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News from the Southwest: Elliot to face civil trial for Chediski fire

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WHITERIVER, Ariz. - The White Mountain Apache Tribe knows that Valinda Jo Elliott doesn't have even a small fraction of the money it will seek for damages she caused by starting the Chediski part of the massive Rodeo-Chediski fire in the summer of 2002.

The tribe also knows the difficulty of asserting its legal authority over Elliott, a non-Indian, because of the U.S. Supreme Court's Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, which negated tribal jurisdiction over non-Indian defendants who commit crimes in Indian country. That's why the Apaches are going after Elliott as a civil matter.

Despite what likely would be only a symbolic prosecution, the tribe's chief judge, Durango Fall, ruled Dec. 22 that the civil case against Elliott could proceed. Fall denied a motion to dismiss the charges against Elliott filed by her Phoenix attorney, Kevin O'Grady. No trial date has been scheduled for the case.

"It's clear to me that they would like to expand their jurisdiction as much as possible over non-Indians on tribal land," O'Grady said. "But none of the Supreme Court decisions have dealt with anything like what we have here at hand."

Tribal Attorney George Hesse argued that the White Mountain Apaches have jurisdiction over all lands on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and that tribal members and non-tribal members alike must abide by tribal laws while on those lands.

White Mountain Apache Chairman Dallas Massey said in an earlier interview that the tribe would aggressively pursue a case against Elliott because the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office had declined to prosecute her, saying she did not have criminal intent when she started the fire.

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Elliott, a Phoenix resident, became lost on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in June 2002 while on an outing and started a signal fire to get the attention of pilots in the area. She was picked up by a television helicopter but the flames from the fire rapidly spread.

Those flames became part of the Rodeo-Chediski fire complex which later merged and destroyed almost 500 homes and burned nearly half a million acres, the majority of it on the reservation. The cost of fighting the fire and the property damage it caused was about $70 million.

Massey had signed an executive order closing the tribe's forest land because of extreme fire danger before Elliott drove onto the east-central Arizona reservation.

Elliott is accused of negligence, trespassing and other offenses and tribal prosecutors are seeking millions of dollars in compensatory damages for reforestation and replacement of cultural sites that were destroyed.

Anger boiled over on both the Apache reservation and the non-Indian communities of Heber and Overgaard, where most of the homes were destroyed in the Chediski part of the fire, after the federal government's decision not to prosecute Elliott.

Those feelings were exacerbated more at White Mountain Apache since tribal member Leonard Gregg was indicted by a federal grand jury for starting the Rodeo fire near the Apache community of Cibecue. According to court documents, Gregg said he started the fire to gain firefighting work on the reservation.

Gregg pleaded guilty to two counts of arson and could receive up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced in Phoenix in mid-January.