NY Grand Jury Declines to Issue indictments in LODD Training Death

A grand jury looking into the death of a recruit firefighter at the New York State Fire Academy in 2021 has declined to issue an indictment. Peyton Morse, a recruit with the Watertown Fire Department, died after suffering a medical emergency while in engaged in an arduous training evolution.

The incident occurred at the Montour Falls facility on March 3, 2021. Morse was left in a coma until he passed away on March 12, 2021. Questions were raised about whether instructors were hazing and bullying students in the class, and whether they reacted appropriately when they observed Morse struggling.

According to WWNY, when instructors realized Morse was in distress, the closest ambulance was 15 minutes away. CPR was initiated by personnel on-scene and he was transported to a hospital on a state bus.

The incident was investigated by New York State Department of Labor’s Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau (PESH) and the NY State Police. PESH declined to cite the fire academy for the death. Prosecutors presented the results of the police investigation to a Schuyler County grand jury, who refused to indict the instructors and/or others involved in the incident.

Morse’s family released the following statement:

  • The family of Fallen Firefighter Peyton Lane S Morse was shocked and saddened to learn of the decision by the Schuyler County Grand Jury not to make any indictments regarding Peyton’s death. The family strongly disagrees with this decision, but notes that this decision does not prove no crime was committed, only that insufficient evidence was provided to indict. The District Attorney and the Grand Jury do not investigate, they can only present and act upon the information they receive, and the family has been critical of the investigation they received from the beginning, and this furthers that belief.
  • There are many politicians and leaders who believe that police agencies are not capable of completing an unbiased investigation in cases involving their respective agency, and this includes New York’s current Governor and Attorney General. This same reasoning should be applied to New York State in general – they are not capable of completing an unbiased investigation involving New York State.
  • The family called for an independent investigation from the beginning, and their pleas were ignored by both the Governor’s and Attorney General’s offices. The initial State Police investigation was completed by a local investigator, stationed on the grounds of the New York State Fire Science Academy, the very place Peyton was killed. This certainly brings up the question of a conflict of interest and his ability to be unbiased. His initial investigation included no signed written statements, limited notes and limited photographs, and his attitude can be summed up in a statement he made separately to both Peyton’s father and Fire Chief: “Sometimes people die, you are going to have to get used to it.” An unbelievably callous and unprofessional statement that was condoned by his Supervisors, further calling into question their ability to conduct a thorough, professional, and unbiased investigation.
  • The family knows at some point the case was turned over to the NYSP Major Crimes Unit but were never interviewed or spoken to by anyone involved in this investigation, were not granted access to the investigation report, and have no idea what it includes. We do know, starting an investigation 6 months late, is an extreme disadvantage to a thorough investigation.
  • The investigation by PESH was also lacking. PESH was indecisive about their ability to investigate, citing lack of jurisdiction, and a belief that they could not investigate another State Agency. Their initial official report included misleading and blatantly false information, that was removed after the family’s complaint, but no explanation was giving for the inclusion of the false information, which the family believes was a criminal offense itself.
  • The family was told that the Attorney General’s Office, who has officially stated has a conflict of interest in this case, and could not investigate, utilized the State Police to document the scene, and had numerous telephone calls and a formal, in person meeting with the PESH investigators. They were also told that an investigator with the Attorney General’s office contacted the District Attorney and the lead NYSP Major Crimes Unit Investigator, in attempt to get a copy of the investigation, something the family has been denied. This individual contacted the District Attorney first, and when denied access, contacted the lead NYSP MCU Investigator. We do not know if further calls up the chain of command were made. The family acknowledges that the Attorney General must defend the state in Civil and Criminal matters but having access and use of the very agencies involved in the investigation is both unethical and unfair, and calls into question the ability of those State agencies to perform their duties in a professional and unbiased manner.
  • The family has filed complaints with the Governor’s Office, the Attorney General, and the Inspector General, and have never received a response from any of them.
  • This is not just about the death of their son, brother, loved one; it is larger than that. It is about a broken system. A system that is protecting State employees and agencies that repeatedly act unprofessionally and create unsafe and biased working conditions. A system where rules, regulations, procedures, and protocols are routinely violated, but with no existing oversight, these actions are allowed to continue unfettered. Unfortunately, this decision will only further empower these bad actors.
  • After Peyton’s death, when one would assume the Academy would be on their best behavior, a Town of Dewitt Firefighter was seriously injured from a fall from a roof ladder, that was being used improperly. The Academy’s official response, just like in all the other injury cases, was lip service, saying it was a one-time error, and not a practice that was repeated or would be repeated. Yet the family was able to find a photograph of Peyton himself being instructed at this Academy in the same way. A complaint to PESH was met with the response that “our Firefighting experts reviewed the photograph and found nothing wrong…” Any private employer would shudder at the thought of photographic evidence of an employee misusing a ladder and the subsequent OSHA investigation, yet New York State is not subject to OSHA jurisdiction, and PESH can’t even figure out which way is up with a ladder.
  • We know we will never get Peyton back, but we feel continually revictimized by the treatment we have received from NYS and its employees and elected officials, and the fact that NYS is not taking Peyton’s death seriously and not making the much-needed changes to improve safety at their Fire Academy. We will continue our fight to protect all future attendees at this Academy, and although we will be saddened to learn of future unnecessary injuries, these injuries will fall firmly on Governor Kathy Hochul, Attorney General Letitia James, Inspector General Lucy Lang, DHSES Commissioner Jackie Bray, OFPC Chief James Cable, and the Fire Chief and Union that sends their members to this Academy. We thank the many Chiefs who have stopped sending their members to this Academy, choosing other locations, and the safety and security of their members.
  • We are a first responder family. We have paid a lot, and now Peyton has paid the ultimate price. We know that the majority of our police officers and firefighters are good and honorable men and women, who go above and beyond each and every day. It is the few that taint the many, and when their supervisors and elected officials condone their actions, they become part of the problem, a problem that didn’t begin on March 3rd, 2021, but was brewing for years while those in the know did nothing. There have been far too many preventable injuries at this New York State Academy, both before and after Peyton’s death. Far too many empty promises of change. It has been said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It is time for real change. A change that must include sweeping changes inside OFPC and the creation of an Independent Agency that can ensure New York State is held to the same standards they demand of others.
  • Remember, five New York State Fire Instructors, five agents of the State of New York, five fellow Firefighters with medical training, all stood by, yelling, screaming, ridiculing Peyton as he asked for help, stated he couldn’t breathe, and subsequently died. They did not do their duty, they did not follow their solemn oaths, they did nothing to help, and Peyton died, and in the progressive State of New York, that is apparently legal.

More on the story.

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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