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Dementia brings legal end to burn pit tragedy

  • Three people fell into farmer Phillip Andrew Whitney’s burn pits from 1996-2011 in a chain of tragedies compounded by neglect and dereliction.

Three people too many. Three people fell into Phillip Andrew Whitney’s burn pits from 1996-2011 in a chain of tragedies compounded by neglect and dereliction.

Whitney, 79, a Prosser, Wash., farmer, contracted with Seneca Foods and Milne Fruit Products to get rid of massive amounts of fruit pomace. Whitney dug three pits for the fruit remains on his farm and covered them over with dirt. Two of the pits, according to the Associated Press, were 20 feet deep and the other was 4 feet deep.

From the AP: “Benton County firefighters described the pits as ‘eternal burning pulp,’ with temperatures of up to 500 degrees. They were covered with soil to blend into the terrain.”

In 1996, while 16-year old Phillip Hickle was hunting, he became the first to fall in the burn pits. He had both legs amputated and “settled with Whitney for $1 million and both fruit producers for an undisclosed amount in 2003. He died three years later.”

Jon LeClaire fell in Whitney’s burn pits next — also in 1996 — suffering second- and third-degree burns. According to the Tri-City Herald, LeClaire’s suit “was dismissed after it was determined that he was trespassing.”

In 2010, Whitney sold the land to Volpe Vineyards — with apparently no warning about the burn pits. In 2011, Benjamin Fox (a relative of the Volpe Vineyards family) fell in the pits and needed “11 skin grafts for third-degree burns.”

Prosecutors eventually charged Whitney with a felony for violating the Hazardous Waste Management Act — charges that would have been difficult to beat with a conventional defense. However, in May 2013, defense lawyer Jim Egan claimed Whitney wasn’t fit for trial due to the loss of both short- and long-term memory. On Oct. 10, the court agreed and prosecutors dropped the charges.

Regardless of whether Whitney's dementia is real or feigned, the possibility of criminal charges is over — but the for the victims and families left behind in a senseless tragedy — the scars remain.

(For more, see Burn pit charges dropped against Prosser farmer with dementia or Wash. farmer with dementia sees hazardous waste charge dropped)


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