Hiker who set AZ fire while lost may face federal charges


Mar 11, 2001
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Hiker may face U.S. charges

Judi Villa, Brent Whiting and Mark Shaffer, The Arizona Republic

July 04, 2002

Federal prosecutors will soon decide whether a lost hiker who set a small fire to alert rescuers will be charged with touching off an inferno that consumed the Heber-Overgaard area.

Valinda Jo Elliott, 31, of Phoenix, told rescuers she set the "Chediski" fire June 18 to attract a nearby helicopter, three days after she became separated from a friend and lost in the wilderness.

The fire merged with the "Rodeo" blaze to create a conflagration that consumed about 470,000 acres, torched 423 homes, and forced the evacuation of about 30,000 people. The last of the evacuees was allowed to return home Wednesday. The fire is reported to be 85 percent contained, with full containment predicted for Sunday. Cost to fight the fire has risen to more than $36.6 million.

Federal investigators want to take Elliott into custody but are waiting for a green light from the U.S. Attorney's Office to go out and pick her up, The Arizona Republic has learned.

Mike Johns, an assistant U.S. attorney in Phoenix, confirmed Wednesday that federal investigators submitted Elliott's case for review.

No decision yet

"I can acknowledge that the matter is under investigation but that no decision whether to prosecute has been made by the U.S. Attorney's Office," Johns said. It was unclear when a decision might come.

Elliott, who is believed to be living with her parents in Phoenix, could not be reached for comment.

Leonard Gregg, 29, a part-time firefighter from Cibecue, has admitted igniting the "Rodeo" fire to get work on a fire crew. He was denied bail Wednesday at a Flagstaff hearing. Federal Magistrate Stephen Verkamp said Gregg was a danger to the community and the possibility of harm coming his way was significant.

"There are a lot of concerns about safety and a lot of hard feelings because people have suffered so much because of this fire," said Vincent Kirby, an assistant U.S. attorney from Phoenix.

At the hearing, Gregg, a member of the White Mountain Apache tribe, pleaded innocent to two arson-related charges. The second charge stems from a smaller fire Gregg is accused of setting on June 18. Trial was tentatively set for Sept. 3 in U.S. District Court in Phoenix. If convicted, Gregg could face up to 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

After being led into the courtroom, Gregg bent his head and sobbed at the side of his attorney. A dozen of his relatives looked on, some of them dabbing tears.

Gregg is "very sorry for all the trouble and media attention he has wrought on his family," his attorney, Deborah Euler-Ajayi, said after a two-hour meeting with his family.

His arrest fueled racial tensions between members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and those who have been evacuated or lost their homes in the ensuing blaze. Tribal members say restaurants in Show Low have refused to serve them, and cashiers at area businesses have refused to ring up their purchases. They say they have been harassed and blamed for the fires. The tribal radio station warned against going into Show Low alone.

Some say Gregg framed

Some in Cibecue insist Gregg is being framed, while Elliott, who is White, is being let off easy.

But Pete Pierce, a spokesman for the multi-agency arson task force that is investigating both blazes, said there is "absolutely no basis in fact" for any charges of racism. Gregg's race and tribal affiliation were not part of the probable cause statement authorities submitted to the court, Pierce said, and it would be a "leap in logic" to say race was driving the investigations.

"That's immaterial," he said. "The investigation concluded that charges should be filed in one (case), and the other is still ongoing."

No exceptions

Federal regulations prohibit setting unauthorized fires on public land and do not make exceptions for emergencies.

Jon Cooley, director of the White Mountain Apache Tribe Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation Division, said Elliott also is under investigation for trespassing, since she did not have the necessary permits to be on tribal land.

Elliott was in a rugged area with primitive roads and no developed campsites, Cooley said. The area, like much of the state, had been under strict fire restrictions that banned all fires, even in open campgrounds.

"Her circumstances were unique in that she was separated from her partner, and I'm sure she was scared and isolated," Cooley said. "But we're investigating the fire as a fire that damaged significant tribal land."

Civil offense

Trespassing would be a civil offense, punishable by a fine.

"We're upset that given the risk of the forest and the conditions of the forest that there wasn't better judgment exercised on the part of the people involved," Cooley said.
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