Friday, December 19, 2008

When Prosecutors Become Persecutors

U.S. Attorneys in Minneapolis really wanted to nail somebody for the 2007 Ham Lake Fire. But the zealots killed a man instead.

Here's the whole tragic story, as expertly told by The Duluth News Tribune. If there's any real justice in this country, there ought to be an investigation into how this prosecution (or was it persecution?) was handled, and discipline should be meted-out to these overzealous Federal Avengers. All of us support law and order, and want to see serious criminals punished for their acts. But this is just wrong.

The man made a terrible mistake and initially lied about it when confronted. Was what followed really the pursuit of justice, or heartless government persecution of an otherwise honest and law-abiding citizen?

Defense lawyer says feds pushed too hard in Ham Lake Fire case

By: John Myers , Duluth News Tribune

There’s no doubt that Stephen Posniak was camped on Ham Lake on May 5, 2007, and was there when a campfire somehow blew out of control and ignited what would become Minnesota’s largest and most expensive wildfire in nearly 80 years.

Interviewed by authorities the day the fire started, Posniak at first said he was not camped on Ham Lake, but in interviews on following days he eventually admitted he was.

But Posniak and his attorney were set to argue in federal court next month that Posniak was the victim of overzealous prosecution — that there was no crime involved, and certainly no felony, in the campfire that turned into a forest fire.

As it turns out, there will be no trial.

Posniak, 64, was found dead by his wife on Tuesday in the back yard of their home in Washington, D.C. The career bureaucrat for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission apparently shot himself.

His defense attorney, Mark Larsen of Minneapolis, said he believes Posniak was distraught over the case — over being prosecuted, over the prospects of going to jail and over being blamed for the forest fire that caused so much heartache and loss.

“To charge a person of his age, with his background and his frailties and his love of the Boundary Waters with essentially intending to start this forest fire was simply wrong,’’ Larsen said. “There are consequences when you push people too far and, unfortunately, you and I are talking about those consequences today.’’

Larsen said the U.S. Attorney “overcharged’’ Posniak with a felony statute that is tantamount to arson. The government refused to concede to a lesser, misdemeanor charge of starting a fire that incidentally caused a forest fire, Larsen said.

“Whatever it was that happened up there, it was not intentional. But they insisted on a felony,’’ Larsen said. “Here was a guy who loved the Boundary Waters so much that he came back almost annually for more than 20 years,’’ Larsen said. “And the government’s charge against him offers no distinction between what happened and arson, at least none that I could discern.’’

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Minnesota did not immediately return a reporter’s phone call Wednesday.

As the case developed, Posniak described discovering a fire behind his campsite with some five acres already ablaze and having only a small pot to carry water. “Count two [in the indictment against Posniak] was failing to put the fire out. So how was he supposed to do that when all he has is a pot that carries two quarts?’’ Larsen noted.

Posniak eventually canoed out of the BWCAW and back to Tuscarora Lodge on the Gunflint Trail, where his vehicle was located. There, law enforcement officers were told Posniak might have knowledge about the fire.

Larsen said he would never concede to Posniak being guilty of any crime, or even being responsible for the ensuing forest fire that caused more than $11 million in property damage and cost $10 million to battle. No one was seriously hurt.

Larsen noted that federal sentencing guidelines, even for a person with absolutely no criminal record, called for prison time if Posniak had been found guilty of the felony.

Larsen was prepared to make the tinder-dry condition at the time part of the defense, saying the Forest Service was derelict in not having a campfire ban in effect during a record-dry spring and after the 1999 windstorm that left an unprecedented amount of dead and drying timber in the woods.

Larsen said he could not offer more details of Posniak’s account of how the fire started, saying it could taint any civil legal action.

It’s possible that insurance companies for home and cabin owners, and the U.S. government, could sue Posniak’s estate seeking restitution for some $11 million in damages to buildings and the $10 million cost to battle the blaze. The government also could seek restitution to any merchantable timber outside the BWCAW that was lost to the fire.

Larsen scoffed at that prospect, saying Posniak was on a fixed government pension and was not a wealthy man.

Larsen said he most recently talked with Posniak on Monday to inform him of developments in the case, including a judge’s decision that stifled part of their defense effort. Larsen said he had no indication Posniak was suicidal.

Posniak was married and lived in a middle-class neighborhood about five miles from the Capitol, according to neighbor Michael Collotta. He described Posniak as “a quiet guy who kept to himself, a little bit withdrawn.”

Washington, D.C., Metropolitan police told Collotta that Posniak’s wife discovered his body in the couple’s back yard early Tuesday evening.

Posniak worked in information technology for the federal agency and had received a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota, which is when Larsen believes Posniak discovered and fell in love with the BWCAW.

Those who live and work along the Gunflint Trail expressed sadness following Posniak’s death.

Several have noted they didn’t hold grudges and that finding the person whose campfire raged out of control wouldn’t bring back the burned buildings or the charred trees.

Sue Ahrendt, co-owner of the Tuscarora Lodge on the Gunflint Trail, heard the news on Tuesday night. The lodge, where Posniak had stayed before embarking on his BWCAW trip, is located near the end of the dead-end wilderness road that was hard hit by the fire. And though a number of nearby cabins, homes, and businesses were either destroyed or damaged in the fire, Ahrendt said she hadn’t heard much personal vitriol aimed at Posniak since he was indicted in October.

“I have not heard people wanting to crucify him,” she said. “I don’t feel like there was a lot of anger directed toward him.”

She declined to talk about Posniak personally.

“Right now, I’m just sad about Steve,” she said.

Nancy Seaton, co-owner of Hungry Jack Canoe Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail, had similar thoughts. “It’s just one tragedy after another,” she said.

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