The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Max Erikson

U.S. attorney declines to prosecute fire setting by officer on Yakama land


February 7, 2018

file photo

FIRE SETTING GOES UNPROSECUTED: The setting of a fire last year by a Yakama tribal police officer (seen leaving the scene at left), captured in this surveillance camera picture, will not be prosecuted by the U.S. attorney.

A Yakama Nation police officer who was caught on camera last summer setting fire to a water control irrigation structure near Cougar Creek will not be prosecuted by the Eastern District of Washington U.S. Attorney's office for criminal violations.

After a lengthy investigation that involved the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Attorney's Office made the decision to not pursue the case further based on what it called the overall circumstances of the incident. It was determined that those circumstances were not applicable to federal crime statutes.

In a letter to one of the investigators, the U.S. Attorney's Office stated, "In deciding to decline prosecution, this office examined the totality of the factual circumstances and applied those circumstances to a potentially applicable federal criminal statute to evaluate whether a prosecution was viable." It went on to state that it also "considered general prosecution guidelines as well as the long-standing principles of federal prosecution, including whether there exists a significant federal interest that would be served by prosecution."

Joseph Harrington, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, says that the federal constitution has limited jurisdiction for these types of situations and that any misdeeds must be illustrated under the federal statutes for there to be a viable case.

"Federal statutes don't cover every specific conduct by an individual," Harrington says. "We determine if that conduct falls into any of the criminal codes of the statutes and in this situation we felt like we couldn't further the process based on what we had."

Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer disagrees and says that the actions by the tribal officer could have turned into a huge wildfire destroying wilderness and the livelihood of the Glenwood community.

"I think the U.S. Attorney's office is just playing politics, and they don't want to get into a fight with the tribe over retrocession," Songer says. "It is really unfair to the people of Glenwood, and I'm disappointed in the U.S. Attorney's decision."

Recently the Yakama Nation has gained retrocession recognition from the U.S. government. But contention remains over who has jurisdiction to arrest suspects and prosecute crimes, the Nation or Klickitat County.

According to sources close to the investigation, the tribal officer who set the fire-and whose image was captured in the act by a surveillance camera-said he started the fire because his supervisor told him to do so. When the supervisor was questioned about it, sources say, the supervisor said he was "only kidding" when telling the tribal officer to start the fire.

The fire took place in the disputed area of Tract D near Glenwood, an area that the Yakima Nation claims jurisdiction over. During the summer, the water rights usage dispute for ranchers and farmers-in Tract D-and the Yakama Nation boiled over. A pattern of vandalism and destruction was taking place on irrigation systems reducing the flow of water to the Glenwood area.

"This whole thing is really unfortunate because for years there hasn't been a problem until recently," Songer says. "But with the dispute over Tract D, I don't think this situation is going to be resolved anytime soon."


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