TAMPA — State and local fire officials are wondering what's taking Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober so long to charge a popular morning radio show host in the case of a turkey-frying stunt that went up in flames last year.
"That question has to be asked," said Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Bill Wade. "It's been an awfully long time."
A week before Christmas, the MJ in the Morning show on WFLZ-FM 93.3 used a crane to drop a turkey through the open roof of a plumbing van that had a vat of hot oil inside. The stunt caused a fire that destroyed the van. A firefighter sent to battle the blaze injured his back on the scene.
The event was broadcast live on the radio and the show videotaped it.
In mid January, the State Fire Marshal's Office recommended that radio host Todd "MJ" Schnitt, producer Dominic "Uncle Fester" Siciliano, and Thomas Ray be charged with felony second-degree arson and two misdemeanors for injury to a firefighter and failing to report a fire.
Depending on how permanently injured the firefighter is, one misdemeanor charge could be upgraded to a felony, said Detective Randy St. Clair, who investigated the fire for the State Fire Marshal's Office.
"I don't know why it is taking this long," St. Clair said. "It's kind of unusual when it's cut and dry and it's on film. There's no mystery to it."
St. Clair said he didn't know how long Ober's office generally takes to investigate such cases.
A spokesman for Ober declined to comment because the case is an active investigation.
But attorneys for Schnitt and Clear Channel, the company that owns the station, are perplexed by Tampa Fire Rescue's interest.
"The fire department's bizarre and unprofessional behavior raises questions as to their motives in pursuing this case," said John Fitzgibbons, Schnitt's attorney.
Fitzgibbons said Wade, the Tampa Fire and Rescue spokesman, has made comments "blasting the state attorney's ongoing review and investigation of the facts."
"It appears the fire department is spending too much time and taxpayer money chasing frying turkeys and not enough time investigating serial arsonists," he said, referring to an ongoing investigation of arson fires in the V.M. Ybor neighborhood. That case was taken over by the Police Department after Mayor Pam Iorio publicly questioned the fire department's handling of the investigation.
The MJ show said it presented the stunt as a public service about the danger of frying turkey, but St. Clair questions that notion. "There was nothing legitimate that would warrant it as a safety demonstration," he said.
St. Clair said evidence shows the real intent was to set the vehicle on fire. The oil, he said, was heated to 600 degrees, twice what is necessary to cook a turkey. The producers also put cold water inside the bird to increase the potential of a fire, he said, and used a crane because they knew the potential hazard, he said.
Defense attorney Ron Cacciatore, who represents Clear Channel, doesn't buy it.
"The incident at Clear Channel was not a violation of the arson statute," Cacciatore said. "There is simply no evidence that anyone at Clear Channel willfully or unlawfully violated the law."
It's not the first time a Tampa Bay Clear Channel radio stunt has become the subject of a criminal investigation.
MJ's chief radio rival, Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, was charged with animal cruelty after broadcasting the castration and slaughter of a pig while working for Clear Channel in February 2001. He was arrested in March of that year.
He was acquitted in February 2002, but apologized for the stunt, calling it a "grotesque act." He was also suspended by the station and later fired by Clear Channel after a record $755,000 fine from the Federal Communications Commission for broadcasting skits in which cartoon characters talked about sex and drugs.
Now hosting a morning show on Cox Radio-owned WHPT-FM 102.5 that competes with the MJ show, Clem has been sued by both Clear Channel and Schnitt over comments he made about Schnitt and his wife, Michelle, a former prosecutor in Ober's office.