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Despite arrest, firefighter still on job

The treatment of Paul Karambelas differs greatly from that of three firefighters who were accused of raping a woman last year but never charged.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003


SPRING HILL -- Twenty-one months ago, Spring Hill firefighter/paramedic Paul Karambelas was arrested in Tampa and charged with soliciting a prostitute and carrying a concealed weapon.

Nearly two years after the arrest, Karambelas has yet to be disciplined by the fire rescue district, which has allowed him to keep working without interruption.

Chief J.J. Morrison said he is waiting for Karambelas to complete a pretrial intervention program before he decides what to do.

Morrison's stance with Karambelas stands in sharp contrast to his decision last year to suspend with pay three firefighters who were the subjects of a rape investigation but who were never charged with a crime.

For nearly two months, the chief took a wait-and-see approach with Ed Falk, Tom White and Lt. John Ferriero, just as he had with Karambelas. In the case of the three firefighters, he had been assured by police investigators that the case appeared groundless.

The big difference in the two cases seems to be media coverage.

Until recently, Karambelas' arrest in Tampa -- when officers found a gun in his truck after he solicited an undercover officer for sex -- had gone totally unnoticed. But coverage of the rape allegations, and the fire rescue district's controversial response to it in a pivotal election year, has been extensive since the news first broke in August.

In fact, Morrison's decision to abandon his wait-and-see approach with the firefighters in the rape case came only three days after the first news stories appeared.

At the time, the fire district was seeking its independence from county oversight. The chief said he suspended the three firefighters because he feared a "negative perception" among Spring Hill residents who had long supported the district.

"In order to prevent the potential erosion of this hard-fought public confidence, I am taking this administrative action," Morrison said on Aug. 19. But it was too late to save the cause of independence. Voters soundly defeated it in the November election.

In all, the three firefighters accused in the rape case were suspended with pay for four months. Then, in December, they were hit with unpaid suspensions ranging from two to four weeks.

Through it all, Karambelas never stopped working.

And he has kept going despite having some important notations in his personnel file.

In December 2001, eight months after his Tampa arrest, Karambelas got into a scuffle with another firefighter/paramedic in the cab of an ambulance. Both were given two-day suspensions.

In 2000, notes were placed in Karambelas' file for failing to report for duty on one occasion and advising him to be cautious about lumping his sick days around weekends and holidays.

In 1996, Karambelas was advised to change his attitude with the public after someone from a local hospital reported he had been rude.

In 1991, Karambelas was one of three firefighters counseled for showing a lack of courtesy toward citizens and patients.

Not mentioned in the personnel file was a 1996 arrest on a charge of domestic battery that stemmed from an argument between Karambelas and his wife.

Karambelas did not return phone messages from the Times on Friday.

Morrison said Karambelas has submitted to psychological evaluations that have shown he is no threat to the public. He said he knows that Karambelas is a hunter and that his story -- that the gun found in his car in Tampa was left from a hunting trip -- makes sense.

"I think it's terribly unfair that you are trying to use that (weapons charge) to establish a pattern," Morrison said.

Morrison said that a condition of Karambelas' pretrial program was that he remain employed, which factored into his handling of the case. But beyond that, Morrison said these were simply "two different scenarios" and that he should be able to look at each situation differently.

"I absolutely know that the public is safe and benefitting from (Karambelas') care. But at the same time, what Paul has done is wrong, and that will be dealt with at the appropriate time."

Such distinctions are lost on fire Commissioner Richard Martin.

"I'm still scratching my head wondering what's going on," Martin said of the chief's differing approaches in the cases. "I'm still trying to get with the chief to try and sit down with him and discuss what's going on."

Morrison inherited the Karambelas case when he took over as interim fire chief in November 2001. His predecessor, Michael Morgan, said he had not been aware of Karambelas' arrest in Tampa that April. Morgan had a heart attack in March of that year and was out of work for several weeks.

Fire board Chairman Jeffrey Hollander said the real difference in the two cases probably boils down to media coverage. The three firefighters in the sex scandal might have been dealt with differently had that case not "blown up" in the media, he said.

The way it was presented began to sway the public's trust in the fire rescue district, he said.

"If you sway public trust in the wrong direction, regardless of whether it is proper or not, the chief has to react to it," Hollander said. "He's not reacting to the press. He's reacting to the result of the press."

-- Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com .

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