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Fire investigation nearing end

A private investigation firm hired to gather evidence about the behavior of three Spring Hill firefighters should finish its work next week, bringing the saga closer to an end.

Spring Hill fire Chief J.J. Morrison said VTR Investigations of Spring Hill will gather copies of investigative reports from prosecutors and police in Seminole County, where a Spring Hill woman told investigators she was raped this summer by three Spring Hill firefighters.

Seminole County authorities found insufficient evidence to charge the firefighters with a crime. But the fire district is looking into whether the firefighters violated departmental policies and whether any punishment is needed.

Besides getting existing documents, VTR also will give the department a recommendation about whether more information is needed, Morrison said.

Once all the evidence is gathered, it will be turned over to assistant fire chief Bill Davies. He'll determine whether a violation occurred. If he finds rules were broken, he'll recommend a punishment.

At that point, Morrison said, the firefighters, on paid leave for the past few months, would be entitled to a closed-door disciplinary hearing. A final decision on their fate would fall to Morrison, although they could appeal to the fire commissioners who oversee the district.

Still up in the air is what role Walter Dry, a consultant fire commissioners retained to conduct the internal investigation before Morrison shifted that responsibility to VTR, will play. Commissioners will discuss Dry's role at their meeting on Monday night.

Morrison decided to give the inquiry detail to VTR after learning that Dry lacked a private investigator's license.

That fact came to light after Morrison got a phone call from Jack Scott, a private investigator who had helped fire commissioners set up their procedure for conducting internal investigations.

Scott declined initial requests from the fire district to do the investigation, Morrison said. But it turns out Scott once owned VTR, which he sold 2{ years ago, and remains a consultant to the company. His wife of three months, Cindy Leach, is VTR's vice president and a minority stockholder.

After problems arose with Dry's license, Scott said he suggested to Morrison that VTR be retained for the investigation. Since the fire district has an existing relationship with VTR _ the firm does background checks on the fire district's prospective employees _ using VTR would be quicker than trying to go out and solicit a new firm, Scott said.

"The whole idea here was to move the thing along and get it moving," Scott said. "Because I am a citizen, I too am frustrated."

Morrison said he remembers Scott advising him to seek Dry's credentials, but he does not recall Scott recommending VTR for the job. Nevertheless, Morrison said that since Scott was the fire board's first choice to do the work anyway, any involvement Scott may have would be a bonus.

It isn't clear, though, whether VTR investigator and president Donna Schrang will need Scott. For its work, VTR will receive $50 an hour.

The case, involving firefighters Lt. John Ferriero, Edward Falk and Tom White, dates back to June, when allegations of rape made by a Spring Hill woman first arose. The matter became public knowledge in August and the firefighters have been on paid leave since Aug. 19.

Morrison said the final outcome of the case should come quickly after VTR's work is done.

"(For) the rank and file (firefighters) here, the people of Spring Hill, it is best for everyone that we resolve this as quick as humanly possible," he said.

Dry could not be reached for comment.

_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to