The State Worker

Cal Fire Academy cadets, instructors were good for bar’s business, until scandal broke

A Cal Fire poster hangs in Bg’s bar next to Mel and Faye’s Diner on Wednesday in Jackson. The tavern was once a regular hangout for Cal Fire Academy’s instructors and cadets, before scandal erupted around the department following the arrest of former Ione academy instructor Orville “Moe” Fleming in the murder of his girlfriend, Sarah June Douglas, 26.
A Cal Fire poster hangs in Bg’s bar next to Mel and Faye’s Diner on Wednesday in Jackson. The tavern was once a regular hangout for Cal Fire Academy’s instructors and cadets, before scandal erupted around the department following the arrest of former Ione academy instructor Orville “Moe” Fleming in the murder of his girlfriend, Sarah June Douglas, 26. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Before the murder, before the manhunt and the police investigation, before the salacious Cal Fire scandal, Bg’s Lounge in Jackson was a go-to watering hole for the department’s Ione academy instructors and cadets.

That all ended last May, when Sarah June Douglas, 26, was found stabbed to death inside her south Sacramento home, a bedsheet tied around her neck. Her boyfriend, former Cal Fire academy instructor Orville “Moe” Fleming, hid out for 16 days in bushes near the home before police flushed him out and made an arrest. Last fall, he pleaded not guilty to a single count of murder, and he remains in Sacramento County jail awaiting trial.

In the long months since his arrest, said Bg’s bartender Lacey Arevalo, Department of Forestry and Fire Protection employees have stopped coming in.

“It really hurt our business,” said Arevalo, who has poured drinks at Bg’s for six years and knew Fleming. “They used to come in and take over a wall, or the back half of the room.”

Cal Fire’s cadet academy sits on a sprawling campus in the small town of Ione, a winding 12-mile drive from Jackson through Amador County’s oak-studded hills. Bg’s and other bars in the area are mentioned by name or by town in Cal Fire employee disciplinary records. The businesses did nothing wrong, but the documents accuse Ione academy cadets and instructors of consuming alcohol at the establishments while on duty, along with other alleged misdeeds, between 2012 and mid-2014.

Despite repeated requests for an interview, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott didn’t make himself available for this story. The Bee asked to tour the academy grounds, but officials said they couldn’t arrange a time that wouldn’t disrupt operations. Cal Fire also has refused to release the California Highway Patrol’s report on the $1.76 million investigation it conducted into academy activities at Cal Fire’s request.

The findings from that CHP investigation resulted in disciplinary actions against more than a dozen Cal Fire employees, and The Sacramento Bee was able to obtain records for those proceedings. The records portray a pattern of misbehavior among cadets and instructors that includes accusations of shared pornography, sexual harassment, cheating for career advancement and on-duty drinking, sometimes to the point of unconsciousness.

Cal Fire instructors and cadets were good for Bg’s business. An average 580 students attend the academy each year for courses that run from five to seven weeks, depending on the nature of the training. The course load covers basic wildfire training, heavy-equipment operation and emergency management, among other subjects.

Bg’s co-owner Maura Gillman said Cal Fire Academy staff and cadets often called ahead to ask if the bar would stay open weeknights past its usual 10:30 p.m. last call. Gillman said she appreciated the heads-up and happily poured drinks and served food until 2 a.m. “as long as we had customers.” She figured the academy groups came in after they were off the clock.

Despite the later cocktail hour, however, Cal Fire cadets and instructors weren’t always free to drink.

Under Cal Fire’s contracts, cadets’ workdays run 8 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays. The battalion chiefs and fire captains who train the cadets work 72 hours straight each week, with the last 19 hours paid at overtime rates. Firefighters in the field are assigned to similar shifts so they are available for emergencies at all hours.

Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said the academy offers the three-day, 24-hour shifts to instructors as a sweetener to “aid us with recruitment and retention.” The three-day option with overtime pay, he said, is equivalent to what they could make as commanders in the field.

And every so often, academy trainers and cadets get called out. From 2012 through last year, academy staff responded to 138 emergencies, including 34 wildfires, according to Cal Fire records.

Life at the academy might not have come under scrutiny had Fleming’s estranged wife, Meagan Fleming, not told KXTV in Sacramento that she had seen video of Douglas – who at one point worked as an escort – having sex with firefighters on firetrucks.

Following the accusation, Cal Fire commissioned the CHP to conduct an internal probe. The departments signed a five-month, $658,000 agreement to cover the costs until mid-September, according to billing documents provided under California’s Public Records Act. They later amended it to $1.8 million through the end of 2014. CHP eventually billed Cal Fire for $1.76 million .

Most of the money, $1.6 million, paid salaries and benefits for eight to 11 officers assigned to the case each month. A little more than 1,000 overtime hours added $100,716 to Cal Fire’s bill. Mileage, office supplies, airfare, lodging and other travel expenses accounted for nearly $66,000 more. The department paid CHP with money from the state’s general fund.

Investigators found no credible evidence of a sex tape, Cal Fire said, but after conducting 163 interviews and analyzing state-owned cellphones, computers and email accounts, CHP found other alleged misdeeds, according to the disciplinary records reviewed by The Bee.

Among the behavior outlined in the documents: Instructors engaging in sexual harassment and lewd acts against female academy employees. Instructors sharing links to pornographic and sex-club websites via state cellphones. One instructor hooking up with prostitutes using a state phone and state vehicle. Another helping cadets cheat on promotional interviews.

The records also describe managers who drank alcohol while on duty and allowed subordinates to do the same on academy grounds and at area bars.

In the end, 15 Cal Fire employees were terminated or disciplined. One resigned. None work at the academy now. Several have appealed their punishments.

The academy’s top administrator, George Morris III, is gone, too. But unlike his former subordinates, Morris wasn’t named in disciplinary documents reviewed by The Bee. He was promoted out of the Ione facility that he oversaw from November 2013 until Dec. 12, 2014.

He now heads Cal Fire’s Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit headquartered in Auburn. The position pays $11,327.10 per month, or just under $136,000 annually, according to state payroll records. His former job paid about $400 less per month.

Morris did not respond to an interview request left on his office voice mail. His boss, Pimlott, has been unavailable to talk with The Bee about Morris’ promotion or the academy, according to Cal Fire Deputy Director Janet Upton.

Asked about Morris’ promotion, Upton said he was selected through a competitive process “as the most qualified candidate.”

While Cal Fire has refused to disclose details of the CHP investigation, recent interviews with Bg’s bartender Arevalo and co-owner Gillman shed some light on the probe – and Moe Fleming.

Gillman and her husband, Bart, own the bar on State Highway 49, which rolls gently through the heart of Jackson. Bg’s sits in virtual shadow behind the Gillmans’ brightly lit Mel and Faye’s Diner. The family-style restaurant is known for its pie, half-pound “Moo Burger” and $17.95 prime rib special on Friday and Saturday nights.

Double doors connect Mel and Faye’s with Bg’s narrower, darker space. On live-music nights, a pool table at the back is moved to make room for a small performance stage and dancing. More than 100 baseball caps ring the ceiling. One bears the insignia of the National Rifle Association. Another touts Texas industrialist H. Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign.

Arevalo said Fleming was among the many Cal Fire instructors and cadets who regularly visited the bar, but that he ordered milkshakes, not booze. When he disappeared after Douglas’ death, Arevalo thought Fleming was also dead because, she said, “Moe was a nice guy. ... I still don’t believe he did it.”

She recalled that Fleming brought Douglas to Bg’s twice for dinner. He was gregarious, Arevalo said, but “she didn’t speak much.”

Fleming sometimes dropped by cadet graduation ceremonies at Bg’s where, according to the disciplinary records, on-the-clock drinking occurred. The bar features a large downstairs banquet room with a podium, sound system, cloth-draped tables and seating for up to 120. A brothel operated on the site before it burned down.

“Instructors reserved the room” for graduation dinners of between 30 and 45 cadets and family members, said Gillman, who tended the downstairs bar during those events. Once the meal ended, the party moved upstairs. Gillman said she never saw any Cal Fire staff misbehave.

But the disciplinary documents state that several instructors drank and allowed subordinates to do the same during graduation celebrations from 2012 through 2014. The records repeatedly reference alcohol consumed at Bg’s and at Tilly’s, a firefighter-themed bar in Ione about a mile from the academy, as well as an unnamed bar in Sutter Creek.

On one occasion at an unspecified local bar, a cadet drank until he vomited and passed out, according to the state records. His colleagues put him in the back of a pickup until his mother could get him.

On April 30, 2014, cadets celebrated graduation at Bg’s and the Sutter Creek bar. An academy manager “utilized a marked CAL FIRE vehicle to transport intoxicated FFA (firefighters academy) cadets from Bg’s Lounge,” according to the disciplinary records.

That same day, a Cal Fire apparatus operator attending a graduation celebration at one of the bars “made repeated, unwanted advances toward a civilian,” the documents state, behavior that included efforts to grind his groin into her buttocks and grabbing himself through his unzipped pants.

Arevalo and Gillman said CHP investigators have interviewed them about the firefighters’ visits to Bg’s. The investigators wanted to know, for example, whether Arevalo noticed Cal Fire vehicles in the bar parking lot. She told them she hadn’t.

Gillman said investigators asked her about rumors that a sex video had been shot on the premises. She said she vehemently denied it. Bg’s security surveillance tapes turned over to the CHP, she said, disproved the rumors.

Gillman didn’t know it then, but the April 30 party was the last time Cal Fire Academy employees would take a drink at her bar. The next day, police would find Douglas dead inside her blood-spattered home.

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043.

CHP probe by the numbers

$1.76 million: Amount the CHP billed Cal Fire to investigate the Ione academy

$100,716: Overtime paid to CHP investigators

$49,508: Amount paid to CHP for travel, hotels and other expenses

23,707: Miles driven by CHP officers who investigated the case

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