USA – As public outrage mounts against a 15-year-old Vancouver boy suspected of throwing a smoke bomb that ignited the nation’s No. 1 wildfire, many Oregonians are calling for stiff consequences.
He could be ordered to pay for the costs of fighting the Eagle Creek fire, to the tune of millions. His parents might have to foot some of the bill for the damage done. He also could face prison.
But those are all speculative. Police have made no arrests.
Still, the teenager and his group of friends already have felt the punishing scorn of an angry populace forced to leave their homes, breathe in smoke and ash and worry about the ravages to treasured trails and landmarks in the Columbia River Gorge.
A woman who said she witnessed the boy throw the smoke bomb into the Eagle Creek Canyon has described the group of friends giggling and taking a cellphone video of the deed Saturday afternoon.
State police initially said they would release the boy’s identity, but changed their minds Thursday and said they wouldn’t name him, even in the event of an arrest, because of the outcry and threats that he could face.
But those familiar with the criminal justice system said if charges are filed, his name and possibly the names of his friends likely will come out from other sources. In Oregon, juvenile and adult criminal courts are open and the names of defendants public.
Here are some possibilities of what could happen next in the investigation.
Q. How likely is it that the 15-year-old boy will be ordered to pay for the damage he allegedly caused?
A. Very likely, given Oregon’s history of pursuing people who have started wildfires.
Over the years, the state has sought payback from hundreds of people who negligently started fires and has won million-dollar judgments in some cases, said Jeff Bonebrake, cost recovery coordinator for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Among those cases:
Five men who were ordered to pay more than $17,000 after they ignited explosives during a round of target shooting, causing a 38-acre wildfire east of Bend in 2012.
An eastern Oregon rancher who investigators say drove across tinder-dry grass, sparking what grew to be a 2,700-acre wildfire in Grant County in 2014. John Lee Habberstad was ordered to pay more than $3.6 million for fire suppression costs. His insurance ended up settling the case for about $1 million.
A husband, wife and their adult daughter was ordered to pay $892,000 for the costs of putting out a fire started after authorities say they ignored a campfire ban during extremely dry conditions in Klamath County in summer 2014. Two of them went to the store while the other one, who was supposed to watching the fire, took a nap and the fire spread out of control, investigators say.
Q. Have these people paid up?
A. Of the above three cases, the rancher with insurance is the only one to make good with the state.
In the case of the target shooters, more than five years later, they still have yet to pay the last $2,100 of debt. The state has placed liens on the properties of four of them.
And the husband-wife-daughter trio haven’t paid their $892,000, according to the state. State officials say they have no assets and haven’t been able to pay.
Q. Is it common not to pay?
A. Many people faced with six- or seven-figure sums probably will never be able to pay. Some disappear and the state can’t collect.
Some try to steer clear of the debt by declaring bankruptcy. Although bankruptcy rules don’t absolve defendants of paying restitution ordered by a criminal court, bankruptcy can free up defendants who’ve lost a lawsuit.
And some people who’ve started fires work out payment plans for what they can afford.
That was the case for a Warm Springs woman who was in her early 20s in July 2013 when she purposely started a brush fire in central Oregon to give her “bored” firefighter friends something to do. The brush fire spread to more than 51,000 acres. Sadie Renee Johnson was ordered to pay the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs $7.9 million in installments of $50 per month for what almost certainly will be the rest of her life.
Q. Could the suspect in the 33,000-acre Eagle Creek fire be on the hook for making lifetime payments even though he’s just a minor?
Case-in-point: A 16-year-old boy who in July 2008 set off a 1.6-acre wildfire in rural Lane County after he shot fireworks out of a moving car. Skyler Adair was ordered to pay about $14,000 of the state’s costs. As of last year, the 23-year-old had paid $220 toward the bill.
Q. Could the Eagle Creek suspect’s parents be ordered to pay?
Oregon law, ORS 480.158, says parents can be liable for up to $5,000, payable to the firefighting agency that responded to any fires started by their children using fireworks.
Another Oregon law, ORS 30.765, states that parents can be held liable for up to $7,500 for any intentional or reckless act of their children that has harmed people or property. And this second law carries a kicker: It appears to allow $7,500 to be collected per “claimant.”
Attorneys contacted by The Oregonian/OregonLive say that could mean that any of the thousands of people affected by the Eagle Creek fire could seek $7,500 a piece from the Vancouver teen’s parents.
They could seek payouts for the costs of evacuating their homes or money for burned homes or structures. They could seek reimbursement for lost income for missing work or lost commerce from truck and river traffic that came to a standstill when Interstate 84 and the Columbia River were closed.
Q. Is a 7 1/2 -year prison sentence likely?
A. Police say they’re still investigating and he hasn’t been arrested or charged with any crimes.
But if the case proceeds, he could be charged as a juvenile or an adult, police said. That depends on the evidence.
If prosecutors think they can prove the teen intentionally set the fire with the intention of putting people at risk of serious harm — and people were actually put at risk — the teen could be charged in adult court with first-degree arson under Oregon’s Measure 11 law.
But the charge is highly unlikely unless investigators find evidence that proves the teen purposely set the fire, attorneys say. Investigators have said they’re combing through social media posts and video, which could yield evidence of the mindset of the teen and his friends before and while they headed out to the woods.
According to other hikers at the trailhead, in the moments after the teen was caught, he also made statements to police that might have revealed his intentions that day.
If convicted of first-degree arson, the teen would be sentenced to a mandatory 7 1/2 years in prison.
But several criminal defense attorneys contacted by The Oregonian/OregonLive say it’s much more probable that he’ll be charged with a crime such as reckless burning, reckless endangering or first-degree criminal mischief in juvenile court. The sentence, they say, might amount to five years of probation and extensive community service — maybe tree replanting or trail clearing.
Q. Could the 15-year-old’s friends be prosecuted?
A. The friend seen video-recording the lighting of the smoke bomb could face charges under the theory he was “aiding and abetting” in the crime by encouraging the prime suspect, depending on what he said. The same could be true for the other teens if prosecutors believe they can prove the teens encouraged the 15-year-old by daring him to do it or handing him a lighter or the firework itself.
The driver of the minivan that a witness described speeding away from the Eagle Creek Trailhead with the 15-year-old inside also could be charged.
But under Oregon law, the other teens in the group can’t be convicted for simply watching the 15-year-old light the firework or laughing as he did it.
Q. Could the 15-year-old’s parents be charged?
A. It’s possible, but that’s less likely given that state police have said the parents are cooperating with the investigation.
To be prosecuted in this case, the parents would have had to have supplied the teen with the smoke bomb knowing that he was going to set it off in the dry forest; driven the getaway minivan; or tried to hinder the prosecution by trying to hide evidence or information.
Q. How likely would a conviction be?
A. That, of course, depends on the evidence.
But it’s not always a sure thing.
A 40-year-old homeless man who in 2010 burned down 11 Ashland homes by flicking a lit cigarette into some dry weeds and grass was acquitted of the reckless endangerment and reckless burning charges against him. The blaze years later led to the death of a firefighter from lung damage suffered during the fire.
A judge cleared defendant John Thiry of all criminal charges after finding that prosecutors hadn’t proven that Thiry was aware of the potential consequences of his actions.