “The person who keeps getting blamed for everything is Ellreese Daniels.”

The other firefighters killed were Tom Craven, 30, and Jessica Johnson, 19. All four were from central Washington.

Craven’s father, Will, said Daniels should not serve any jail time.

“Wind and fire killed the four people on the rocks,” said Craven, who has had six children work as firefighters. “Fighting fires is dangerous.”

Daniels continues to work for the Forest Service, but no longer fights fires.

In addition to the three months of work release, Daniels was sentenced to three years of probation. The judge said he also must complete mental health and alcohol abuse evaluations and any treatment that is needed. He was ordered to abstain from alcohol during the probation period and may not work as a firefighter.

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