By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Dramatically different in personality and physical stature from Pierce, the much younger Arevalo, 24, regularly studied. He didn’t seem upset, witnesses tell the Weekly. But Arevalo may have wanted to one-up Pierce, who was always an eager “turdster,” or prankster.
A few hours later, Arevalo went to Ralphs grocery store with Captain John Tohill and two other firefighters. It was Arevalo’s turn to cook, and he had planned spaghetti and meat sauce. Attorney Gregory W. Smith, representing Tohill, who along with Captain Chris Burton is suing the city for reverse discrimination for punishment over the incident, says Tohill bought the dog food with the idea of placing the can on Pierce’s plate as a lighthearted trophy for recent “Big Dog” volleyball and handball victories.
The dinner bell rang around 6 p.m., almost 10 hours after Pierce had taunted Arevalo. After Pierce’s highly charged appearance with his lawyer, Genie Harrison, before the Los Angeles City Council in November, incorrect media stories nationwide repeated Pierce’s blatantly false description of the firefighters gathered at or near the community table that night as “nine white members.” In fact, the eyewitnesses, who actually numbered eight, were a racial and ethnic mix: Two are Latinos — George Arevalo and Mike Perea — and Kelly Niles is Asian-American. Glen Phillips and Mike Pagliuso are white, as are captains Tohill and Burton, and rookie David Flynn.
Station 5’s racial diversity was also reflected in the shift’s workers not present in the kitchen: Battalion Chief Steve Coleman, staff assistant Oscar Scott and paramedic Mark Flot are black; engineer Mike Telles — one of Pierce’s friends — is Latino; paramedic Ron Lingo is white.
Pierce arrived about 15 minutes late for dinner. Most of the men had eaten, and some were standing or sitting in the kitchen. According to eyewitnesses interviewed by the Weekly — but never interviewed by Fire Department brass, these eyewitnesses say, after Pierce’s public denunciation of his crew members — he picked up a plate of food that was waiting on the stove, prepared for him by Arevalo, and took a big bite.
After a second bite, according to Pierce’s lawsuit, a few of the men knew something was afoot and started laughing. Eyewitnesses say others were in the dark and tried to catch up with the joke. Pierce demanded to know what was in the food. Men kept chuckling, and Pierce stormed out.
To the crew, it was another absurd and over-the-top station prank without racial overtones. Both captains, Tohill and Burton, say they were unaware of Arevalo’s plan, and firefighter Phillips says he was watching TV when he was surprised by an eruption of laughter. But Pierce and his lawyer, Harrison, insist the incident was a conspiracy in which his crew set him up for a group humiliation.
According to Niles, because Pierce was so clearly pissed off, Captain Burton told instigator Arevalo to go apologize. Niles and Pagliuso went along. Niles says Arevalo admitted to Pierce he had put the dog food in his spaghetti, and Pierce accepted his apology and called it “water under the bridge.”
“He was like, ‘I know, man — it was a prank,’ ” Niles, the Asian-American firefighter, told the Weekly. “ ‘I know you guys were playing around.’ ”
Captains Tohill and Burton also spoke to Pierce, and at 8 p.m. summoned the rest of the crew to a meeting to explain that Pierce had calmed down. In their reverse-discrimination lawsuit, the two captains say Pierce “emphatically requested that it [the incident] be kept quiet.”
Yet even then, there were glimmers of the political turmoil to come. Niles recalls an out-of-place comment made to him by Pierce that night, warning Niles that black paramedic Mark Flot, who was not around for dinner, was particularly upset over the dog-food prank. Flot didn’t return calls from the Weekly, but Niles says Pierce told him, “In a couple of months, if [this incident] comes out, I didn’t say anything.”
Pierce’s warning was unusual. The departmentwide practice among firefighters, also common in other cities, is never to rat out colleagues over hazing, pranks and minor misdeeds. Indeed, as leaked photos of Pierce later showed, Pierce himself had been protected from discipline for the often-outrageous pranks in which he played an enthusiastic role, including one in which he appears to be handling a firefighter’s exposed private parts.
Just two weeks after the dog-food prank, Pierce sprained his back when he slipped on some stairs at LAX during a call. He took a paid, two-and-a-half-month injury leave — the first of a lengthy series of paid sick leaves and paid stress leaves. According to information gathered from his co-workers, his lawsuit and city documents, by the time Pierce appeared before the City Council, he had been paid the equivalent of a full-time salary for roughly two years — yet worked as a firefighter less than 40 days.
While on his first leave from work, Pierce took a firefighter class at Frank Hotchkin Memorial Training Center and stopped in to see Battalion Chief Brian Cummings, who is black — and at that point turned in his fellow crew members, telling Cummings about the dog-food caper. Cummings contacted Battalion Chief Coleman, a respected black supervisor at Station 5, who wasn’t pleased to learn of the incident from another chief rather than from his own captains.