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Jury finds Anchorage couple not guilty in Sockeye fire case

Defendant Greg Imig hugs defense attorney Kevin Fitzgerald after he and Amy DeWitt were found not guilty of starting the destructive 2015 Sockeye fire on Friday, May 12, 2017, in Palmer. (Rugile Kaladyte / Alaska Dispatch News)

PALMER — The couple accused of starting the destructive Sockeye fire in 2015 was found not guilty on Friday after a weekslong trial in Palmer.

Greg Imig, 61, and Amy DeWitt, 43, were each charged with a dozen counts related to the 2015 wildfire. They were found not guilty on all of them.

The six jurors — three men and three women — were unanimous in the decision after one day of deliberations.

Reactions to the verdict were emotional. Of the dozen Sockeye fire victims present in the courtroom, some cried and one quickly left the room when the verdict was read by Palmer Superior Court Judge David Zwink.

Supporters of the defendants — who had been present every day of the trial — also cried and circled to hug DeWitt and Imig when the jury left the courtroom.

For three weeks, attorneys argued over whether a burn pit on the western edge of the couple's property started the blaze that burned over 7,000 acres and destroyed 100 structures, including 55 homes. Both DeWitt and Imig insisted to investigators from the beginning they had not started the fire.

In a prepared statement following the verdict, Imig told reporters the fire was "very costly" for the couple, in both the physical property lost and the price of defending themselves at trial. But he said it was necessary for the "real information" to come out.

"From the beginning, (DeWitt) and I have been forthright and honest and, frankly, this trial by the State of Alaska was wasteful and unneeded," he read. "We knew we had to take this path to clear our name."

Imig and DeWitt declined to answer additional questions following the verdict.

At issue was whether the couple had been reckless in starting a fire on a June day when temperatures hovered in the 80s and winds were blowing 5-10 mph.

According to testimony, the couple spent the weekend clearing debris at the Willow-area property owned by Imig and his brother, Eric. The night before the fire started, DeWitt burned debris and branches in a small fire while preparing dinner.

She told jurors in testimony last week that the fire never got higher than her knees. She, Imig and her son, who was then 17, watched the fire through the evening.

The next morning she had coffee nearby and placed plywood boards on top of what she believed was a "cold fire." She told jurors the boards were hard to "get going," and so if they smoldered she would know there was still a fire.

State forestry investigators testified that the fire crept out from the board-covered pit and into the nearby woods before erupting into a forest fire Sunday afternoon.

Defense attorneys Kevin Fitzgerald and Philip Shanahan challenged investigators on those allegations.

During testimony, attorneys pressed them on why they didn't strictly follow national recommendations for fire origin investigations. They also questioned scientific conclusions used to determine the fire's origin with testimony from private investigators hired by the defense.

Defense attorneys also challenged issues related to how reckless the couple had been over the weekend, reminding the jury that it was DeWitt who first alerted authorities to the fire's start.

They also petitioned the judge to exclude testimony and evidence related to fireworks found on the property, saying it could bias the jury. The request was granted, since fireworks are not suspected to have caused the fire.

All of the counts against the couple were misdemeanors. Of those, four were lesser charges related to not having a burn permit, allowing the fire to spread and leaving the fire unattended.

The others include five counts of negligent burning in the second degree and three counts of reckless endangerment.

The charges would have carried possible jail time, fines and restitution for victims. In addition, DeWitt and Imig could have been liable for double the $8 million it cost the state to fight the fire.

The verdict means the end of any criminal case according to John Skidmore, director of the state Division of Criminal Law. However, the victims and the state could seek civil damages against the defendants.

That kind of analysis could take weeks, Skidmore said. Cori Mills, spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Law, could not say when such a decision might be made, but the state "must now decide whether to pursue a civil cause of action."

Fire victims present at the hearing expressed shock and dismay over the jury's decision. Many maintained that, despite the verdict, they still believe the couple started the fire.

Carrie Smouldon, whose Willow property burned in the fire, was confused how the jury found them not guilty on all charges when defense attorney Fitzgerald told jurors in opening statements Imig admitted to one of the lesser misdemeanor charges — not having a burn permit.

Carrie Smoldon reacts to the Sockeye Fire trial verdict on Friday, May 12, 2017, in Palmer. Smoldon’s property was burned in the fire. (Rugile Kaladyte / Alaska Dispatch News)

She called the Friday verdict a "travesty of justice."

"There's nothing I can do about it except move on and that's what everyone in Willow will try to do," she said.

Jaimee High, whose house was destroyed in the fire, said she, too, still feels the defendants are guilty based on their actions.

The thing she wanted, she said, was simply an apology. It was a statement echoed by other residents of Willow.

High doesn't expect that to ever happen.

"Whether they're guilty or not, they've never made a public comment saying we are sorry this happened to your community and I think that would be huge," she said. "But we're never going to hear it."

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