ASHEVILLE – Raymond Neal Swayney, 31, of Cherokee, appeared in federal court in Asheville on Monday, Dec. 5 and pleaded guilty to intentionally setting fires on Indian lands, announced Jill Westmoreland Rose, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Howell presided over Monday’s plea hearing.
According to information contained in filed court documents, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has the authority to hire temporary Administratively Determined (AD) Firefighters for emergencies in progress within the boundaries of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), including to cope with unexpected emergencies caused by fire or extreme fire potential. The hiring of an AD Firefighter is of uncertain, temporary duration.
Once a fire is assigned a fire code, AD firefighters are paid based upon the number of hours they worked in support of that fire code, which includes not only payment for actual firefighting but also post-fire maintenance of equipment, cleaning trucks, etc.
According to court documents, because AD firefighters are only compensated when they are called in for an active fire code, Swayney and others willfully set several wildland fires on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, and received compensation for fighting the fires. According to court documents, between March 5, 2010 and Feb. 25, 2014, Swayney and others intentionally set seven fires, which destroyed more than 420 acres of tribal lands and cost over $106,661.98 in BIA funds to extinguish.
Swayney pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to set timber afire and to defraud the United States. The charge carries a maximum prison term of five years and a $250,000 fine. Swayney is being held pending sentencing. A sentencing date has not been set yet.
The Bill of Information filed with court documents states that “Swayney and others intentionally started” the following fires:
- Creek fire – March 10, 2010; burned two acres; total cost: $5,767.38 in BIA funds
- Board fire – March 10, 2010; burned two acres; total cost: $1,243.97 in BIA funds
- Yellow fire – Oct. 22, 2010; burned six acres; total cost: $21,747.56 in BIA funds
- Possum fire – May 21, 2011; burned 142 acres; total cost: $20,409.30 in BIA funds
- Soco fire – Nov. 21, 2012; burned 144 acres; total cost: $29,008.12 in BIA funds
- Drama fire – April 6, 2013; burned 7.8 acres; total cost: $15,502.66 in BIA funds
- Kituwah fire – Feb. 25, 2014; burned 120 acres; total cost: $12,982.99 in BIA funds
In making the announcement, U.S. Attorney Rose thanked the United States Department of the Interior, Office of the Inspector General, for leading the investigation and the Cherokee Indian Police Department, the Swain County Sheriff’s Office, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs for their assistance with the case.
Assistant United States Attorney John Pritchard, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Asheville, is prosecuting the case.
– U.S. Department of Justice, One Feather staff contributed to this report