Report: Tempe fire officials erred in case
Tempe fire chief, assistant leave department
by Laurie Merrill - Jun. 23, 2012 08:21 PM
The Republic | azcentral.com
Tempe's fire chief and assistant fire chief retired from their posts last month after an independent investigation found they had committed serious errors during a suspicious fire at the home of a firefighter in their department, according to city officials and documents obtained by The Arizona Republic.
The report ended the careers of Assistant Fire Chief Marc Scott, a 34-year veteran, and Fire Chief Mark Simmons, a 31-year veteran. They retired in May after the city manager confronted them with the findings of the investigation.
The firefighter, Michael Keene, was fired in May, but wants his job back. Last December, he was indicted on four felonies accusing him of assaulting Scott and starting a fire at a former home that caused more than $100,000 in damage.
The fire occurred on Aug. 11, 2011, in the 1900 block of East Del Rio Drive in Tempe, at the residence of Keene and his wife, Jessica.
According to the report by Scottsdale, which was asked to conduct an independent investigation to avoid a possible conflict, Scott and Simmons were more concerned about avoiding a media event than in obtaining justice.
"Scott explained he did not want to get the police involved because he feared that the media would find out if he did," the investigative report says.
Tempe fire officials waited one day to inform Tempe police about the assault allegation. Although Keene was indicted Dec. 6, the reporting delay prevented his arrest on Aug. 11, the report says.
Tempe police did not learn until eight days later that the fire was suspicious, making it impossible to charge Keene with arson, the report says. When Keene was indicted, he was charged with criminal damage, which accuses him of starting the fire unintentionally.
Because Keene was a Tempe firefighter, the usual steps were not taken, the report said. Keene treated differently
"Keene was treated that evening differently than a citizen because he was a firefighter," the report states. "His house would have been searched completely, he wouldn't have been allowed access into the house and he would have been arrested immediately after the assault on Scott."
Tempe fire inspector Michael Reichling was told not to search the bulk of the house, a deviation from common practice, as was losing control of the scene, which occurred because the Keenes and Simmons were in and out, the report says.
"The chain of evidence was broken once Keene was allowed on the scene," Tempe City Manager Charlie Meyer told The Republic in an interview.
When Reichling asked Scott for the third time to call police, the report says, Scott snapped at him.
"You just do your goddamned job," Scott said, according to the report. "Get in there and do your job."
Simmons agreed with Scott's decision to delay calling police and said they would discuss options the next morning, the report says.
"There were two separate issues requiring police attention on Aug. 11, 2011: Keene's assault on Scott and the suspicious origin of the fire," the report says. "Scott wanted to avoid media involvement ... Since police were not called, with the exception of the photographs taken by Reichling, evidence was not collected or impounded, the scene was not documented to the degree necessary in a criminal investigation, and arson detectives did not have the opportunity to question Michael and Jessica Keene."
Reichling labeled the fire "undetermined" because of the unusual limits imposed, the report says.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which reviewed Scott's and Simmons' actions at the request of Tempe police, said they did not rise to the criminal level of hindrance or obstruction of justice. Signs of a set fire
According to the Scottsdale report, and police and fire reports obtained by The Republic, suspicious aspects of the blaze include:
The fire began in a master bedroom closet containing only Jessica Keene's garments.
The blaze began in the center of the closet about 3 feet off the floor, where clothes might have been hanging.
There was no natural or electrical cause of the fire.
Michael Keene gave inconsistent accounts of how the fire started. He first said it started when a candle was knocked over. Then he said a cat knocked it over. Later, he said he knocked it over while swatting at things after Jessica rejected his romantic overtures. At first, Michael Keene said it was a big candle that must have started the fire, and then said it was a small candle.
There was no wax residue found in the area where the fire originated.
"In my expert opinion the fire was set," Reichling told investigators, according to the report.
While firefighters were at the fire scene, Michael Keene flew into a rage, kicked Scott and used obscenities when told he could not search for his wife's wedding gown, the report says. The gown was later found unharmed in a hall closet.
Reichling stopped the fight by standing between Keene and Scott, the report said, and two other firefighters escorted Keene across the street.
Michael and Jessica Keene had been drinking and arguing throughout the evening, starting with margaritas at a Scottsdale eatery and continuing with wine after returning home, the report says.
Michael Keene admitted he was intoxicated in a letter of apology, in which he said he regretted "lashing out" at Scott. He also said he was in Alcoholics Anonymous, which Jessica refuted, according to the report.
Around Thanksgiving, Meyer, the city manager, asked Scottsdale to conduct the investigation.
"I wanted a clear understanding of what happened that night. We weren't out to get anybody," said Meyer. "I wanted to know about the actions of all the players."
Meyer said he received the "very thorough" report in March, which drew no conclusions but spelled out the actions of Keene, Scott, Simmons, Reichling and several other firefighters at the house.
Meyer said he confronted Simmons in his office.
"I said, 'I have the report, and there is information of great concern in the report. I would like you to review it and then I would like to talk to you about it after you are done,' " Meyer said.
Simmons, who had recently entered the city's five-year retirement deferment program, studied the document over a weekend, Meyer said.
"He met with me," Meyer said, "and he told me he had decided to retire."
Scott followed suit.
Under his retirement package, Simmons receives $7,818 a month as well as $260 a month in insurance subsidies until he dies, according to Bonnie Bell, retired members' manager of the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System.
Simmons also received a lump sum of $79,500, Bell said. The Arizona State Retirement System did not respond to The Republic's request about the retirement of Scott, who, unlike Simmons, was a civilian.
Keene's attorney, Bob Storrs, said his client wants his job back. "He wants to be a firefighter again," said Storrs.
Although Reichling told Scottsdale police that Keene could have faced an arson charge, Storrs said: "This really was in my opinion an accident. He didn't do it intentionally."
Outgoing Mayor Hugh Hallman called the Scottsdale report "very disappointing" and added that he expects nothing short of "superlative" performance from the Tempe Fire Department.
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