Terms allow man to avoid criminal charges
The Idaho Stateman-12/04
The incident commander in the fatal 2003 Cramer fire will spend the next 18 months on federal probation, and during that time he can’t work for the U.S. Forest Service.
Alan Hackett made a pre-trial diversion agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s office for the District of Idaho and the U.S. Probation Office. The terms of that agreement, released Tuesday, allow Hackett to avoid criminal charges and keeps the probation off his criminal record, assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Mallard said.
In exchange, Hackett had to give up his Forest Service job and agree to a confidentiality waiver that allows U.S. Attorney representatives to discuss the case, Mallard said. He must make regular contact with his probation officer and keep a steady job somewhere other than the Forest Service, she said. Forest Service representatives said they weren’t allowed to comment about the Hackett case or any circumstances surrounding his departure including whether he could reapply for the job or keep his pension and other federal employee benefits.
Mallard said Hackett could re-apply for a Forest Service job after the 18 months have passed, and that prospect angers Bill Allen, whose son and another firefighter died in the Cramer fire.
“It just leads me to believe what they think the lives of Jeff and Shane are worth,” the Salmon resident said.
Jeff Allen and Shane Heath died July 22, 2003, after being overrun by flames while trying to clear a helicopter landing spot in the wooded midslope of a hill in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
Allen and Heath radioed for help twice and thought a helicopter was being sent to airlift them out of the fire area, according to a federal investigation into their deaths. But that helicopter was late, and by the time it got to where the two men were, smoke was too thick to locate Heath and Allen. They died minutes later after being overrun by the fire, according to the investigative report, which notes the fire came upon them so quickly they didn’t have time to deploy their fire shelters.
Hackett was the incident commander who decided two hours before Allen and Heath were killed by the Cramer Creek fire that the two firefighters were no longer needed to combat the blaze. But he and other commanders missed repeated opportunities to pick up or guide the two young firefighters out of harm’s way, leaving them to die, the federal report said.
Bill Allen said he thought it was fair for Hackett to get probation and be required to leave his job. But he said he is bothered by the idea that Hackett could resume a career with the Forest Service if he successfully completes probation. Allen also criticized the Forest Service for not taking more severe action against the employees involved.
The three other former high-ranking Salmon-Challis officials cited in the Forest Service report for violating safety rules and having some responsibility for the deaths still work for the Forest Service. Mallard said the Cramer case changed the way fatal forest fires are handled by prosecutors. The decision to investigate whether criminal charges were appropriate for Hackett is believed to be the first time federal prosecutors have pursued such an investigation into whether fire managers have some responsibility for a wildland firefighter death in the field.
The deal was made about a month ago, and Hackett signed the agreement within the past week, she said. The probation became effective when the agreement was signed.
Heath’s parents, who live in Melba, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Under the pre-trial diversion agreement, no criminal charges will be filed if Hackett meets the terms of the agreement, Mallard said. But if the terms aren’t met, the case will be re-opened and charges can be pursued, she said. Pre-trial diversion agreements are common for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Mallard said.
This agreement is unique because it says Hackett can’t keep his job at the Forest Service, she said, although he could re-apply after he completes his probation. “We would hope that doesn’t happen, but after he’s off his supervision we don’t have any control over that,” Mallard said. Allen believes Hackett will reapply for his Forest Service job when his probation ends.
“The only thing I requested and didn’t get answered is that in 18 months the Forest Service (not) hire him back again,” Allen said.