Michigan FD Sued Over Junior Program Sexual Assault

A Michigan fire department is being sued by a former junior firefighter who was sexually assaulted by two firefighters while she was participating in the department’s Explorer program.

The plaintiff, identified in the suit as Jane Doe, filed the complaint on August 31, 2018 in US District Court for the Western District of Michigan naming Cascade Charter Township, the Boy Scouts of America, the Michigan Crossroads Council, Inc. BSA, and Learning for Life. The incidents occurred in 2016 when Doe was 16 years old and her abusers were 51 and 32 years old respectively.

The suit alleges that the organizations were responsible for the sexual assault by the men, who were not named as defendants in the suit. Both have already pled guilty to sex-based offenses. According to the complaint, the organizations failed to put necessary systems in place to protect the Explorer program’s underage participants. It also makes the following allegations:

  • At least 137 girls and 26 boys have been raped, seduced, fondled, kissed, or otherwise exploited in 28 states by at least 129 law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other advisors in the Explorer program in the 40 years preceding Jane’s abuse.
  • BSA was well aware of these prior incidents of abuse.

The three-count complaint alleges a civil rights violation under 42 U.S.C. §1983 against the township, and negligence and gross negligence counts against the Boy Scouts and their affiliates.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Doe v Cascade Charter Township

For those fire departments with a junior program, the complaint is a must read. It outlines the steps that fire departments with junior program should take – including background checks, training, mandating two-deep leadership, and prohibiting one-on-one contact between adults and junior members.

I will outline some of the factual allegations below – but if you have a junior program – take the time to download and read the complaint. By explaining what the fire department and the BSA failed to do, the complaint explains what fire departments need to do in order to prevent disasters like this. Besides irreparably damaging the life of Jane Doe, this case resulted the conviction of the two perpetrator-firefighters (destroying not just their lives but the lives of their families as well), the dismissal of the fire chief and the deputy chief, and the tarnishing of the fire department’s reputation.

From the complaint:

  • At all times relevant to this Complaint, Cascade Charter Township employed then-51-year-old Clem Bell and then-32-year-old Steven Drake as paid-on-call firefighters.
  • Soon after Jane started participating in the Exploring program at the Cascade Fire Department Post, Bell and Drake individually began to pay special attention to her.
  • While most of the firefighters were disinterested in the Explorer students, Bell and Drake each sought out Jane and eagerly taught her the techniques and skills to be a firefighter, answered her questions, and befriended her.
  • Neither Clem Bell nor Steven Drake were registered leaders for the Exploring program, and neither had completed Youth Protection Training as required by BSA.
  • When Jane was at the firehouse, Drake and Bell individually spent considerable time with her, showering her with flattering attention and confiding in her about their personal lives.
  • During this time, both men obtained Jane’s contact information and connected with her on various social media platforms.
  • Both Drake and Bell pursued social relationships with Jane outside of her time as an Explorer.
  • At all relevant times, Drake and Bell were both married men with children, and are 16 and 35 years older than Jane, respectively. Bell’s children went to school with Jane.
  • Jane admired Drake and Bell and saw them as authority figures she had to listen to, respect, and obey.
  • The Cascade Fire Department did not through policy, practice, or custom prohibit its firefighters from fraternizing with the Exploring students outside of the students’ time in the program at the firehouse.
  • Drake and Bell each individually frequently isolated Jane from other firefighters and spent time with her alone in various areas of the firehouse and the adjoining township offices while she was present at the firehouse to participate in the Exploring program.
  • Cascade Charter Township had no policy, custom, or practice of prohibiting a male firefighter from being alone with a female Exploring student at the firehouse.
  • Both Drake and Bell frequently drove Jane, alone, in township vehicles to other locations, such as to county parks that needed to be locked up at the end of the evening.
  • On June 13, 2016, firefighter Andrew Marsman approached Deputy Fire Chief John Shipley and complained that Bell was showing inappropriate affection and attention to Jane, which led the other firefighters to develop “bad perceptions.”
  • In response to Marsman’s complaint, Deputy Chief Shipley informed Bell that others in the fire department were concerned about what appeared to be an inappropriate relationship between him and Jane.
  • Bell was defensive and denied any such relationship, stating that he was merely trying to make Jane “feel valuable” and “get quality training.”
  • Shipley warned Bell to maintain space between himself and Jane and not to make bad decisions. No other actions were taken at that time to guard against the suspected inappropriate relationship, and the concerns were not reported to Jane’s parents, any BSA entity, or law enforcement.
  • On or about July 2 or 3, 2016, Drake initiated a vulgar and indecent sexual conversation with Jane while the two were alone in the fire garage during work hours. Over the following week, he escalated the frequency and intensity of sexual conversations with Jane.
  • On or about July 8 or 9, Drake engaged in sexual abuse, harassment, and nonconsensual forced touching while he and Jane were alone in a concealed area of the firehouse during a work shift for approximately 45 minutes.
  • Also in July 2016, Bell began initiating inappropriate sexual conversations with Jane at the firehouse after directing Jane to areas where they would be alone.
  • In late July 2016, Drake engaged in sexual abuse of Jane after he drove her to another location in a township vehicle during a work shift, purportedly to lock up a county park.
  • In mid-August 2016, Bell engaged in sexual abuse, harassment, and nonconsensual forced touching while he and Jane were alone in his township clerk office, connected and adjacent to the fire house, during a work shift.
  • In late August 2016, Bell engaged in sexual abuse of Jane after taking her, alone, in a township vehicle to a township park to close the park at dusk.
  • In the next months, Bell and Drake routinely isolated Jane from the other firefighters during their work shifts in order to sexually abuse, harass, and molest her. In particular, whenever Bell arrived at work, Jane knew that she would have to go with Bell to an isolated area of the firehouse or an emergency vehicle.
  • Drake threatened that if Jane told anyone about their “relationship,” she would be removed from the Exploring program and would be unable to pursue her desired career as a firefighter.
  • Bell and Drake each sent vulgar and obscene nude photographs to Jane and demanded that Jane provide nude photographs of herself to them.
  • Throughout September, October, November, and early December 2016, Drake and Bell separately abused, assaulted, harassed, battered, and/or molested Jane countless times in the above-described manner.
  • On November 3, 2016, firefighter Lance Korhorn noticed that Bell and Jane could not be found during a work shift. He reported his observation to Lieutenant Stevenson.
  • Stevenson and Korhorn later found Bell and Jane alone in a township office, behind a locked door. Korhorn and Stevenson had to force the door open.
  • On November 4, 2016, Lieutenant Stevenson warned Bell that “it does not look good” when he is alone behind locked doors with Jane.
  • On November 4, 2016, firefighter Korhorn reported his concerns about the way Bell was treating Jane to Fire Chief Sigg. Chief Sigg and Lieutenant Stevenson scheduled a meeting with Bell for nearly a week later, on November 10, 2016.
  • The concerns about Bell’s interactions with Jane were not reported to Jane’s parents, any BSA organization, or law enforcement.
  • Jane was never asked about her relationships with Bell and Drake.
  • On November 10, 2016, Lieutenant Stevenson and Chief Sigg met with Bell to discuss their concerns about his interactions with Jane. They warned Bell that his actions gave the appearance of an inappropriate relationship with Jane and told him that he should not go into rooms or vehicles alone with Jane. Bell promised not to be alone with Jane again.
  • No measures were taken to limit Bell’s access to Jane.
  • Just two days later, on November 12, 2016, firefighter Marsman sent a text message to Lieutenant Stevenson expressing his concern that Bell continued to show Jane inappropriate attention, as Jane was following Bell around the station and wearing his coat.
  • Lieutenant Stevenson called Bell on November 13, 2016, and told Bell that he needed to stay away from Jane because others were concerned about their relationship.
  • Lieutenant Stevenson reported the concerns to Chief Sigg via email and asked Sigg to talk with Bell again. Chief Sigg did nothing in response.
  • On November 17, 2016, Chief Sigg and Matt Groesser met to discuss “Explorer matters.”
  • At this meeting, Chief Sigg notified Matt Groesser of the perception that Bell was spending a concerning amount of time with Jane.
  • Chief Sigg, Lieutenant Stevenson, and Matt Groesser planned to meet on November 21, 2016, to discuss the concerns about Bell’s relationship with Jane. The meeting did not occur, but was postponed until December 7, 2016.
  • On December 13, 2016, Jane disclosed the abuse to her parents.
  • On December 14, 2016, Jane sought psychological treatment.
  • On December 14, 2016, at 11:22 a.m., without knowledge of Jane’s condition, Chief Sigg sent an email to Matt Groesser and Lieutenant Stevenson, asking them to hold off talking with Jane because Deputy Chief Shipley planned to talk with Bell again.
  • On December 14, 2016, at 1:38 p.m., Chief Sigg sent out an email to the firefighters indicating that Explorers could not be in the firehouse after 8 p.m. except for certain trainings, and that the Exploring guidelines and responses were being reviewed.
  • On December 20, 2016, Matt Groesser spoke with Chief Sigg after the extent of Jane’s heinous abuse had come to light. Groesser stated that he “understood [the] township needed to take some corrective actions” but hoped it would not close the Post.
  • An investigation conducted by the Kent County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that Drake and Bell had abused Jane in the manner described above.
  • On May 1, 2017, Bell and Drake pled guilty to promoting child sexually abusive activity, possession of child sexually abusive material, and using a computer to commit a crime.
  • Both Bell and Drake admitted in their plea hearings that they asked Jane to send them pornographic pictures of herself using their cell phones and/or computers.
  • Cascade Charter Township conducted an internal investigation of the above events.
  • Deputy Fire Chief Shipley was terminated and Fire Chief Sigg was forced to retire early because of the results of the Township’s internal investigation.
  • Cascade Township Manager Ben Swayze told the media that the abuse had occurred due to significant deficiencies in the policies and procedures of how the Explorer program was managed.
  • The Exploring Post at the Cascade Charter Township fire department was suspended as a result the above-described events.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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