A former Macon-Bibb County fire captain denied lying to fire officials about helping plan a September hazing prank that involved a masked gunman threatening firefighters with a gun.
Stephanie Burke testified that she was denied access to a lawyer on the day after the prank, which was posted to the website YouTube, sparked an internal investigation.
“At best, what we have is a swearing contest between subordinates who feel their captain wasn’t punished severely enough and their captain,” said Serena Sparks, an Atlanta attorney who represented Burke at a Wednesday hearing before an administrative law judge.
Burke was acting as battalion chief at the department’s Peake Road station on Sept. 18, 2011, when a masked man entered the station with what appeared to be a gun.
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She appeared at the Wednesday hearing to appeal her demotion from captain to lieutenant and a 20-day suspension without pay.
Joshua Brewer and Christopher Hughes testified at a December hearing that Burke instigated the hoax in hopes of scaring a new firefighter at the station. Brewer and Hughes have appealed discipline they received for their participation in the incident.
Brewer was demoted from sergeant to private and was suspended for 10 days. He has admitted he recorded the prank on video and posted it online, although he said his intention was for the video to have been restricted to private access.
Hughes, who has admitted lighting a firecracker to simulate gunfire and taking an air cartridge BB gun to the station, was fired.
Fire Chief Marvin Riggins testified Wednesday that Burke’s reactions caught on video did not indicate to him “someone who is afraid.”
Using a laser pointer, Riggins directed the judge’s attention to segments of the video where he said Burke was smiling.
Just before the firecracker is lit near her, Burke is seen covering her ears with her hands in what Riggins described as anticipation of the coming noise.
“That is worrisome to me,” he said.
At the end of the video, Burke can be seen jumping up and down and laughing.
“I don’t think that’s someone who’s upset about what’s going on,” Riggins said.
Burke testified that she was laughing on the video because other firefighters had managed to “get” her.
Riggins said he hadn’t seen the entire video when he issued Burke the first disciplinary notice, which included two days of suspension.
The demotion and additional days of suspension were imposed after seeing the full video and receiving statements not only from Brewer and Hughes, but also from another firefighter who was not involved in the prank, according to Wednesday’s testimony.
Firefighter Travis Veronee testified that he had a conversation with Burke on the day of the prank and that Burke said the hoax wouldn’t be recorded on video.
While being questioned by Burke’s lawyer, Riggins read his handwritten notes scribbled on the bottom of a Sept. 19 memo he sent to then-Chief Administrative Officer Thomas Thomas and Human Resources Director Ben Hubbard.
The notes included names of firefighters involved in the prank and different forms of discipline. Beside Hughes’ name was five days of suspension. Burke was to get a counseling statement, Riggins explained.
After receiving additional information, Riggins said he “expected more from Burke” and that her actions “warranted more than a counseling statement.”
“I based my decision on the totality of the information provided to me and afforded to me,” he said.
Testimony at Wednesday’s hearing revealed that Hughes is the first Macon-Bibb County firefighter disciplined for bringing a weapon into a fire station and that Riggins, in his nearly four years as chief, hasn’t demoted anyone from the rank of battalion chief or captain.
With Burke’s demotion, there is no female in the rank of captain or above.
In her testimony that lasted more than an hour, Burke admitted hearing firefighters talk about pranks at the station, but when she went to take a nap hours before the prank occurred, she didn’t think anything was going to happen.
She said she awoke to a notification that she’d received a text message from Hughes, telling her he hadn’t been able to find someone to help with the prank.
Although Hughes has said Burke exchanged text messages with him while planning the prank, Burke denied having knowledge that the prank definitely was going to happen.
She said she was sitting at the kitchen table reading a newspaper when an off-duty firefighter, playing the part of a man who’d been shot, and the gunman burst into the room.
“It scared me,” Burke said.
“Did I think the gunman was real? For a split second I did,” she testified. But then she recognized firefighter Chris Houston as the injured man and guessed that what she was witnessing was a prank.
Although Hughes has said Burke sent text messages to him, guiding what he should say to Riggins about her part in the prank, she testified Wednesday that she “possibly” would have sent messages to Hughes. But she added that she didn’t have phone service in the room where she was being questioned.
Burke said she is aware of pranks occurring at fire stations.
The department’s first black female firefighter, Burke said she was the victim of a rookie prank after being hired in 1986. She said she’s also witnessed pranks.
“I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe, but it happens,” Burke said.
One firefighter who was a victim of the prank is still receiving medical attention.
He has trouble sleeping and feels like he can never have his back toward the fire station door, Riggins testified.
Although her suspension was complete two months ago, Burke has not returned to work. She said she remains out of work due to “mental stress and depression.”
Burke said she apologized to Riggins following the prank and wanted to apologize to the public but wasn’t given the opportunity.
In the days following the prank, Burke declined comment when contacted by The Telegraph. She responded with profanity on one occasion.
When asked by her attorney whether she’d return to work if her rank was restored, Burke replied, “It would be a hard pill to swallow.”
She said she didn’t know what she will decide.
“Jobs are hard to find.”
Information from Telegraph archives were used in this report.