Ellreese Daniels is going to be sentenced Wednesday at 10 a.m. in the U.S. District Court in Spokane.
By K.C. Mehaffey
World staff writer
SPOKANE — After dropping manslaughter charges against the crew boss of four firefighters who died in the Thirtymile Fire near Winthrop, a federal prosecutor has assigned a motive to why Ellreese Daniels lied to investigators after the fatal 2001 wildfire.
Daniels, 47, of Lake Wenatchee, wanted to save his firefighting career, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Hopkins.
A former co-worker, however, says Daniels is not at all calculating, and would not have been thinking about his career when investigators interviewed him just after the fire. His defense attorney, Tina Hunt, filed a response Friday to Hopkins’ charge, saying Daniels believed he was telling the truth when investigators questioned him.
Daniels is the first Forest Service employee to be charged for the deaths of firefighters who died under his command, but the involuntary manslaughter charges were dropped in April when he pleaded guilty to two counts of making false statements to investigators. He will be sentenced Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Spokane.
Killed were Devin Weaver, 21; Jessica Johnson, 19; and Karen FitzPatrick, 18, all from Yakima; and Tom Craven, 30, from Ellensburg.
The four were trapped on the Chewuch Road north of Winthrop with 10 other firefighters and two campers when fire swept over them on July 10, 2001. All deployed fire shelters, but the four firefighters were up on a rock slope where they could not properly deploy their shelters.
Daniels pleaded guilty to lying about two things: First, that he told the firefighters who died at least three times to come down from the rocks because it was not a good place to be. And second, that neither of two fire engines reported to him when they arrived at the fire.
Hunt wrote that Daniels has already suffered the consequences for his actions, and should serve no jail time. He is no longer qualified to fight fires, was removed from the fire division with the Forest Service, and was reassigned to the supply cache, her response stated.
Hopkins said he’ll seek a four-month sentence in the custody of the federal Department of Corrections with one year of probation.
He said he believes Daniels should serve in the upper half of the standard range for the misdemeanor charge, which is zero to six months for someone with a low criminal history, such as Daniels. One prior conviction, for assault, counts against Daniels under sentencing guidelines, according to documents provided by the prosecution.
Hopkins said Daniels appeared to lie about all the key turning points that would have shown his poor decisions leading to the firefighters’ deaths.
“Mr. Daniels lied to investigators for the purpose of shifting responsibility for the deaths of the four firefighters to others, to include the victims, in an effort to save his career,” his court document states. It later adds that deployment of fire shelters triggers an automatic investigation, and, “In a profession where success, courage, and image are important, Mr. Daniels wanted to avoid an unnecessary deployment that could hurt his standing among his peers and reduce his prospects for choice assignments and promotion.”
He also wrote that Daniels has only made excuses for his poor performance as an incident commander, but has not recognized that his false information led investigators to false conclusions and wasted government resources.
The false statements exposed an engine foreman to potential disciplinary action, and caused families of the firefighters unnecessary anxiety and anguish, Hopkins wrote.
Heather Murphy, who used to work with Daniels at the Wenatchee River Ranger District, said it’s doubtful that Daniels was thinking about his career when he was trying to assess whether the fire would sweep over his crew.
“It’s ridiculous. With all the years of service, it’s not like he was a ladder-climbing person at all,” she said. Murphy said it makes no sense for anyone assessing a fire to think about what their peers would think if they had to deploy fire shelters.
“I wasn’t there, so it’s really hard for me to respond, but I’ve been on enough fires — around 40 or 50 — to know that you often don’t think you’re going to be overtaken by fire,” she said.
Attorney Tina Hunt, in her response to the prosecutor’s court filing, wrote that Daniels simply forgot the engine supervisor had checked in with him during the fire, and had to be taken back to the site to recall it. She also wrote that while Daniels may not have ordered firefighters to come down from the rocks, others recalled him stating that the road was the place to be, and that he believed he communicated his desire for them to come down from the rocks.
She also wrote that Daniels continues to have nightmares about the incident, and likely suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Mr. Daniels knows that his actions, in part, led to these tragedies. However, he has also had to deal with the fact that NO OTHER PERSON has been forced to be held criminally responsible other than himself,” her response states.