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Daughter of inmate who died fighting fire seeks benefits

The mother of Natasha Sharee Whittaker, 11, just wants what she feels her daughter deserves.

Cindy Reynolds would be setting a precedent if she's able to overturn a decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to deny benefits to her daughter following the death last year of the girl's father, a Utah State Prison inmate who was killed while fighting a fire.

Though no family has ever been awarded benefits upon the death of an inmate, Holladay attorney William Hadley will continue seeking a $147,000 insurance claim, denied Jan. 30 by federal officials. An appeal was filed March 16.

"I don't understand it myself," said Hadley. "It's a statutory interpretation, and they're following it very strictly." He recalled a case from the late 1980s where benefits were denied to the families of 18 inmate firefighters who perished in the line of duty.

Whittaker's father, Michael Todd Bishop, 27, was killed along with fellow inmate Rodgie Braithwaite, 26, when lightning struck them while fighting a fire in the Stansbury Mountains of Tooele County Aug. 23. Bishop, convicted of attempted homicide but up for parole next year, was a certified firefighter and a member of the prison's Flame-In-Go program.

"I hope that the outcome would be that they would stop viewing this from the perspective that Michael was an inmate but that we have an orphaned child who needs to be taken care of here," said Reynolds. She called the decision to deny her daughter's claim "blatant" discrimination. "This is about the children, not about the crime their fathers committed.

Braithwaite's family has also retained Hadley, but they have not yet filed a claim, waiting for a final decision on Bishop's case. In order to overturn a decision that stems from the gray area of statutory interpretation, "it would take an act of Congress," said Hadley.

"I think it's a great injustice to use these gentlemen like that," he said, "to use them to fight fires on state and federal lands, and then when it comes down to it to say, 'You're not worth anything; you're not equal to a civilian firefighter.' " Flame-In-Go program director Glenn Beagle disagrees.

"It's not that we're saying that they're not worth anything," he said. The Justice Department only responded to prevailing laws, and "what I think doesn't matter," he said. "We don't treat them like inmates when they're on a fire. We try not to set them apart and say they're different."


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com