Los Angeles Fire Department engineer Clinton Arrigoni was getting ready for bed at the old Fire Station 5 in Westchester when he was cornered by four of his fellow crew members, including 49-year-old veteran African-American firefighter Tennie Pierce. Arrigoni wasn’t surprised. He was soon being promoted to captain, and per tradition, he was a tempting target for a “chairing.”
The four firefighters gave him two choices: walk to the hose tower, located behind the station, or be carried. Arrigoni walked. Once there, his hands were tied to a chair with duct tape, then he was showered for 10 minutes with mustard, ketchup, salad dressing and barbecue sauce. “[Arrigoni] is pretty easygoing,” recalls Glen Phillips, an engineer working at Station 5 that October 12, 2004. “He said, ‘Those sons of bitches.’ ”
Like many other firefighters who ignore the longtime Fire Department ban on horseplay, Pierce was often front and center in the escapades, prominent in photographs of the pranks. He enjoyed the culture and camaraderie, including the widely observed practice of keeping all pranks secret from the brass, who could hurt a guy’s career. Pierce loved to hold court in Station 5’s kitchen, regaling co-workers with tales of pranks — known as “turds” — tracing back nearly 20 years.
He was a prominent “turdster,” no goody two-shoes when it came to racial, ethnic or sexual-orientation barbs or hazing, on one occasion grinning wildly at a firefighter who had been wrapped in a bed sheet on which the hazers had scrawled, “Oy Vey! I’m Gay!”
He honed his skill at “bucketing” — a not entirely safe practice in which a prankster drenches an unsuspecting co-worker with water from the roof of the fire station. “He is there for the fun,” says retired firefighter Charles Palacios, who worked with Pierce at Station 61. “He is a big ham.”
Pierce was boisterous and well liked, and, at a towering and broad-shouldered 6 feet 5 inches and 280 pounds, he also excelled in sports like volleyball, where his spiking prowess was legendary. One colleague from Station 61, where Pierce worked from 1991 to 2003, says, “He was always the big horse at the trough: ‘If you serve me, I will spike the ball back, because I am a Big Dog.’ ”
Two days after Pierce and the others showered engineer Arrigoni with ketchup — an incident never before reported publicly — the Station 5 crew decided to grab an early-morning volleyball game at nearby Dockweiler State Beach. Pierce began loudly bragging about being the “Big Dog,” his longtime nickname, and avidly taunting a fellow crew member, Latino paramedic George Arevalo — at 5 feet 7 inches nearly a foot shorter than Pierce. One player, firefighter Glen Phillips, tells the L.A. Weekly Pierce was shouting, “I take craps bigger than you!” at the much smaller Arevalo.
Pierce’s laughter and gross taunts seemed like no big deal — at the time. But within hours, Arevalo, a quiet type who was studying to become a helicopter pilot, would feed dog food to Tennie Pierce in the Station 5 kitchen — a prank that would hurt the careers of two captains, open taxpayers to a $2.7 million settlement pushed by City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, prompt Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to enact his first veto of the Los Angeles City Council, force the demotion of a deputy chief and the stunning resignation of admired Fire Chief William Bamattre — and send the morale of the department plummeting.
In a three-month investigation, the Weekly has learned that the crew present when Pierce ate dog food was not “nine white members,” as Pierce claimed in an emotional plea to a packed City Council chamber on November 28; that a taunting incident cited by Pierce as proof of harassment and retaliation was actually led by a black firefighter; that leaders of a respected black firefighters’ organization refuse to call what happened to Pierce race-based; and that Pierce called it “water under the bridge” — before hiring an attorney.
If he chooses, Pierce can retire in April with early-retirement pension pay for 20 years of service. The trial, set for September, could cost taxpayers millions even if the city wins — and some firefighters are asking why.
Latino fire captain Brian Allen, who worked alongside Pierce at Station 61 in the Miracle Mile area for many years, says, “I have been in the locker room for 26 years, and I have never once heard someone discriminating against Mexicans. It drives me bananas to hear the talk about racial discrimination. Are there jokes? Yes. Have I witnessed real discrimination? Absolutely not. Now, here we are with this thing to drag the whole department down. It was a ‘turd’ that went a little too far. And someone got ahold of it and pushed it.”
What really happened at Fire Station 5? The instigator of the dog-food prank, George Arevalo, won’t talk, and his attorney, John Yslas, has ducked interviews. Some firefighters interviewed by the Weekly believe Arevalo felt slighted by Pierce, hearing his manhood challenged in a particularly offensive way — being compared during the volleyball game to the larger man’s feces.