'Giggling' may not prove malice, intent
Eugene feels East Multnomah County's pain.
Two summers ago, fire ripped through the Emerald City's landmark Civic Stadium, a 1938 wooden structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Firefighters couldn't save it, and the city lost a $3 million asset as shocked and saddened residents watched in disbelief.
The culprits then?
Four boys, ages 10 and 12, who jumped the stadium's fence then used a lighter to set some leaves ablaze, the Register-Guard reported.
Their act also ignited heated discussions in Eugene.
"It was a big, big deal," says Eugene City Councilor Alan Zelenka.
"There was ongoing debate about what should happen to the kids," says Nancy Webber of the Eugene Civic Alliance that owned the stadium.
Oregon State Police on Tuesday identified a 15-year-old Vancouver teen as the prime suspect in the Eagle Creek fire that had consumed 32,000 acres in the Columbia River Gorge as of Wednesday. Law enforcement also said the boy is believed to have ignited the blaze with a firework.
As in Eugene, affected residents in Hood River and Multnomah counties are now debating what kind of consequences the Vancouver teenager should face, if guilty.
The Eugene case offers some guidance, although the boys there were significantly younger.
Lane County prosecutors initially charged the boys, who were never named publicly, with first-degree arson, second-degree arson, two counts of second-degree burglary, first-degree criminal mischief, second-degree criminal mischief, reckless burning and reckless endangering, the Oregonian reported then.
Ultimately, however, the boys all settled on reduced charges. Three of the boys got up to five years of supervised probation, the Register-Guard reported, and were made to take a fire-safety class. Prosecutors agreed to a different deal for the fourth boy, saying they would dismiss a reckless-burning charge after a year if the boy completed community service and underwent counseling, among other requirements, according to the Eugene newspaper.
The temperature on the debate in Multnomah County is higher because of the widely circulated report of one witness, Liz FitzGerald, that the boy and other teenagers may have "giggled" after tossing a firework along the Eagle Creek Trail.
But to charge the Vancouver teenager with first-degree arson as an adult under Measure 11, prosecutors would have to show he intentionally caused harm. Law enforcement officials have not released his name.
George Yeannakis, a lawyer from Olympia, Wash., who trains others on juvenile cases, says the U.S. Supreme Court has successfully established that kids who commit crimes are different than adults and that it's not appropriate to apply adult standards to children in court.
The fact that the suspect or his companions may have laughed shouldn't automatically be read as maliciousness, he says.
"It's evidence that they're kids," he says.
For her part, FitzGerald says she wants the 15-year-old and his companions to be held responsible for what they caused. She ran down the Eagle Creek Trail, and along its steep dropoffs, so she could alert authorities to what she says they did. But she doesn't want their lives ruined, she says.
"I understand the anger, and the sadness and the overwhelming despair that people in our community feel, " she says. "We all need the chance to redeem ourselves, even when the mistakes are huge."
Zelenka, the Eugene city councilor, says he thought back to the 2015 blaze when he watched the news Tuesday night about the Eagle Creek fire.
Although law enforcement in Lane County never publicly named the boys, he assumed that their friends and teachers knew who they were, and he believed that probably felt like additional punishment.
"It was pretty bad for them I suspect," he says. "They were quiet and remorseful, and they realized they had done a really bad thing."