Colorado wildfire case to stay in tribal court

Associated press


PHOENIX, AZ – An American Indian tribe’s civil case against a non-Indian woman who started part of the largest wildfire in Arizona history will remain in tribal court.
An attorney for Valinda Jo Elliott said the decision, if upheld, could open every non-Indian up to lawsuits in tribal court.

“They could have jurisdiction over anybody,” attorney Kevin O’Grady said.

In a White Mountain Apache tribal court ruling made available Tuesday, Chief Trial Court Judge Durango H. Fall denied Elliott’s request to dismiss the case.

O’Grady had argued that the White Mountain Apache Tribe couldn’t pursue its civil complaint against Elliott because it doesn’t normally have jurisdiction over non-Indians.

O’Grady said he intends to appeal the decision in the tribe’s appellate court.

Tribal attorney George Hesse didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday.
While lost on White Mountain Apache land for two days in 2002, Elliott started a signal fire that merged into the Rodeo-Chediski fire.

The fire burned 469,000 acres, destroyed 491 homes and forced the evacuation of 30,000 people in eastern Arizona.

It also charred sacred Apache sites and accelerated the expected demise of the White Mountain Apaches’ timber industry, which provides 60 percent of the tribe’s income.
Elliott started the fire to get the attention of a television news helicopter. The helicopter rescued Elliott but the fire later grew out of control.

Elliott wasn’t criminally prosecuted for starting the fire because federal prosecutors said there was insufficient evidence of criminal intent on her part.

The tribe couldn’t file criminal charges against Elliott but still brought a civil case against her.
The tribe alleges Elliott disobeyed an executive order banning nearly all people from certain areas of the reservation because of extreme fire danger.

If she loses in tribal court, the tribe said Elliott could face up to $4,500 in fines. She also could be fined for the cost of rehabilitating the burned land, all expenses associated with that part of the fire and for punitive damages, the tribe said.

The other half of the Rodeo-Chediski fire was started by part-time fire fighter Leonard Gregg, a tribal member who pleaded guilty in federal court to intentionally setting a fire. He is awaiting sentencing


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