Calif. firefighters vandalized water tower, causing debris to float in drinking water
In a twist on a spray-painting tradition, the 2021 academy graduates put their academy number on the inside of a Sacramento tank
By Theresa Clift
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO — In July 2019 a group of Sacramento firefighters spray painted the inside of a city water tank, causing “floating debris” and damage that cost taxpayers over $65,000. As punishment, two of them received a two-day unpaid suspension.
The firefighters had just graduated from the academy, and spray painted their academy number on the inside of an East Sacramento water tank, according to a Dec. 21, 2021, disciplinary letter, obtained from a California Public Records Act request by The Sacramento Bee. It’s a “longstanding tradition” for each class to spray paint the number on the outside of the water reservoir, the letter stated. But this time the new firefighters, with help from two captains, spray painted the inside, causing “floating debris” to surface in the drinking water that serves nearby businesses and homes.
The city did not discover the floating debris until a year and a half after the fire fighters spray painted it. Testing found no contamination, city spokesman Tim Swanson said.
The graffiti read “Cut From Stone 19-1,” referring to Capt. David Stoner, the academy drill master at the time, and to the academy class’ graduation year, the letter stated.
“On Jan. 5, 2021, the water storage tank was taken out of service,” the letter stated. “Upon routine inspection, ( Department of Utilities) staff discovered floating debris on the surface of the potable water supply inside the water storage tank. The water storage tank was drained and the water was tested. Once the water was drained, graffiti was discovered inside the water storage tank. Based on the positioning of the graffiti inside of the water storage tank, DOU staff believed someone entered the drinking water stored in the tank and swam across to place graffiti marks.”
Firefighters Mikhail Gnatyshin and Artur Lutsyk admitted they had been the ones to swim across and spray the paint, the letter stated. They each received two-day unpaid suspensions. In their last annual salaries, Gnatyshin earned comprehensive pay of $123,382, and Lutsyk earned $118,779. Those figures includes additional compensation on top of their base pay for things such as bilingual services and medic assignments.
During a city investigation, Capt. Michael Ferguson admitted to showing the recruits the tagging and “sharing the history behind the tradition,” the letter stated. He contacted Capt. Robert Walters, who arranged access for the recruits to enter the storage area for the purpose of tagging the motto within the tower. Ten to 15 recruits participated in the vandalism.
“We... looked at the water, we decided to go in, we swam to the other side, got the ‘19-1 Cut From Stone’ tag on the other side of the tower, swam back and then made our way to the base of the tower,” Gnatyshin told an attorney hired by the city to investigate the vandalism in May 2021.
Stoner is no longer a city employee, while Ferguson and Walters are, according to a city roster. Swanson declined to comment on whether any other fire employees were also disciplined because the city does not comment on individual personnel matters, he said. No other fire employees besides Gnatyshin and Lutsyk received disciplinary letters between November 2020 and November 2022, according to the city’s response to the records request.
The repairs cost the city $65,691 in rehabilitation to the potable water storage tank and repairs, the document stated. The action violated city policies regarding disobedience, and misconduct causing damage to city property.
Neither firefighter appealed the discipline; their suspensions occurred in May and June. They lost an equivalent of $1,517 each.
After discovering the debris, Swanson said the city notified California State Water Resources Control Board, which inspected the reservoir several times and found no contamination.
The subsequent academy classes have not continued the tradition of placing graffiti on the outside of the water tank, Swanson said.
Two-day unpaid suspensions have occurred for other indiscretions in the last few years within the fire department.
Last year, firefighter Rocco Davalos was given an unpaid two-day suspension in August after he used a racial slur during a dinner at a fire station, a disciplinary letter stated.
Firefighter Joseph Hunter in January 2020 was given an unpaid two-day suspension for grabbing and shaking a recruit, and pushing another one, while serving as drill master in the academy, another disciplinary letter stated. Five months later he was given a 10-day suspension for using “personal friendships” to try to get the police to leave when they responded to a report that Hunter’s wife shot an opossum in the backyard during a 2019 party at their West Sacramento home.
McGeorge School of Law adjunct professor Chris Micheli said the two-day suspension for the water tower damage appears consistent with other suspensions the department has handed down. But the city should have had the firefighters pay out of their paychecks to cover some of the cost of the damage, or work for free to clean it, he said.
“A $65,000 bill is probably not something that taxpayers should pick up alone,” Micheli said. “It’s a considerable amount of taxpayer money that’s being shelled out there. It’s not fair for the taxpayers to pick up the entire amount.”
With $65,000, the city could have purchased six Pallet tiny homes or 260 uniform tents for the homeless, for example.
“If a homeless person would have vandalized a water tower they would have gone to jail in a heartbeat,” said Bob Erlenbusch of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. “It’s tragic the firefighters were so irresponsible. Alternatively the $65,000 could have supported ways to keep people safe and out of the elements.”