Former Flint, Michigan, Fire Chief Raymond Barton filed a federal $10 million lawsuit against the city and its mayor alleging that he was terminated because he refused to help cover up a house fire that killed two young brothers.
Barton said in a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court that Mayor Sheldon Neeley tried to pressure him to cover up the alleged misconduct of then-firefighters Daniel Sniegocki and Michael Zlotek, who claimed that they had “thoroughly” searched a Pulaski Street home on May 28 after a fire broke out on the first floor.
Sniegocki and Zlotek said they found no one in the burning home and gave the “all clear” to other firefighters on the scene, the lawsuit says. A second group of firefighters later entered the home and found Lamar Mitchell, 9, and Zyaire Mitchell, 12, his brother, in a second-floor bedroom.
The brothers, who were home alone, were alive and rushed to the hospital in critical condition, Barton’s attorney said in a news release. They died about a week later because of smoke inhalation, the Detroit Free Press reported. In November, the boys’ family announced plans to file a separate lawsuit.
Two firefighters gave the 'all clear.' Minutes later the boys were found.
Sniegocki and Zlotek, who resigned, could not be reached for comment at phone numbers listed for them. They denied any wrongdoing through their union, the Free Press reported.
The firefighters union, Neeley’s office and a city attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Six firefighters responded to the two-alarm electrical blaze. The lawsuit says they were all informed that people were probably in the home.
Sniegocki and Zlotek entered the house. Sniegocki used a hose to fight the flames on the first floor and told Zlotek to go upstairs to conduct a search, according to the suit. Sniegocki eventually went upstairs to help Zlotek, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit says that both firefighters exited the home and that they “thoroughly” searched the second floor. Zlotek said he used infrared equipment and thermal imaging cameras to find people “who might not be visible to the naked eye,” it says. They both told the other firefighters at the scene that the house was “all clear,” meaning no one was inside, the suit says.
“At that point, a second set of firefighters entered the home, went upstairs, and immediately found ZM, age 12, and LM, age 9, in a bedroom,” the suit says. “The firefighters found LM on the floor in the doorway of their shared bedroom; ZM was lying in the bed in that room.”
The boys were found about seven minutes after Sniegocki and Zlotek had said the house was clear, according to the lawsuit. The children were not covered by any objects and “were visible to the naked eye,” it says.
After he found out what happened, Barton investigated and determined that Sniegocki and Zlotek lied in written reports about what they did to search the home for occupants, “because, if they had conducted the search as they claimed, they would have found ZM and LM,” the suit says.
“On the basis of Sniegocki’s and Zlotek’s dishonesty and failure to fulfill their duties, Chief Barton recommended that the two firefighters be suspended without pay pending a final investigation and that they be discharged at the conclusion of that investigation,” it says.
The lawsuit alleges that because Neeley was up for re-election at the time and needed the support of the firefighters union, he did not want Barton to terminate Sniegocki and Zlotek.
Neeley instead told Barton “to alter official reports to disguise the firefighters’ misconduct, suspend the firefighters with pay, and drop his recommendation that they be discharged,” the suit says. NBC News has not independently verified the claim.
Former fire chief says termination feels like 'dishonorable discharge'
Barton refused “to serve Mayor Neeley’s personal, political interests by lying to the public in a cover-up of gross malfeasance and fraudulent conduct by two firefighters,” the document says. Nine days after Neeley’s re-election on Nov. 8, Neeley fired him, according to the lawsuit.
In a Nov. 18 news release, the city announced Theron Wiggins as the interim fire chief. It did not say why Barton was no longer employed.
At a news conference Monday, Barton was asked whether the children could have been hiding in the bedroom, come out and collapsed after Sniegocki and Zlotek left the home.
He said the bed frame sat on the floor and the only closet in the room was not big enough for both children to fit into. “There was no place for the children to be hiding,” he said.
Barton, who had worked with the fire department for more than three decades, said his firing felt like a “dishonorable discharge” from the military.
“The problem is I didn’t do anything wrong. All I did was tell the truth,” he said.
The lawsuit seeks $10 million because of how the situation was handled, Barton’s attorney, Arnold Reed, said at the news conference.
“It was completely unfair. It completely took Ray off-guard for a person that has done what he has done for this community for so many years, consistently,” he said.
The Genesee County prosecutor asked state police to investigate whether there was any criminal negligence on the part of the firefighters involved, a police spokesperson said Tuesday. The investigation continues.