Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Key Evidence in Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire Tragedy Never Provided to Official Investigators

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 Office of the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's possession but was not provided to a contracted state investigation into the disaster, autopsy records obtained by New Times 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 turned over later to the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office.

...The Maricopa County medical examiner conducted autopsies on the bodies of all 19 hotshots for Yavapai County on July 2, 2013. The names of representatives from YCSO and the Arizona Forestry Division appear on the autopsy reports as in attendance on 10 of the 19 autopsies that were conducted by four different doctors.

The YCSO has no record of Marsh’s cell phone or of MacKenzie’s camera as official 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 of custody.

...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 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 disagreement over tactics before the crew left the “black” burned-over area.

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

New Times obtained the reports in October. They were released four months after all litigation filed by the families of hotshots seeking $237 million in damages from the state Forestry Division and Yavapai County had been settled. The settlement also included dropping the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health’s wrongful-death case against the Forestry Division for allegedly mishandling fire-suppression efforts during the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Another good example of how far the government will go to protect itself from public scrutiny and from accountability for their actions.

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