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Clearwater in no hurry to replace fire chief charged in sex case

CLEARWATER — When Fire Chief Jamie Geer was arrested on shocking charges, one reason the news stunned Clearwater is that the chief struck everyone as pretty normal.

He was always professional and businesslike and matter-of-fact, talking about things like fire engines and paramedic training in his laconic Tennessee accent.

Now Geer, 56, remains behind bars on charges of capital sexual battery, accused of sexually abusing a young girl for years. Shell-shocked Clearwater officials, who fired Geer immediately, plan to take their time before hiring a new fire chief.

A judge Tuesday refused to lower Geer's $500,000 bail, so he remained in the Pinellas County Jail. The request to lower the bail came from lawyer Nat Kidder, who handled the fire chief's recent divorce and said he's discussing whether to represent Geer in the criminal case.

"I think everyone concerned is dismayed," Kidder said after the hearing, when asked for his reaction to the charge against the former chief. "Like any citizen, he has the presumption of innocence."

Circuit Judge Henry Andringa said Geer could request a hearing in the future to argue that the bail be reduced. He ordered Geer not to have any contact with the girl in the case, who is now 17.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says the girl was 8 or 9 when Geer first exposed himself to her, and that in later years he sexually abused her. Geer has denied the allegations, investigators said.

The arrest came out of the blue. Clearwater had no idea that its fire chief was under investigation by the FDLE, and Geer never gave any indication that there were problems in his personal life.

"I don't think anybody had a clue," said Clearwater City Council member John Doran.

"I just about fell out of my seat when I heard," said council member George Cretekos.

Monday morning, just before everything changed, Geer was speaking to the council about a routine matter. The Fire Department was getting a piece of steel from the World Trade Center.

"We've been awarded about a 3-foot section of twisted pipe," the chief announced. "Our plans are to permanently display the piece in our downtown fire station."

That was his last act as fire chief. He was arrested in his office shortly afterward.

Deputy Chief Robert Weiss will be the interim fire chief. Weiss says he didn't know Geer before he was hired by Clearwater in 2005.

"I had very little personal contact with him, but we had a close professional relationship. He always appeared professional," Weiss said. He didn't know about the FDLE investigation until he saw agents in the building looking for Geer on Monday.

Local police were never involved. Clearwater was first informed about the investigation on Friday, City Manager Bill Horne said.

Horne said he won't rush to replace Geer. Clearwater conducted a national search last year before hiring a new police chief, and did the same thing before bringing in Geer in 2004.

Back then, Geer was the interim fire chief in Franklin, Tenn., a Nashville suburb. He was running a department stunned by the retirement of its former boss following allegations of sexual harassment. Geer, who had been Franklin's deputy chief, was disciplined by the city for failing to report the matter to administrators.

"I am going to take some time to reevaluate what is the next step for our Fire and Rescue Department," Horne said Tuesday. "We are in the midst of labor negotiations, fire station construction and renovations, as well as reacting to changes and potential changes in the EMS delivery system. So the next thing on my agenda is thoughtful reflection on what should be the next step."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Clearwater in no hurry to replace fire chief charged in sex case 12/14/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 15, 2010 9:14am]
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