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Scandal sets fire board in motion

The Spring Hill Fire Commission, rocked by rape allegations, takes steps toward a procedure for investigating complaints against its firefighters.

By JAMIE JONES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 25, 2002


SPRING HILL -- The Spring Hill Fire Commission on Saturday initiated work on an internal procedure for investigating complaints against firefighters.

The five-member volunteer board asked Chief J.J. Morrison to present information at a formal meeting on Wednesday about how to structure such investigations within the fire district.

The request came during an emergency 9 a.m. meeting called by commission chairman Bob Kanner.

"The emergency is the state of the fire district," Kanner said to a room crowded with firefighters, their wives and a few citizens.

He called the meeting to discuss three firefighters who are under investigation for the reported rape of a 32-year-old Spring Hill woman at a convention in Altamonte Springs.

The woman told authorities that she got "extremely intoxicated" and that the firefighters took advantage of her in a hotel room. The firefighters, Lt. John Ferriero, Edward Falk and Thomas White, admitted having sex but said it was consensual, according to authorities.

Morrison knew about the investigation early on, but did not suspend the firefighters until the allegations were made public.

They were suspended with pay on Monday while prosecutors in Seminole County decide whether to press charges.

On Saturday, Kanner asked for guidance from the district's attorney, Andrew Salzman.

Salzman, a former prosecutor, recommended that the board hold off on performing its own internal investigation. He said the board likely would not get far in its questioning during the criminal inquiry.

After prosecutors are done, the board can determine if any district policies were violated and, if so, what actions to take, Salzman said.

Commissioner Jeffrey Hollander said the board must send a message to employees and the public that it will take care of the situation thoughtfully.

He recommended that the board take advice from Jack Scott, a Spring Hill resident who said he was a retired investigator for the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office. Scott told the board that it should consider appointing one supervising officer within the agency as head of internal investigations.

When complaints arise, that person could hire an outside agency or investigator to gather facts in a particular case and present materials to the appointed person. Then, the chief would make the final call.

Scott agreed to offer any advice to Morrison in coming weeks.

Commissioner Gene Panozzo warned board members against discussing the case with the press.

"This can all come back to bite you in the butt," he said, mentioning the possibility of civil lawsuits.

Commissioner Tommy Marasciullo, who has been criticized for calling the reported victim a "groupie firefighter girl," said he was not sorry for what he said. He will stand by the firefighters until the investigation is complete, he said.

"To admit to something that is consensual is not admitting to rape," he said of the firefighters.

The board heard from several residents during the 90-minute meeting, including Terence Gorski, who recommended that the district hire a public affairs officer to deal with reporters. He said he has noticed among his firefighter friends that they are preoccupied with the case and publicity about the department.

Gorski urged the board to put some type of protective wall between the three suspended firefighters and the rest of the district.

"The public credibility of this department is seriously on the line," he said.

Morrison told the board that firefighters were "holding their heads up." He said he had stopped at every station to talk with firefighters, and invited the public to call him with concerns.

"We have a great bunch of people out there dedicating their lives to taking care of the public," Morrison said.

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