Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A New Twist in the Death of Granite Mountain Hotshots During 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire

Posted By on Wed, Dec 16, 2015 at 11:00 AM

Granite Mountain Hotshots in front of an ancient tree they saved during the June 2013 Doce Fire. - CHRISTOPHER MACKENZIE
  • Christopher MacKenzie
  • Granite Mountain Hotshots in front of an ancient tree they saved during the June 2013 Doce Fire.
Journalist John Dougherty's Investigative MEDIA organization uncovers a strange wrinkle in the investigation of the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire in which 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters lost their lives:

Key evidence that could explain why the Granite Mountain Hotshots moved from a safe location into a treacherous box canyon where 19 men died on June 30, 2013 was in the possession of the Office of the Maricopa County Medical Examiner but was not provided to the state-contracted investigation into the tragedy, autopsy records recently obtained by InvestigativeMEDIA show.

A cell phone belonging to Granite Mountain superintendent Eric Marsh and a functioning camera belonging to hotshot Christopher MacKenzie were with the men’s bodies when they arrived at the medical examiner’s office on July 1, 2013 but were not listed as evidence that was later collected by the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, autopsy records for Marsh and MacKenzie show.

The Maricopa County medical examiner conducted autopsies on all 19 hotshots for Yavapai County on July 2, 2013.

The YCSO has no record of Marsh’s cell phone or MacKenzie’s camera among the evidence collected from the medical examiner, according to a YCSO police report. Marsh’s cell phone and MacKenzie’s camera ended up with family members outside the formal chain-0f-custody.

MacKenzie’s autopsy report states Deputy State Forester Jerry Payne and YCSO Criminal Investigations Commander Lieutenant Tom Boelts were present. But neither name appears on Marsh’s autopsy report.

The YCSO was in charge of gathering all evidence from the medical examiner and later turning it over to the Serious Accident Investigation Team (SAIT) which was contracted by the Arizona Forestry Division to conduct the formal investigation into the Yarnell Hill Fire disaster, according to the autopsy reports and the YCSO report.

Marsh’s cell phone could have provided evidence of who he was in communication with in the moments before and while the crew moved from its safety zone in a burned over area on the eastern ridge of the Weaver Mountains west of Yarnell and into a chaparral-choked box canyon where the men were trapped by a wall of flames.

MacKenzie’s camera included video clips of a crucial discussion between Marsh and Granite Mountain Captain Jesse Steed that suggests a disagreement over tactics before the crew left the “black”, burned-over area.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk refused to release the autopsy reports in 2013 saying privacy concerns outweighed the public interest.

The autopsy records were only recently released after Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk refused repeated media requests under the Arizona Public Records Law for the reports in the months immediately after the fire. Polk said in August 2013 that the privacy interests of the families of the fallen firefighters exceeded the public’s right to examine the reports.

InvestigativeMEDIA obtained the reports in October. The autopsy reports were released four months after all litigation filed by the families of hotshots seeking $237 million in damages from the state Forestry Division and the Central Yavapai (County) Fire District had been settled.
Read the whole report here.

Full disclosure: Investigative MEDIA is a project of the Arizona Center for Investigative Journalism, which serves as a fiscal sponsor for the Arizona Watchdog Alliance, which funds Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel.

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