Teen faces $36.6 million in Eagle Cr. fire restitution

Judge mulls restitution request; defender terms DA’s proposal ‘absolutely silly’

Early September, Washington side, before the Eagle Creek fire had fully spread.

Photo by Jurgen Hess
Early September, Washington side, before the Eagle Creek fire had fully spread.

The Vancouver youth who started the Eagle Creek fire could have an eight-figure bill to think about in the five weeks leading up to his 16th birthday.

According to the Hood River County Prosecutor’s Office, the teenager is responsible for $36,631,687.10 in damages based on 11 separate restitution claims filed after the destructive Eagle Creek fire in fall 2017. That’s the total bill asked for by the Hood River County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

In Hood River County Circuit Court Thursday, Judge John Olson said after a 40-minute session that he needs to consider the arguments, including defense attorney Jack Morris’ argument that the restitution total is unconstitutional.

“It’s an extraordinary amount, and an extraordinary amount of loss,” Olson said.

“Given what’s being sought, I need time to evaluate the constitutional arguments. I will announce as early as tomorrow (Friday). I will devote as much time as I have to.”

Circuit Court officials said Friday morning that Olson had not yet submitted his decision.

Morris termed the proposed figure “absolutely silly” while District Attorney John Sewell said the youth has statutory options that allow him to pay what he can.

“There are ample statutory provisions to support the amount involved in restitution that’s imposed,” Sewell told the court.

The largest single claim is U.S. Forest Service, for $21,113,755. Oregon Department of Transportation’s claim is for $12,500,000. Oregon State Fire Marshal’s claim is for $1,643, 035 and Union Pacific Railroad’s is for $1,048,000. Oregon State Parks’ claim is for $31,550; Trail Club of Oregon’s is $168,00; and Heuker Properties’ claim is for $100,000.

Other private claims total $4,563, $5,000, $8,111, and $9,793.

The financial restitution would be on top of the 2,080 hours of community service the court ordered the juvenile to perform in an earlier restitution hearing this spring. Because of the boy’s juvenile status, the court has not revealed his name.

Morris asked Olson to consider the principle that “kids are different.”

“Every law should have room for mitigation, especially when it comes to a juvenile,” said Morris, who argued that a youth is not as able as an adult to understand the full consequences of what would happen when tossing fireworks into a dry forest on a hot summer day.

Morris also pointed to the indigent status of the youth and his family, and argued that “$36 million, or anything down to about a million, is simply not possible to pay.”

Morris said it amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment under the Oregon Constitution because it is disproportionate (to the youth’s ability to pay).”

Olson noted in court that “several available safety valves” exist regarding discharging any unpaid balance after 10 years if the perpetrator is unable to fully pay. He told Morris, “I understand it is your opinion that those safety valves are insufficient.”

Sewell said after the court session, “I completely agree with the judge’s assessment of the statutory scheme, that there are provisions that protect the individual, if he makes a good faith effort to pay while he’s on probation and for the five years after his probationary period ends.

“Despite Mr. Morris’s ranting and raving about the unfairness of all this and the irrationality of the system, it’s quite rational and it works, and the judge is presumably a rational human being who will make a call on that in 10 years.”

Asked how the young man can comply with paying a $36 million debt, Sewell said, “The issue is not whether he can pay $36 million, if that‘s what the judge orders, though I strongly suspect the judge will order something in the seven-figure range.”

Asked to elaborate, Sewell said, “I wouldn’t speculate on that. There are some legal guidelines he has to follow. It’s his call.”

The youth must regularly pay something while on probation, Sewell reiterated.

“The question is not $36 or $20 or even $2 million. The question will be while on probation and given his circumstances and in the judgement of the juvenile department and the court, did he make a good faith, reasonable effort to pay on his restitution?” Sewell said. “It should not be lost sight of that for five years he has to perform 2,080 hours community service, he has to do that for the benefit of the public.

“He’s ordered to continue a course of schooling and he will work off 2,000 hours in five years and get a part time job so he can start paying on this (restitution). That’s what (it’s) looking at.

“The point is not ‘is he paying $1,000 a month?’ but ‘is he paying a little something?’ That’s the question, and that’s the question that will be reviewed while his case is reviewed periodically while he is on probation. And at the 10 year mark, when he comes in and says, ‘I’d like to have this debt removed from my judgment,’ that will be the judge’s call then.”

Among those representing agencies with restitution claims was Lynn Burditt, Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area manager.

She declined to comment on Thursday’s proceeding.

“Our focus is on how do we respond to the impacts of the fire and how do we reconnect people with the land,” Burditt said.

“Our real focus is on trying to help people understand the ecological processes and get people reconnected as quickly as we can. That’s where we want to put our energy.”

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