Scout who started fatal fire avoids jail

March 19, 2009 11:19:44 AM PDT
It was a hot July night at Boy Scout camp. Six boys, including Eagle Scout Brian Lenz, were clad in shorts and T-shirts, looking for something to do. One of them was going to die, in a case that would shine an uncomfortable spotlight on the Scouts' safety and supervision policies.

Lenz, an 18-year-old camp counselor, decided to show the younger boys a trick: the "circle of fire," in which he would squirt rubbing alcohol in a pattern on a table and set it aflame.

It would look cool. And it would quickly burn out.

When Lenz tried to reignite what he thought was a dying flame, fire leapt from the table along the stream of liquid, back into the squeeze bottle he was holding.

Instinctively, he shook his hand, flinging the burning bottle away and inadvertently spraying flaming alcohol onto the other Scouts at the Joseph A. Citta Reservation in Waretown, N.J., last year on July 6.

In an instant, Sean Whitley, a 17-year-old nearing his own Eagle Scout rank, was horribly burned on his legs and abdomen. He died four days later at a Philadelphia hospital. Two other Scouts, including Whitley's twin brother and a 14-year-old Scout, were also burned but soon recovered.

Lenz appeared in court Thursday to plead not guilty to aggravated assault and was admitted into a pretrial intervention program that will enable him to avoid jail time or even a criminal record.

The case came nearly three years after the organization reached an out-of-court settlement with the family of a New Jersey Scout who was killed by lightning at a Pennsylvania camp.

Boy Scout policies prohibit the use or possession of flammable liquids, and the leader of the local Scout council said two adults are supposed to be present "in all situations."

"Even one incident like this is one too many," said Craig Shelley, Scout executive for the Jersey Shore Council. "We have redoubled our efforts to ensure the safety of every child in our care. Fire safety is something we are having increased discussions about."

Whitley's family sued Lenz and the Boy Scouts about a month ago, seeking unspecified damages and alleging that negligence led to Whitley's wrongful death.

"The loss of Sean has been a tragedy for all involved," the victim's family said in a statement provided to The Associated Press on Wednesday by its lawyer. They did not attend Lenz's court appearance and would not speak to reporters.

"We hope this incident helps focus attention to the need for increased fire safety training and supervision of minor counselors," they said. "The love Sean had for the camp and his friends on staff demands that every effort be taken to ensure their absolute safety."

Lenz, tall and pale with close-cropped brown hair, did not speak in court other than to answer, "Yes, sir" to a series of technical questions the judge asked. Outside the courtroom, Lenz and his parents, other relatives and lawyer all declined to comment.

The Whitleys' lawyer, Joel Rosen, would not say how the family feels about Lenz being admitted to the intervention program. But a prosecutor said the family was consulted before the decision was made to offer it to Lenz.

Pretrial intervention is designed for nonviolent, first-time offenders. It lets them avoid criminal prosecution in return for staying out of trouble for a year, performing community service, and paying fines or restitution.

Whitley, who lived in Evesham in Burlington County, was attending the first day of the weeklong camp in Lenz's hometown. Whitley and his brother Kenneth were staff members at the camp, which they had both attended for years.

A Web site by Whitley's family and friends described him as "a quiet, intelligent kid with a dry sense of humor. He and his twin brother Ken were inseparable and did nearly everything together.

"Not overly athletic or academically driven, Scouting gave him the opportunity to shine and to display the maturity and responsible nature that seemed unusual for his age," they wrote on the site. "His enthusiasm for Scouting and for the friends he made through it were extraordinary."

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