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Children's home employee charged in fire

RAPID CITY - An employee of Black Hills Children's Home has been charged with starting the Battle Creek Fire, which burned 13,700 acres and destroyed three homes last August.

Lisa Tully, 27, Hill City, was indicted Thursday by a Pennington County grand jury on three counts of second-degree arson and 27 counts of third-degree arson. She was arrested Friday after turning herself in to the Pennington County Sheriff's Office.

Tully is the daughter of Fred Tully, who was clinical director of Black Hills Children's Home for 20 years before retiring in early 2002. Investigators say she was working at the South Rockerville Road facility on Aug. 16, 2002, when the Battle Creek Fire started behind a building on the Children's Home campus.

Pennington County Sheriff's investigator Lt. Lynn McLane said investigators believe they have a motive but said, "We probably can't talk about it at this point in time." She also declined to comment on how the fire began.

Initial reports were that the fire was sparked when a transformer on a power pole blew up. By Aug. 21, however, officials said they were leaning toward a human cause. McLane said Tully became a suspect early in the investigation.

Tully has a history with fire. In 1996, she was charged with second-degree arson after an incident at Dakota Wesleyan University.

According to Davison County court documents, Tully was working for DWU security on Sept. 17, 1996, when she reported a fire in a basement women's bathroom of the Campus Center Building.

"On Oct. 16, 1996, defendant admitted to me that she had set paper on fire four times on Sept. 17, 1996, in Campus Center," law enforcement officer Charlie Larson stated in an affidavit. "She then reported this to law enforcement describing a suspect leaving the building at that time."

Charges were later reduced. Tully was eventually convicted of vandalism and false reporting in connection with the incident, according to circuit court records. Jail time of 120 days and $500 in fines were suspended, though Tully was ordered to pay restitution of $600, a court employee said.

If convicted on the current charges, Tully faces up to 25 years in prison and a $25,000 fine on each count of second-degree arson. Each count of third-degree arson is punishable by 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

According to a news release from the Pennington County Sheriff's Office, each count of the current indictment resulted from the destruction of homes, unoccupied structures and other property destroyed by the Battle Creek Fire.

The fire burned for 13 days and was the nation's top priority for several days. Total costs of fire-fighting and cleanup have exceeded $15 million. More than 1,800 firefighters fought the fire at its peak.

Hayward Volunteer Fire Department's 19 firefighters, including Chief Clayton Blankenship, were among them. "We had four trucks, and those trucks were out at least 12 hours a day for the first week," Blankenship said. "That first night was just not much fun."

Friday, his reaction to news of an arrest was low-key. "I guess I'm glad they caught the person," he said. However, "There's a lot of effects on a lot of people there that there's no way they'll ever be compensated for."

Hundreds of people were evacuated for days as a result, including Roy and Kathy McNeary and their family. The McNearys also lost an old mobile home that was being used for storage, and numerous antiques that were inside.

Roy McNeary and other property owners were subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury. On Friday, Mc-Neary said he was reserving judgment until he hears more about what happened.

"It's nice that they finally are moving along on it, because for a while there, I'd pretty much given up any hope of anyone being held accountable," he said. "It's nice to know at long last that somebody is at least being brought forward."

McNeary said he hasn't heard a word about possible compensation for his losses. At his home, the long cleanup process continues. "Every time I open the door, it's all still there," he said. "It's just a major mess."

Black Hills Children's Home director Mike McFarland referred all questions to Bill Colson, chief operating officer for Children's Home Society, which operates children's homes in Rockerville and Sioux Falls. Colson said Children's Home Society is cooperating with investigators but declined to give any information on Lisa Tully's job at the facility.

"It's a personnel issue, and Children's Home doesn't publicly discuss the handling of personnel issues," he said. "Our mission is to take care of kids and keep kids safe and deal with abused and neglected kids in South Dakota. That has not changed, and it will not change."

U.S. Attorney James McMahon was unavailable for comment Friday as to whether Tully could also face federal charges in the fire.

The Battle Creek investigation was conducted by the Pennington County Sheriff's Office, the evidence section of the Rapid City Police Department and the U.S. Forest Service.

Tully is the second woman charged in the past few years with starting a major forest fire in the Black Hills. Janice Stevenson of Newcastle, Wyo., was convicted of arson in state and federal court for starting the Jasper Fire, which burned 130 square miles in the southern Black Hills in 2000. She is currently serving a 25-year state sentence and a 10-year federal sentence.

Another woman, U.S. Forest Service employee Terry Barton, was recently sentenced for starting last summer's Hayman Fire in Colorado, which burned more than 137,000 acres there.

Contact Heidi Bell Gease at 394-8419 or heidi.bell@rapidcityjournal.com

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