A new investigation details hazing at Odessa Fire Rescue’s cadet program, but questions remain
In August 2022, Odessa Fire Rescue cadets were forced to crawl on burning hot asphalt by training officials, leaving the recruits with burned and blistered hands.
An attorney hired to investigate the matter recently presented a report to the Odessa City Council revealing new details about the incident. Attorney Tommy Sheen explained to the council that city officials mishandled the response and may have tried to cover it up.
Odessa American reporter Kim Smith has been following this story closely and she says the new report may not tell the complete story.
Marfa Public Radio’s Mitch Borden spoke with Smith about her latest article.
Burning asphalt and blistered hands
On a sweltering August day last summer, OFR Training Chief Marty Moya ordered a number of cadets to crawl on hot asphalt until he said to stop, according to the Sheen Law Firm’s investigation. This left many of the trainees with l burns on their hands.
According to Smith, the cadets were being punished for refusing to volunteer at a work event, which upset Moya and their direct supervisor, Training Captain Kris Norred.
Smith explained, “The cadets had rejected an opportunity to go out to Odessa college for a recruitment event for OFR. The implication is that Moya and Norred together decided to punish these cadets.”
Once OFR leadership found out about this incident they launched an investigation, which led to Moya being suspended for five days without pay and Norred received a write up.
Moya retired earlier this year, and according to Smith, Norred is still with the fire department.
Two Investigations into the same incident
Earlier this year, the council hired the Sheen Law Firm to take another look at the incident. In a recent meeting, Attorney Tommy Sheen detailed how OFR officials ignored recommendations to fire Moya and Norred, opting for less severe punishments.
Sheen interviewed a number of cadets and officials involved for his investigation, but told the council he could only access a limited number of materials from OFR’s previous investigation — which Smith said didn’t make sense.
“Tommy Sheen said that the only documents that he was able to uncover during his investigation were these pre-disciplinary reports,” Smith said. “I was kind of surprised by that because I, through my open records requests, had received a long email chain.”
According to Smith, these emails showed top human resources were aware of OFR’s recommendations for how this situation should be handled and agreed that it was the right move.
“Assistant Chief Saul Ortega laid out his entire investigation, stating, ‘I believe these are the punishments Chief Moya and Captain Norred should receive.’ She continued, “And he at one point asked the HR director, Charles Hurst, if he concurred, and Charles Hurst said that he did.”
This information contradicts Sheen’s report which states the City of Odessa’s Human Resource Department recommended firing the two OFR officials.
Former Top OFR official rejects Sheen’s claims
Sheen’s report concludes by saying “not only does sufficient evidence exist of hazing by OFR personnel against cadets but some evidence also exists of what appears to be a coverup within OFR.”
However, Smith was able to reach former OFR Fire Chief John Alvarez about the conclusion of the recent report that there may have e been an attempted cover up. He had not participated in Sheen’s investigation, but spoke to the Odessa American about his involvement.
Alvarez retired earlier this year, but actually called for an investigation into the hazing after seeing trainees with bandaged hands.
“Chief Alvarez just flat out denies that there was a cover up,” according to Smith. “He said there was absolutely no way that something of this magnitude could have been covered up.”
Smith says she’s waiting to see how Sheen’s report could affect Odessa’s Fire Department and the city as a whole.
In a recent video Interim OFR Fire Chief Jason Cotton said that “Bullying, hazing, mistreatment of our employees will not be tolerated — that’s all in the past.”