Click on the photos below to view a series of text messages between recently fired firefighter Chris Hughes and a phone number belonging to Capt. Stephanie Burke. Burke, who was demoted and suspended Thursday, had previously denied having prior knowledge of the video prank.
A Macon-Bibb County fire captain seen on a prank video posted online last week will be demoted and suspended for 20 days, city officials said Thursday.
Mayor Robert Reichert said he met Thursday morning with Fire Chief Marvin Riggins to discuss the discipline to be imposed on eight firefighters involved in the prank, which involved a masked gunman inside the Peake Road fire station brandishing a gun. Officials said the hazing incident targeted rookies.
Reichert said that as of Thursday morning Riggins had not seen text messages purported to show that fire Capt. Stephanie Burke was involved in planning the incident. City officials have previously said that Burke denied having prior knowledge of the prank.
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The mayor deferred questions to Riggins about why Burke’s punishment was upgraded from a two-day suspension to a demotion to the rank of lieutenant and additional suspension time. Mayoral spokesman Clay Murphey said Riggins was declining interviews.
Murphey said Burke’s amended discipline came as a result of additional information provided to Riggins.
Burke, contacted by phone twice Thursday night, hung up after learning she was speaking with a Telegraph reporter. On the second call, Burke used profanity and declined comment before hanging up again.
Her 20-day suspension is equal to two months without pay, Murphey said.
Riggins didn’t change the punishment for the other firefighters in connection with the prank, including a recommendation of termination for firefighter Chris Hughes. The other punishments range from the demotion of a fire sergeant to 10 days of suspension.
Punishments of other supervisors in the case were less severe because they had no prior knowledge of the hoax, city officials have said.
Hughes spoke publicly Thursday after hearing Riggins’ final ruling to fire him.
He said he thinks he was singled out for termination because of prior disciplinary notices in his file and because he’s the one who provided the BB gun used in the prank.
But records for two of the offenses aren’t entirely accurate, Hughes said.
Although his personnel file mentions him being cited for a DUI and driving without a license, Hughes said Thursday he doesn’t have a DUI on his record. He said the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor of “occupying a seat while intoxicated” for which he completed DUI school and paid a fine. He also said his license wasn’t suspended.
Firefighters plan the prank
Thursday, Hughes provided The Telegraph with the text messages he exchanged with Burke. The messages are associated with the same phone number Burke answered Thursday afternoon.
Hughes said the plan for the prank began Sept. 16, two days before the incident. He and Burke were working together and she asked him to obtain a “fake” gun.
The following day, Hughes sent a text message to Burke: “I got the fake gun.”
She replied, “Ok, calling Levi back.”
Hughes explained Thursday that a man named Levi, whose last name he didn’t provide, helped plan a similar prank in the past.
The gunman seen in this month’s prank was Hughes’ friend, not a firefighter, Hughes said.
He said he’s the firefighter whom the gunman takes off screen during the video. Hughes lit a firecracker he was carrying in his pocket to sound like a gunshot.
When the gunman re-entered the room and moved toward a rookie firefighter and another firefighter who didn’t have knowledge of the prank, Hughes and Burke crawled into the camera’s view to see the two firefighters’ reactions, he said.
Hughes said the rookie and the other firefighter -- who has been on the job about a year and a half -- aren’t visible on the 90-second version of the video posted online.
Also not shown on the shorter version of the video is the gunman pointing the gun at the rookie and ordering him to take off his shirt. About that time, the rookie noticed the small hole in the barrel of the gun and remarked that it was not a real gun, Hughes said.
That’s when the firefighters with knowledge of the prank started laughing and the prank ended, he said.
The Telegraph viewed a longer version of the prank video last week. It shows Burke gathering with other firefighters after the prank ended and laughing with them.
Riggins said at the time that Burke’s reaction did not necessarily mean that she knew about the prank before it happened.
On the night of the incident, the rookie firefighter laughed and later said it made him feel like “one of the guys,” Hughes said.
Hughes alleges more pranks
The prank at the Peake Road station isn’t the first one involving a gunman, Hughes alleged Thursday.
A similar prank was played on him when he was a rookie in 2005.
Hughes said he was at the department’s Mercer University Drive station where Burke was then a lieutenant.
He was washing dishes when a man wearing what appeared to be a blood-soaked shirt rushed in and said, “They shot me! They shot me!”
A gunman then entered the station and ordered everyone to the floor, instructing the firefighters not to look up.
Hughes looked up, and the gunman told him to hand over his wallet and to take off his pants.
Hughes said he did as he was told.
“I came out of those pants real fast,” Hughes said. “I was scared.”
Then the station’s bell rang, indicating that the firefighters were being called to respond to an emergency. Everyone started laughing, he said.
Hughes said he’s aware of the prank being played at least one other time.
“She’s been involved in every last one of them,” he said of Burke.
Details of the investigation revealed
When interviewed by Riggins and other command staff the day after the prank was posted on YouTube, Hughes said he was only asked two questions in the interview: what role he played in the prank and to identify himself in the video.
Hughes said he was truthful and that he didn’t know what Burke had said in her interview although she had sent him several text messages prior to his meeting with Riggins.
The messages provided to The Telegraph on Thursday seemingly show an effort by Burke to make sure the other firefighters’ version of events match hers.
After Hughes sent Burke a message asking if the firefighters would be fired, she replied: “Don’t think so, I didt (sic) know when it was gonna happen last minute ok.”
In a separate message, Burke wrote, “I might get suspened (sic) and moved, y’all might get reprimand, he mad bout the gun and the post, just say you didt (sic) know it would be posted.”
When Hughes and four other firefighters separately met with Riggins on Monday to appeal their proposed punishments, Hughes said he shared additional details about how the prank was planned and told Riggins about the content of the text messages.
Hughes said Riggins asked for a printed copy of the messages but didn’t ask to see his cell phone. Riggins has not yet received those copies. The Telegraph viewed the messages on Hughes’ phone Thursday evening.
An appeal to come
Hughes said he’s not a bad person.
He enjoys being a firefighter and the adrenaline of the job he wants to keep.
“Fighting the fire is the best part of it,” Hughes said. “You see the flames burning, and you get this rush.”
His last day of work was two days after the prank. He’s been on administrative leave since then.
“At the time, it was a perfectly planned prank,” Hughes said.
He said the firefighters weren’t thinking about the potential punishments that have come from their actions.
Although he’s been represented by a union lawyer, Hughes said he plans to hire a personal attorney and to appeal Riggins’ decision to an administrative law judge.
Meanwhile, Burke has a right to request a “due process” hearing because her punishment was amended, and Riggins must issue a final ruling within five business days, Murphey said.
The other firefighters can appeal Riggins’ decision to an administrative law judge. The judge’s ruling will be final for all the firefighters except Hughes. Because he was fired, Hughes has the additional right for Reichert to hear his case and make a final decision, Murphey said.
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.