Firewall

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Yesterday, Dallas Fire Rescue released the findings of an investigation into cheating at the training academy that raises more questions than answers, while simultanously serving as a treatment for a movie best described as "Crash meets Backdraft ." First, some background: In October, trainee Desmond Luster resigned from the department after handwritten excerpts of the final exam were found in his locker. Luster, who had the worst GPA in his class, scored a 96 on his test, finished 20 minutes before anyone else and had no markings on his examination, even on mathematical questions. Not long after he turned in his test, fire officials searched through his locker and discovered the incriminating evidence.

At the time, Luster would not say how he got the test and quickly quit the department. But when Luster was rejected for another job in city government because of his shady past, he decided to come clean. He contacted Deputy Chief Joseph Vasquez in the training division and told him he studied two days before the test at the home of Lieutenant James Hunter, who works in training. Also with him was another recruit, DeAlo Marilla. All three men are black, provoking chatter at fire stations about whether Hunter was trying to help the two recruits solely because of their race.


Marilla and Luster would later tell investigators that after they studied with Hunter, the final exam included parts of questions they went over during their study session. Hunter insisted that he even though he had a copy of the upcoming test, he never provided the two recruits with specific information about what was going to be on it. He just gave them a broad overview of the final examination.


The investigation into Hunter's activities was finished last month but released only yesterday, and in it the internal affairs chief found him guilty of seven counts of misconduct, including providing specific testing material to the two recruits and showing favoritism to both of them by inviting them over to his house for a study session. For these lapses in judgment, Hunter was suspended three days without pay and transferred out of training, which is considered the far graver punishment. Hunter had a plum job in the department, and it appears he blew it.


Department employees speak highly of Hunter, citing his remarkable dedication and devotion to his recruits. But in this case did he simply cross the line and conduct a study session that was a little too closely aligned to the upcoming final? Or did he flat-out give copies of the test to Luster, serving as the prime accomplice to a very serious offense? The department's internal affairs division had no real way to prove exactly how far Hunter went to help his favored students.


Like any organization, Dallas Fire Rescue can be polarized on race. A recent lawsuit from ex-assistant chief Roland Gamez hints at such divisions, noting that the department's emergency call center was sometimes "divided along racial, ethnic and cultural lines."As the rumor mill at the department continues to churn over this, the fact that the lead investigator on the case is also black may become a topic of conversation at a fire station near you. --Matt Pulle


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