Burn pit charges dropped against Prosser farmer with dementia

Attorney Jim Eagan points the way out of court to Prosser farmer Philip Whitney after a hearing in May 2013.
Attorney Jim Eagan points the way out of court to Prosser farmer Philip Whitney after a hearing in May 2013. Tri-City Herald

A Prosser farmer whose smoldering pits of fruit waste severely burned three men no longer faces a criminal charge because he suffers from dementia.

The case against Philip Andrew Whitney was dismissed Thursday, four months after it was put on hold so he could be evaluated by state mental health experts.

The 79-year-old had been charged in Benton County Superior Court with violating the Hazardous Waste Management Act, a felony.

On Thursday, Deputy Prosecutor Terry Bloor said a psychologist at Eastern State Hospital found that Whitney “does not have the capacity to understand the proceedings against him or to assist in his own defense due to dementia.”

Trevor Travers with the Medical Lake facility also concluded it’s unlikely that Whitney will become competent with appropriate treatment.

Prosecutors have no reason to question Travers’ opinion, Bloor said. The dismissal is based on that report.

Whitney was not in court for the decision.

At a May court appearance, Kennewick lawyer Jim Egan said Whitney was evaluated by doctors at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, as well as a private psychologist, and suffers from both long- and short-term memory loss.

Travers conducted his separate evaluation on July 23 at the Kennewick office of Whitney’s defense attorney, Michelle Alexander. He concluded that in addition to moderate dementia, Whitney has a history of traumatic brain injury.

Whitney, who’s been a farmer since 1958, told Travers that in 1978 he was hit on the head with a softball but didn’t have any immediate problems. However, he later passed out in a Yakima Valley hospital and had 16 days of post-traumatic amnesia, the Eastern State Hospital report said.

Whitney confirmed that after a series of tests at Virginia Mason in 2011 he was diagnosed with dementia, along with moderate major depression, the report said.

He told Travers that his charge is related to “spreading fruit pomace or spreading hazardous material,” but he wasn’t sure if it was a misdemeanor or a felony and didn’t know which would be worse. He also said he didn’t know his plea options, but could identify his attorney and others involved in the judicial process, the report said.

Whitney had improperly stored tons of fruit pomace — the remains of fruit after it has been pressed — in large pits on his property, according to court documents. He had contracted with Seneca Foods Corporation and Milne Fruit Products Inc. to dispose of the waste.

Three men fell into the pits between 1996 and 2011, suffering amputations and severe burns.

Benton Fire District 3 described the pits as “eternal burning pulp,” with temperatures up to 500 degrees, documents said. The pits were covered with soil that allowed them to blend in with the surrounding terrain.

In 1996, 16-year-old Phillip Hickle had both legs amputated after falling into one of the pits while quail hunting on Whitney’s property. Hickle settled with Whitney for $1 million and both fruit producers for an undisclosed amount in 2003, three years before Hickle died.

Jon LeClaire also fell into one of the pits in 1996, suffering second-and-third-degree burns. But his case against Whitney and the fruit processors was dismissed after it was determined that LeClaire was trespassing.

An Environmental Protection Agency investigation began shortly after Benjamin Fox fell into one of the pits in 2011 and had 11 skin grafts for third-degree burns.

Whitney sold the property to Volpe Vineyards LLC, which includes members of the Fox family, in 2010. In his lawsuit, Fox claimed that Whitney did not disclose the existence of the waste pits before the sale.

The EPA found three pits on the farm, two that were about 20 feet deep and a third that was four feet deep, court documents said. The investigation found a “fine dust-like material” in the deeper pits, with temperatures ranging from 800 to 1,100 degrees.

Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531;; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer