By his own admission, George Morris III’s two-year tenure as the top administrator of the Cal Fire Academy in Ione was pockmarked with mistakes.
He trusted subordinates too much, he told California Highway Patrol investigators during a two-hour interview Oct. 3, 2014, as a scandal was washing over his facility. He didn’t spend enough time at the academy, he said, and he left rule enforcement to managers who, in hindsight, were themselves some of the most egregious rule breakers.
But when asked why he didn’t forcefully act on allegations that one of those managers, Orville “Moe” Fleming, was trolling a prostitution website, MyRedbook.com, and was in a relationship with a hooker he met there, Morris offered a defense:
“It was part of his private life,” he said, according to a recording of the interview with Morris obtained by The Sacramento Bee.
A few months after Morris decided not to intervene, Fleming stabbed and strangled 26-year-old Sarah June Douglas, the mistress he met through MyRedbook.com.
The May 2014 murder touched off a CHP probe of the academy that included more than 160 interviews and interrogations, including the one with Morris. The investigation ended in January 2015 with resignations, a termination, suspensions and demotions of 15 managers under Morris who were caught up in a sex-and-booze scandal that continues to dog the department.
The academy’s chief administrator, however, emerged unscathed. About a month before Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott punished Morris’ staff, he promoted Morris to Nevada-Yuba-Placer unit chief, one of only 21 such jobs statewide. The move included a $400-per-month pay raise, to just under $136,000 annually – and distanced Morris from the disgrace that consumed the academy he had run.
Morris didn’t return telephone calls from The Bee. Department spokeswoman Janet Upton said there was nothing irregular about Morris’ promotion, which required approval by Pimlott. Morris won the job over other candidates, she said, “based on his high ranking on the unit chief eligibility list and his top performance in the job interview.”
Upton did not answer questions posed by The Bee, including whether Pimlott considered Morris’ academy leadership or his statements to the CHP before awarding the job. She noted, however, “that the CHP’s wide-ranging investigation of the Cal Fire Academy found no wrongdoing by Chief Morris.”
The Bee cannot verify that claim. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the CHP have refused to release the results of the seven-month probe, which cost taxpayers $1.76 million.
This story relies on Cal Fire hiring and disciplinary records received through Public Records Act requests filed over the last year and internal documents and investigative recordings leaked to The Bee. Cal Fire and CHP have refused to review the unofficially released records for authenticity.
The MyRedbook investigation
Sometime in April or May of 2013, according to CHP interview recordings, Cal Fire officials received a disturbing anonymous email. It accused Fleming of visiting MyRedbook.com, a now-defunct website that connected prostitutes with potential customers.
“This weird email came out ... about this Moe Fleming is a dangerous pimp, a bad guy,” Morris said in CHP interview with Lt. Andy Williams and Capt. Sam Dickson in Sacramento. “It was wild, the wording in it was wild, there was no way to figure out who sent it.”
Morris received the email from his boss, Clare Frank, with an order that he look into it. Morris turned the assignment over to the academy’s law enforcement battalion chief, Patrick Sparks.
“(Morris) said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to give you a quick assignment to look at a website,’ ” Sparks told CHP investigators during an Aug. 4, 2014, interview, three months after Douglas’ murder.
After receiving department permission to access a questionable website for purposes of investigation, Sparks went home and called it up on his state-issued laptop.
“What it looked like to me was a swinger-type hookup website. There were advertisements for strip clubs, massage parlors and all that sort of thing,” he said.
Sparks wasn’t surprised. He’d worked with Fleming since 2000, he told the CHP’s Sgt. Robin Johnson and Lt. Ezry Beauchamp.
“Every conversation you have with the guy turns to sex within a minute and a half,” Sparks said. “I’ve always known him to be a freaky-deaky dude with this stuff.”
Sparks told investigators he couldn’t find the anonymous email because it was lost when the department switched servers.
This weird email came out ... about this Moe Fleming is a dangerous pimp, a bad guy.
Former Cal Fire administrator George Morris
Sparks did not document his cursory investigation until a year later, on May 8, 2014, a week after Fleming murdered Douglas. The Bee reviewed a copy of the 500-word summary, which Sparks wrote from memory.
“When I returned to work,” Sparks wrote, “I told Chief Morris III that the site appeared to be a website for swingers and those looking for sexual partners.”
Sparks didn’t go far into the website because it required registration, he wrote. He told investigators that he didn’t realize that MyRedbook.com was a prostitution marketplace until Douglas’ death and subsequent news reports that she had met Fleming through the website.
“I took this to George, and I said, ‘Knowing Moe, he’s into some weird stuff, talks about sex all the time,’ ” Sparks said.
Morris recalled the conversation differently.
“Sparks said, yeah, this a place like you can find an escort or a prostitute,” Morris said during his CHP interview. He said he passed the information back up the chain of command.
“Through my rose-colored glasses, that did not compute with what a firefighter is,” Morris said.
“So no other action was taken?” CHP’s Dickson asked.
“No, other than the fact-finding to see what (MyRedbook.com) was,” Morris said.
Dickson: “So it wasn’t taken seriously by the department?”
Looking back, Sparks said during the CHP interview, “I really think the email came from Sarah Douglas. ... The language in there was like ‘this person is a trick.’ That’s something somebody in the industry is going to use.”
Morris’ and Sparks’ description of the email’s language matches that of the words exchanged in vicious texts between Fleming and Douglas captured on law-enforcement video of Fleming’s cellphone and obtained by The Bee.
“You want to see hookers, that’s fine Moe,” Douglas wrote during one of many text fights found by police. “It’s cool. I’m not tripping off this trick s---. ... And next time keep this trick garbage to yourself please.”
After Douglas’ murder, Sparks told investigators, a Sacramento County corrections officer disclosed that his brother had graduated from the academy. While there, the former cadet told his brother, Fleming was “basically pimping to the students.”
Sparks asked CHP Sgt. Robin Johnson, “Did you get that (document)?” apparently referring to a report on the information.
“Yeah, we did,” Johnson replied.
That report, like the rest of the academy investigation record, has never been released.
Douglas confesses prostitution
Several months after the MyRedbook email, Morris learned of another message that called Fleming’s behavior into question. This time, according to Morris’ recorded CHP interview, Douglas sent a text message to Capt. Derek Nunn in November 2013.
In it, Douglas admitted that she had been or was a prostitute. Morris wasn’t sure whether the reference was past tense or present tense, he told investigators, because the text was read to him and the details weren’t clear in his mind.
Dickson said that Nunn, who received the text, had told CHP investigators that he believed that Douglas was speaking in the present tense, according to department interview tapes.
Nunn, who is no longer employed by Cal Fire, could not be reached for comment.
Every conversation you have with the guy turns to sex within a minute and a half.
Patrick Sparks, law enforcement battalion chief, Cal Fire academy
Dickson asked whether the November 2013 text raised concerns for Morris, given the earlier email, the MyRedbook investigation and allegations that Fleming was “pandering or pimping or (using) prostitutes.”
“Not really,” Morris said. “And what I mean by that, I’m thinking, ‘OK, this is his private life. It’s spilling over into his work life, which happens all the time.’ ”
He said he took the text as a statement of Douglas’ previous lifestyle, not something she was engaged in at the time. “You know, people are ex a lot of things. I’m sure there are people whose wives or girlfriends are ex-drug addicts,” Morris said. “I’m not sure how that’s the academy’s business.”
Dickson: “So as a peace officer, it didn’t raise any concerns for you that Moe Fleming was involved in potential illegal activity, which would be a Cal Fire concern?”
Morris: “It did, but it didn’t. It didn’t match up for me. It didn’t match up.”
Dickson: “I don’t know what that means.”
Morris: “It wasn’t enough.”
Dickson: “It didn’t cross the threshold for you to think, ‘We need to do something about this’?”
Morris: “No, it’s in his private life.”
‘I trusted too much’
Morris’ interview with Dickson and Williams then turned to his professional performance as the academy administrator. What, the investigators wanted to know, had he done to foster a work environment free of harassment and inappropriate conduct?
It was a key question, that struck to the heart of what CHP investigators were finding went on under the Morris administration: cadets and instructors drinking on the job, sexual harassment and sexual assault on women, cheating for job promotions, misuse of state property, lying to police and, in one case, use of a state phone and vehicle to rendezvous with prostitutes at least 10 times in Sacramento hotels.
Morris’ answer: “For the situations I’ve been aware of, I think I’ve done the best I can.”
But, he admitted, “I trusted too much.”
He said left it to subordinates to conduct cadet orientations and described his role at graduation ceremonies as a mere “figurehead.” And, Morris said, he spent too little time at the academy and too much time at headquarters in Sacramento.
After Douglas’ murder and subsequent allegations of academy misconduct surfaced, Morris said, “Graduations became a different event for me. I realized how perverse it was that Moe had been administering the oath for years.”
To turn things around, Morris said, he started a sign-in sign-out policy to keep track of cadets’ comings and goings. He spent more time at the academy, he said, and got out of his office more while there.
However, Morris said, he was duped by subordinates.
For a profession that’s supposed to be built on courage and valor, we do a lot of spineless s--- to each other. One of the spineless things is that we don’t follow up when things are bad.
Morris, in October 2014 interview with CHP officers
“From what I saw, from what they let me see, it looked like they were caring and they were working toward the students’ success,” he told investigators. “When actually what they were doing was something very different.”
Dickson said that firefighters outside the academy whom CHP investigators interviewed had expressed disregard for department authority. He asked Morris if he thought it was “a culture thing” among Cal Fire firefighters.
“It’s funny. For a profession that’s supposed to be built on courage and valor, we do a lot of spineless s--- to each other,” Morris said. “One of the spineless things is that we don’t follow up when things are bad.”
On Oct. 1, two days before his interview with the CHP, Morris signed an application to become the Nevada-Yuba-Placer unit chief, according to documents received through a Public Records Act request. Like his academy post, a unit chief is responsible for every aspect of the operation. The position also serves as the public face of Cal Fire in the assigned area.
Morris’ résumé included his work history, military service, more than 50 special licenses and certifications, and his associate’s degree from Butte College and bachelor’s degree in business management from University of Phoenix.
The documents show three other Cal Fire employees applied around the same time: Scott Lindgren, the Nevada-Yuba-Placer assistant chief with 38 years in firefighting; Staff Chief Daniel Sendek, with 34 years in the industry and a natural resources master’s degree from Humboldt State; and Academy Assistant Chief Mike Ramirez, a 25-year veteran with a varied Cal Fire résumé and history of volunteer work that included serving families of fallen firefighters.
(In January, Ramirez was fired for allegations that arose from the CHP investigation. He is contesting his termination.)
“Each candidate was asked the same questions,” Cal Fire’s Upton said. “The panel evaluated the candidates based on their responses, and made a recommendation to the Region Chief (over the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit).”
All four candidates gave presentations in front of a five-person hiring panel on Dec. 11, 2014, Cal Fire records show. One interviewer’s written assessment noted that Morris “brings some ‘positivity.’ ” Another scribbled, “currently working in a tough situation.”
Morris’ total score from the panel, 100.5 points, ranked highest, just above the 100 points assessed Lindgren. The panel’s feedback for all four candidates then went to Northern Region Chief Keith Larkin, department spokeswoman Upton said. Larkin took his recommendation to Pimlott, who approved the hire.
It took less than 24 hours from the end of the panel interviews for Pimlott to announce his decision in a 9:29 a.m. email on Dec. 12, 2014. He asked Cal Fire employees to join him in congratulating Morris on his appointment to unit chief, effective immediately.
About three weeks later, more than a dozen people who worked for Morris also left the academy under less celebratory circumstances.
Then-Academy Chief George Morris III told CHP investigators in an October 2014 interview that the culture lacked discipline, fueled in part by strong union influence.
Cal Fire Assistant Deputy Director Phyllis Banducci told CHP investigators in June 2014 that a subordinate believed an academy instructor had been sharing test questions and answers with students.
Cal Fire Academy test writer Shannon Browne told CHP investigators in 2014 that instructors had thrown out results for questions some cadets couldn’t answer.