Board: Ga. firefighters who stole from crash scene rightly fired

Arguments surrounded whether the items the firefighters took were trash and if public trust was violated


Scroll to the bottom to watch video from the hearing's closing arguments.

By Susan McCord
The Augusta Chronicle, Ga.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Augusta's personnel board has upheld the terminations of two firefighters who admitted picking up items from a Columbia County wreck scene.

After a two-hour hearing Wednesday, the board quickly voted 8-0 to affirm. Member J.R. Riles said the board wanted to send a message.

"The fire department and the police department, you've got to be able to trust them to take care of your personal stuff when you're in a difficult situation," Riles said.

The incident took place on the Interstate 20 roadside near the Columbia-Richmond County line. Sgt. Antoine Mullins and firefighter Wesley Hughes went to the scene as first responders when its precise location wasn't known, Augusta Fire Chief Chris James said.

The two Augusta men were arrested and fired shortly after Columbia County announced the February terminations and arrests of two sheriff's deputies, Sgt. Mark Smith and Wesley Harden, and two firefighters, Lt. Christopher Ganther and Randall Atchison, in connection with taking items scattered along the road and roadside after a wreck injured their owner, according to previous reports. Sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris said Wednesday the terminations remain in effect and criminal charges are pending.

In the Feb. 20 incident, the wrecked truck had been hauling cell phone accessories to a flea market when the firefighters "took items from that scene for their own personal use," said city attorney Jody Smitherman, who serves as prosecutor in city personnel hearings.

Hughes' attorney, Kirk Gilyard said Hughes worked as a military policeman with a top security clearance and was told at the scene the items were "going in the dumpster." Columbia County Sheriff's Office had been "in control of the scene" and deputies were picking up the items, so Hughes "picked up a little cell phone battery charger."

After Columbia County arrested its men, the 25-year-old "came forward on his own and said... 'I picked something up,'" Gilyard said. "He did the right thing after doing something that was wrong."

Board member Thomas Atkins said he disagreed with the decision so he left before the vote. "If he hadn't gone and told anybody he had done that he would still be out there working," Atkins said. "They don't look at giving anybody a second chance on anything."

Deputy Fire Chief Wayne Taylor said he recommended terminating the men for violating fire and ethics codes of conduct.

"Our personnel go into homes and engage the public," Taylor said. "Very important and valuable objects are within view, within reach" of them. "People have to have confidence in their public safety personnel."

Gilyard said he noted the items weren't in a home or vehicle but on the road. Recently "there were still a few items laying around there that were not picked up," he said.

If items remained at the scene, the wrecking company "didn't do their job correctly," James said.

Mullins' attorney, Mike Brown, said his client readily admitted to making "one mistake" and was asking for forgiveness. "There is value in redemption," Brown said.

Fire department Lt. Ralph Wittke testified on Mullins' behalf, saying he'd known him for 10 years and trusted him with his life.

"He is literally my right hand whenever we work every shift," Wittke said. "He does his job, he watches out for the safety of me... I know he is not a thief. He is not a liar."

Smitherman said the two men admitted in writing to taking the items and trying to ascertain whether or not the gadgets were trash was going down a "slippery slope."

"They didn't think it was trash at the time it was taken," she said.

The next step in Augusta's personnel policy is a review of the decision by the city administrator. Further appeal goes through the court system. Brown said he and Mullins would consider the options before deciding whether to pursue the matter further.

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(c)2016 The Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Ga.)

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