Key evidence in Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy never provided to official investigators

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(A version of this story was published online in Phoenix New Times on Dec. 16, 2015.)

By John Dougherty

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 possession of the Office of the Maricopa County Medical Examiner but was not provided to the state-contracted investigation into the tragedy, autopsy records recently obtained by InvestigativeMEDIA 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 that was later collected by the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, autopsy records for Marsh and MacKenzie show.

Granite Mountain Hotshots in front of an ancient tree on Granite Mountain after saving the tree during the June 2013 Doce Fire. Photo by Christopher MacKenzie

Granite Mountain Hotshots in front of an ancient tree they saved during the June 2013 Doce Fire. Photo by Christopher MacKenzie

The Maricopa County medical examiner conducted autopsies on all 19 hotshots for Yavapai County on July 2, 2013.

The YCSO has no record of Marsh’s cell phone or MacKenzie’s camera among the 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-0f-custody.

MacKenzie’s autopsy report states Deputy State Forester Jerry Payne and YCSO Criminal Investigations Commander Lieutenant Tom Boelts were present. But neither name appears on Marsh’s autopsy report.

The YCSO was in charge of gathering all evidence from the medical examiner and later turning it over to the Serious Accident Investigation Team (SAIT) which was contracted by the Arizona Forestry Division to conduct the formal investigation into the Yarnell Hill Fire disaster, according to the autopsy reports and the YCSO report.

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After years of delay, the Granite Mountain Hotshot autopsy records are released

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By John Dougherty

The two state investigations into the deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots released to the public in 2013 did not include the complete autopsy and toxicology reports of the men who were killed on June 30, 2013 in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

And requests by the media to obtain the autopsy reports, which are typically public records, were rejected by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk who stated in an August 26, 2013 letter to the media that “absent a court order, these items will not be released.”

The Arizona Republic sued the Yavapai County Medical Examiner and the Yavapai County Sheriff on Sept. 18, 2013 seeking the autopsy records as well as additional information including photographs of the location where the men died in a box canyon at the base of the Weaver Mountains west of Yarnell, AZ.

The Republic, however, dropped its claim against the Yavapai County Medical Examiner seeking copies of the autopsy reports on Sept. 30, 2013 after the state released the Serious Accident Investigation Report (SAIR) two days earlier.

The SAIR did not include the autopsy or the toxicology reports, but according to the Republic’s pleading, the investigative report “included the same essential information” that was being sought in the lawsuit.

Polk’s refusal to release the autopsy reports and the Republic’s decision to drop its lawsuit resulted in the autopsy reports being kept from public review, until now. [Read more…]

Grant McKee pleadings posted

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InvestigativeMedia is posting the complaint and subsequent pleadings in connection with the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Marcia McKee, the mother of Granite Mountain Hotshot Grant McKee who was the youngest of the 19 hotshots killed at the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013.

The documents include: Compliant, Motion to Dismiss, Reply in Support of Motion to Dismiss and the Response to Motion to Dismiss.

Oral arguments on the case were heard on Friday, July 24, 2015. A ruling is expected within 60 days.

Supporting legal documents to Yarnell Hill Fire settlement released

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InvestigativeMedia is posting the settlement agreement, settlement agreement and order and the revised citation issued by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health against the Arizona Forestry Division in connection with the June 30, 2013 deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire.

InvestigativeMedia will post the settlement agreement between ADOSH, the Forestry Division and the 12 families of the deceased hotshots when it becomes available. One remaining lawsuit brought by the mother of Granite Mountain Hotshot Grant McKee remains in litigation.

McDonough deposition scratched again

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The Prescott Courier is reporting that Granite Mountain Hotshot survivor Brendan McDonough’s deposition scheduled for earlier this week to discuss details of the moments leading up to the deaths of 19 of his fellow crew members on June 30, 2013 was canceled.

The Courier states that McDonough was prepared to be deposed but that a disagreement between attorneys over who should be present for the sworn interview led to the cancellation. This marks the third time that McDonough’s deposition has been scheduled but not held.

Slow Response, Predictable Path of Thunderstorms, Were Precursors to Yarnell Hill Firefighters’ Deaths

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InvestigativeMedia is reposting the following story that was first published at 9:26 a.m., July 6, 2013. The story includes a series of bulletins issued by the Yarnell Fire Department that were removed from its website shortly after this story was first posted. The bulletins show that department recognized the threat posed by the thunderstorms by early on the afternoon of June 30, 2013, hours before 19 members of Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed in a box canyon west of Yarnell. In fact, the department warned the community to be on “high alert”  in an early morning bulletin on June 30.

By John Dougherty

Peeples Valley, AZ–Ninety-four-year-old Barbara Kelso was having dinner in a restaurant in this small ranching community 90 miles northwest of Phoenix on Friday, June 28 when she saw a lightning bolt strike the hills a few miles away. Moments later, smoke started billowing skyward.

Kelso, who retired in December as chairman of the Yarnell Fire District Board after serving seven years, immediately called 911.

“They said they heard of the smoke and someone was checking,” Kelso said during an impromptu interview at the Southwest Incident Management Command center where officials are directing firefighting operations for the Yarnell Hill fire that has burned more than 8,200 acres.

Kelso works as a volunteer for the Command, which is based in a local middle school. “I think I saw the lightning bolt that started the fire,” she said during a July 5 interview.

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