Trial of former Clearwater fire chief on sexual battery charges starts Tuesday

CLEARWATER — One summer when she was 12, a girl stood against the wall of a Jacksonville hotel room wearing nothing but lingerie — bubble-gum pink and size extra-small.

Jamie Geer, a fire chief in his 50s, lay on the bed holding a video camera. "Pose like this," the girl says Geer told her.

It was, she told investigators years later, what he called a "trade." Beginning when she was 8 or 9, she said, Geer made her satisfy his lust in exchange for rewards: a cellphone, a purse, a birthday present.

That night in Jacksonville, where Geer was attending a fire chiefs convention, the "trade" was oral sex for a purse from a Coach outlet store, she said. Then he took the corset and stockings he had purchased for her and stashed them in his suitcase, she said.

That was six years ago. This week, Geer will stand trial for what investigators say was nearly a decade of sexual abuse of the girl, a relative who spent time in his care. Geer remains in jail on charges of sexual battery, lewd or lascivious battery and unlawful sexual activity with a minor. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

He has pleaded not guilty.

The Tampa Bay Times is not naming the girl, now 19, and is leaving out some details of the case and relationships to protect her identity.

Geer, a firefighter for more than 30 years, commanded Clearwater Fire & Rescue from 2004 to 2010, building a solid, professional image.

But in 2010 special agents got an anonymous letter that alleged Geer was a pedophile. They talked to a girl who told them she was nearly driven to suicide by years of sexual abuse by Geer. She is expected to testify at Geer's trial, scheduled to begin Tuesday in a Pinellas County courtroom.

Geer's side questions the girl's credibility, points to a lack of physical evidence, and notes that the girl initially denied she had been abused, calling Geer one of her "best friends."

But three weeks after that denial, an extensive court file shows, the girl told agents she could no longer hide the truth. Days earlier, while she had been napping, her grandmother had heard her scream: Get off! Stop! I don't want to! In the mirror the girl saw red marks; she had clawed at her face with her nails during the dream.

"Up until, you know, a year ago, I didn't really see anything wrong with it," the girl told investigators. "I guess that's just because I was brought up that way. It's what I learned. This is what love is supposed to be like."

• • •

In 2004, when Clearwater fire Chief Rowland Herald retired, city officials were dealing with a crisis of confidence in the Fire Department. A bungled response to a deadly condominium fire two years earlier had led to investigations that revealed glaring deficiencies in leadership and training. The fire union was sparring with city administrators, picketing city events and demanding changes.

From 85 applicants for chief, City Manager Bill Horne chose Maryland-born, 50-year-old Jamie Douglas Geer, interim fire chief in Franklin, Tenn.

Geer had the firefighting experience Clearwater officials wanted. And he seemed cool, calm, with an air of steely toughness. Horne told the Times then, "He reminds me of a guy who isn't going to get rattled."

However, union firefighters resisted Geer's stern directives, delivered a 2005 vote of no confidence, and flooded his office with grievances. The department became a battleground.

The environment was so toxic that in August 2010, when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement received the anonymous letter labeling Geer a pedophile who had "taken liberties with underage children," special agents at first considered it a broadside fired by union antagonists, FDLE reports show.

The first sign that the accusations might have merit came from the girl's mother, who told agents her daughter had been molested by Geer for years. But when agents talked to the girl, then 17, she initially told them her mother abused alcohol and cocaine, while Geer provided for her when her mother did not.

Agents talked to Geer, too, but he refuted the accusation, appearing unruffled and, one agent told attorneys, "a bit too calm."

A break in the case came the day before Thanksgiving 2010, when the girl, haunted by nightmares, admitted to investigators that she had been abused. They set up a recorded phone call between the girl and Geer.

She told Geer she needed "closure," that she couldn't sleep, that she was tired of feeling "so different from everybody else."

"Why," she asked, "did you do those things to me?"

Geer, investigators wrote, asked if it was "safe to talk." He said that they were good friends and that she had been "very curious." He said he "should have known better." He never denied having sex with her.

The girl told agents that day that "he should be punished."

"I just want him to be able to remember every day what he put me through," she said. "I want him to know that he really messed me up."

• • •

Geer began the abuse, the girl told agents, by exploiting her childhood curiosity. When she asked about sex, he exposed himself and touched her chest. He played pornographic videos for her and began videotaping her in explicit poses, she said.

When the girl lost her virginity to a boyfriend at age 15, she said Geer was enraged, threatening to break them up if she did not have intercourse with him, too.

She believes he justified his demands with the "trades."

"He'd buy me alcohol. He would buy me cigarettes," she told agents. "It got so bad, to the point where I would have to trade for Christmas and birthday presents."

Feeling "worthless," she told agents, she began to act out. She was arrested at 12 and accused of stealing $500 worth of lingerie from a Macy's, a relative told investigators. She was detained under the Baker Act after Valentine's Day 2008 for threatening to "blow her head off" over a boy.

She became pregnant by a teenage boy, she said, and was detained again after a principal saw her concealing cuts on her wrist with a tied red bandanna.

The girl told agents that in April 2008, she tearfully revealed to her mother that Geer had molested her. But no one called police. The mother, while angry, said she feared for her daughter's safety and didn't want to ruin Geer's life. So the abuse continued for two more years, the girl said, until August 2010 when the anonymous letter showed up.

Investigators said the pornography Geer showed the girl was an attempt to convince her there was nothing wrong with what they were doing. The tapes he made of her, they added, became his "personal souvenirs."

On the morning of Dec. 13, 2010, Geer was in City Hall speaking at a routine meeting of the Clearwater City Council. Crisply uniformed, he stood at the microphone with his hands clasped behind his back, his voice measured and deep, a hint of a smile on his face.

Later that day, according to an investigator's report, agents entered his office at department headquarters. Geer stood up in surprise. He said he thought his lawyer "had worked this out with you guys."

Geer was handcuffed and driven to the Pinellas County Jail. He was fired immediately from his $113,000-a-year job.

Investigators, a search warrant states, began scouring his home on Dunedin's Buena Vista Drive. A wine bag of 8mm videotapes was taken from the trunk of his red Crown Victoria.

• • •

Geer's bail was set at $500,000. Jailed for 16 months, he is now 58, living alone in a self-contained cell with a shower and toilet. Guards check on him every 30 minutes.

Some of Geer's confiscated videos, labeled things like "Graduation" or "Dance Recital," resemble ordinary home movies and include shots from a church play, a birthday party and an arriving fire truck.

But other tapes, investigators said, have out-of-order timestamps and scenes that make no sense: a door frame, a wall, 20 minutes of an empty couch.

Agents suspect someone taped over some scenes. They noticed a short frame at the beginning of one tape that quickly switched to a different scene.

Normal playback skips that frame unless the viewer knows where to stop.

The frame lasts only a split second, but the image is startling: a young female with short hair, posing in black lingerie.

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com. Write a letter to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.

Trial of former Clearwater fire chief on sexual battery charges starts Tuesday 04/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 21, 2012 10:55pm]

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