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Motive behind Cherokee fire remains mystery

An apparent arson fire that burned the Tribal Operations Program building in Cherokee in the early morning hours of Dec. 20 remained under investigation by the police department at press time Tuesday (Dec. 30).

The building, which held ordinances and resolutions passed by the Tribal Council going back decades, suffered “substantial damage,” according to a Cherokee Police Department news release.

Tribal Operations Program Manager Rosie McCoy said there were thousands of resolutions and ordinances in the building and that all of them were in fireproof cabinets. It is unclear if the documents were damaged in the fire, McCoy said.

McCoy has not been able to check on the documents because investigators won’t allow employees back in the building.

“Everything has been under lock and key,” McCoy said.

McCoy hasn’t been told by investigators whether anyone has opened the safe to see if the documents are OK.

She directed the newspaper to contact Cherokee Attorney General Annette Tarnowski, who could not be reached for comment.

McCoy said even if the ordinances and resolutions in the building were destroyed there are backup copies at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office. She said there are also digital copies.

The Cherokee Police Department is releasing little on the case saying it is an ongoing investigation. A news release states, “A criminal investigation is under way and every effort will be made to find those responsible for the crime.”

The Tribal Operations building is located adjacent to the Tribal Council building where the council meets and where the chief’s and vice chief’s offices are. The building is located just down the hill, a stone’s throw from the police department.

The police responded to the fire around 4:17 a.m., according to the news release. McCoy said the front part of the building suffered smoke and water damage while the back portion had “significant structural damage.”

The Smoky Mountain News hit the streets in Cherokee this week to find out what people were saying about the fire, like Patty Lopez, who was puzzled over why someone would want to burn the building. Lopez, who works in Cherokee, said she thinks it was “meanness,” adding the perpetrators were probably bored children.

Lopez added that she is concerned enrollment documents that identify members of the tribe could have been destroyed.

But Nancy Maney, manager of the Enrollment Office, which is in a different building than the one that burned, said none of the enrollment documents were in the burned building.

Other residents in Cherokee were suspicious of the motives behind the fire. Earl Stevens of Cherokee said he thinks someone may have burned the building to hide a “paper trail.” Stevens said he doesn’t think the perpetrators will be caught.

Reg Queen of Cherokee agreed that someone may be trying to cover up something.

Know anything?

Anyone with information that could be useful in solving the arson case in Cherokee is asked to call the police department at 828.554.6168. There is a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrator.

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