In a shocking turn of events Friday, state charges were dismissed against two juveniles accused of starting the state’s largest and deadliest wildfire this century in Sevier County.
The Chimney Tops II fire killed 14 people and destroyed more than 10,000 homes and business. But on Friday state official conceded factors beyond their control forced them to drop charges against the two juveniles.
After a months long review it was determined that winds topping 80 mph were the primary factor for the wildfire being pushed out of the confined of the Great Smoky National Park. Because of the intervening weather event, state officials determined they would not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the two juveniles were responsible for the devastation which occurred outside of federal property, in Gatlinburg.
Further complicating matters, a "Memoranda of Agreement," which says the state of Tennessee can not prosecute criminal acts that occur within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, because it is federal property. Prosecutors were unable to prove the teens committed any kind of crime outside of the National Parks property and thus have no jurisdiction to charge them.
Attorney Gregory Isaacs held a press conference Friday to talk about the dismissed charged. Isaacs represented one of the juveniles.
"There is no evidence they caused the Gatlinburg fire, period," Isaacs emphatically told reports on Friday afternoon.
"People aren’t looking for scapegoats they’re looking for answers, this is the beginning of answering questions that need to be answered," he added.
The dismissal meant the teens cannot no longer be charged by the state.
"It would be very difficult if not impossible to prove conduct of juveniles resulted in an arson," Isaacs said.
The National Park Service was expected to continue working with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation on the case. As the next step, the NPS was expected to present the case to the US Attorney's Office. That means the teens could be charged federally since the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is federal property.
The decision to prosecute any individuals alleged to have caused a fire within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will now solely be up to the discretion of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Officials with the TBI initially filed the charges in December. They said crews had worked tirelessly along with members of the ATF and National Parks Service to investigate the case.
The unidentified juveniles were originally charged with aggravated arson. At the time the charges were filed, the two were being held in the Sevier County Juvenile Detention Center.
The fire began on November 23, 2016.
The wildfires in Sevier County claimed at least 14 lives and burned tens of thousands of acres.
Those who lost property were shocked by the decision, at least one family members telling NewsChannel 5 "I know God will handle justice."
Jimmy Vance lost his wife during the fires. Friday, through his attorney, Vance released this statement:
"We are now seven months down the road and my family is no closer to knowing why we were not warned to leave the mountain and who or what caused the fires that killed my beloved wife of 53 years. If the government has evidence that the fires were caused by another source, it should be disclosed immediately. May was a loving wife, mother, and grandmother and we miss her deeply."