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Clearwater fire chief faces charge of capital sexual battery

CLEARWATER — Jamie Geer, Clearwater's fire chief since 2004, was fired Monday after he was accused of sexually abusing a young girl for several years.

Geer, 56, was arrested on a charge of capital sexual battery. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says the abuse started when the girl was 8 or 9; she is now 17.

Geer was arrested Monday in his office in downtown Clearwater Fire & Rescue headquarters. He was booked into the Pinellas County Jail, where he was being held in lieu of $500,000 bail.

"He was very stoic, very cooperative," said FDLE Special Agent Jim Madden. "We had interviewed him in the past, but I don't believe he felt this was going to occur."

The FDLE said its investigation began in September, when it got a tip about Geer. The chief denied the allegations when he was first questioned in November, the FDLE said.

In Clearwater, officials were stunned by the news. Deputy Chief Robert Weiss will take over as interim fire chief.

"Everyone is shocked and concerned. We had no indication that this sort of thing was occurring," said City Manager Bill Horne, who hired Geer six years ago and fired him Monday.

"You never know what demons people deal with," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. "Now Jamie's gone and we have to move forward. I hope they get help for the victim and that he gets some help."

Hibbard was reminded of St. Petersburg City Council Chairman John Bryan, with whom he served on a county transportation board. Bryan committed suicide in 2007 after it came out that he had fondled his 15-year-old adopted daughter. It came as a shock to his colleagues.

"You just never know about people," Hibbard said.

Pinellas court records show that Geer and his wife, Merinda, divorced in late October. Merinda Geer, now Merinda Johnston, filed for divorce in 2006, but the case was dismissed in 2008 after more than a year of inaction. She refiled in November 2009.

The FDLE said Geer did not use his position as fire chief in this case, and investigators don't believe there are other victims.

Of the victim, FDLE agent Madden said, "For the last nine years of her life she has been subjected to various forms of sexual assault by an individual 50 years of age. That is a very traumatic event. I think the victim has a lot of issues that she's going to be dealing with for an extended period of time."

The allegations against Geer were first reported in an anonymous letter sent to the FDLE in September. According to an arrest warrant, here's how the investigation unfolded:

After receiving the letter, the FDLE spoke to an unidentified witness who said that in April 2008 the victim told her that Geer was abusing her.

The witness confronted Geer days later. The chief "apologized and said it would not happen again," but the alleged abuse continued until this August, the warrant said.

Investigators spoke to the victim and Geer on Nov. 4. Both denied the allegations. Then, 20 days later, the victim contacted investigators and said Geer had been abusing her for years.

"She denied the allegations when she was first interviewed because she did not want to get Jamie Geer in trouble," the warrant said.

The victim told investigators that it started when she was 8 or 9, when Geer first exposed himself to her. Geer was 50 when he first engaged in sex acts with the victim in 2004, the warrant said. It doesn't say how old the victim was.

On Dec. 1, investigators had the victim call Geer and recorded their conversation.

The victim told him she needed "closure," the warrant said. Geer asked if it was "safe to talk."

The victim asked Geer why "anything happened." Geer, according to the warrant, responded: "He never did anything against her will and he was sorry if he put pressure on her or made things difficult."

Geer also told the victim, the warrant said, that "he should have known better" and that he "tried to do the right thing" and that he was "sorry" that she was struggling with what happened, according to the warrant.

But during the recording, the warrant noted, Geer "never denied having sex."

Geer had been a fire chief in Tennessee when Clearwater hired him in 2004. He was brought in to modernize a flawed department that was still reeling from the aftermath of a 2002 fire at a condominium high-rise that killed two residents and injured three firefighters. The department was criticized for its handling of that fire, and Geer's first move was to institute extensive training reforms.

Geer's hiring was supported by Clearwater's firefighters union, but the union's relationship with the chief soured in recent years.

Union president Gerard Devivo heard about the allegations through an e-mail that the city manager sent to union members Monday afternoon. "I just feel bad for the girl's family and the girl," he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Rita Farlow, Drew Harwell and Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.

Clearwater fire chief faces charge of capital sexual battery 12/13/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 13, 2010 11:38pm]

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