PALMER, Alaska (CN) – After a day and a half of deliberations, a state court jury in Alaska found two Anchorage residents not guilty of starting a June 2015 fire that ripped through the community of Willow and burned thousands of acres of forest, destroyed more than 55 homes and killed pets, sled dogs and wildlife.
Anchorage residents Greg Imig, 61, and Amy DeWitt, 43, were charged with 12 misdemeanors in the Sockeye Fire, including reckless endangerment, criminally negligent burning, leaving a fire unattended with damage to property, and burning without a permit after one of three burn piles on Imig’s property got out of control.
Willow, about two hours north of Anchorage, is a major hub for dog mushers and their kennels, and home to the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Others, like Imig, own secondary property there for recreation away from the city.
DeWitt’s attorney, Philip Shanahan, had asked that she be found not guilty, while Imig’s attorney, Kevin Fitzgerald, maintained the fire started 50 yards ahead of his client’s property and the only charge that evidence supports is burning without a permit.
Despite this acknowledgment of burning without a permit, the six jurors – three women and three men – found Imig not guilty on that count as well.
In closing arguments last week, Assistant District Attorney Eric Senta spent about 90 minutes recapping testimony from more than a dozen witnesses and experts who took the stand for the state over the course of 12 days.
Senta told the jurors that wildfire investigators had gathered enough information to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Conversely Imig’s and DeWitt’s attorneys maintained there was not enough evidence to support pointing the finger solely at their clients.
“This fire crept out from that fire pit, building in intensity, then it hits one single tree and it goes up, and from there it goes south. That’s what [the fire investigators’] conclusion is, that’s what the defendants say happened. That I submit to you solves the case,” Senta told the jurors.
The defense brought in their own private fire investigators who testified the state’s investigation was “sloppy and biased.”
“The explanation, the hypothesis described by the state is inconsistent with common sense, it’s inconsistent with the science behind wild land fire investigation and it’s inconsistent with the other evidence,” Fitzgerald told jurors.
After the verdict, Imig told reporters the fire had been costly for him too.
“From the beginning, Amy and I have been forthright and honest and frankly this trial by the state of Alaska was wasteful and unneeded. We knew we had to take this path to clear our name,” Imig said in a statement to reporters after hugging and thanking their friends and family. “We too lost our property and possessions in the willow fire and combined with this trial has been very costly for us.”
Victims of the fire, some who sat through each day of trial and others who testified, were visibly disappointed and dismayed by the verdict – particularly the acquittal on the one charge the defense acknowledged. None of the jurors or attorneys have commented yet why that charge did not stick.
“It’s hard not to be bitter, it’s hard not to be angry,” fire victim Carrie Smolden told KTUU Channel 2 News after hearing the verdict. “It’s hard to understand why the six jurors thought they were innocent.”
The Sockeye Fire – named for Sockeye Road, where the fire began on a dry 80-degree day nearly two years ago – cost more than $8 million to fight, and millions more in material losses. Had they been found guilty, Imig and DeWitt would have been required to pay double that dollar amount in damages and firefighting costs.
The verdict only ends the criminal proceedings. State attorneys and fire victims are still weighing whether to file civil suits against Imig and DeWitt.