Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Firefighter story one of tragedy and accountability

The lead story on today’s front page is one we wish we didn’t have to tell.

It is a horrific testament to the ravages of drug addiction on a strapping young man with seemingly everything to live for. It is the story of a family’s pain at having lost the second of its two children.

But it also speaks to how we select the first responders we depend on to save our lives and the lives of their brothers and sisters. It contemplates a hiring process admirably built to allow second chances and encourage diversity, but that can shield a department from information it might need to make good decisions.

And it raises questions about what duty a deputy fire chief had to tell the department of the possible risks of hiring her son.

When we began reporting the story almost a year ago, we had no idea the turns it would take.

In March 2016, The News Tribune published a story saying that two Tacoma Fire Department recruits faced allegations of cheating on a written exam.

Shortly after it ran, reporter Kenny Ocker got a phone call from a person who said Ramsey Mueller, the son of Tacoma Fire Department Deputy Chief Faith Mueller, was part of the recruit class in question. We should check to see whether he was one of those accused of cheating, said the caller, who did not leave a name.

While we didn’t name the recruits in the paper, we were able to determine that Ramsey Mueller was not one of those accused of cheating.

But the anonymous caller told us something else — that recruit Mueller had used heroin the previous weekend.

That prompted investigative reporter Sean Robinson to run a routine background check on Ramsey Mueller. It turned up a May 2015 charge in California regarding his use of a controlled substance. It also showed that a related warrant was recalled in December 2015.

Separately, Robinson got an anonymous email suggesting drug use within the recruit class involving family members of Fire Department superiors. Questions of nepotism naturally arose. We began to look into the matter.

For several months the story churned on a back burner as we asked the department general questions about its hiring process and how it vetted recruits. The department complied with our requests, but the reporter said he was told not to contact Faith Mueller.

Then, on a Monday morning in July, Ocker’s anonymous source called him again. Ramsey Mueller had died, the caller said. Robinson got an email that day offering the same information.

The story gained urgency, and we dug deeper to try to understand what happened.

The rumor was that Mueller died of a drug overdose, but to learn the facts, we requested the Tacoma police report and fire incident report on his death. We also went back and requested the full report on his police interaction in California.

The Tacoma police report didn’t come immediately, which is normal for a death under investigation. The toxicology results alone often take weeks.

On Oct. 10, we received a copy of the devastating police report detailing the scene and circumstances of Mueller’s death. It confirmed he had died of a heroin overdose.

At that point, Ocker and Robinson reached out to local agencies, looking for any police interactions Mueller might have had over the years. That’s how we learned he’d had run-ins in Fircrest, Milton and University Place.

But getting information from the Fire Department was not easy. We still didn’t have the incident report we had requested three months earlier. We renewed our request, this time threatening legal action. We also asked for the recruit’s personnel file.

We received the report days later, but most of it was blacked out. The department, because it is a medical service agency, has wide latitude in withholding specific information to protect a person’s privacy.

We asked next for Fire Department reports about Mueller’s last day of work and received them by mid-November.

Fire commanders at first declined interviews about the matter, but eventually relented. On Nov. 29, the two reporters, an editor and I met for more than two hours with Fire Chief James Duggan, Deputy Chief Tory Green and spokesman Joe Meinecke.

They answered our questions about the hiring process and about Ramsey Mueller, in particular. Clearly saddened at his death, they didn’t know he had a drug problem when they hired him, they said. We asked why they didn’t seek more information about the drug charge in California or ask more about why Mueller dropped out of the Browns Point Fire Department volunteer class.

Essentially, it boiled down to their belief in second chances, something they said had nothing to do with Mueller’s family ties.

They also said Faith Mueller didn’t tell them.

It was an odd sensation, sitting at the table and sharing with department leaders what we had learned through basic public information channels about the young man they had hired. Much of it was news to them, even months after Mueller’s death.

After a couple more interviews, Robinson wrote the full story.

As we do from time to time on major stories, we invited the chief to read it. We don’t give up any editorial control in these situations, but we want to know before we publish of any possible inaccuracies. We also don’t see a need to ambush someone with a story. Duggan offered a few clarifications, and we made some changes.

We made the same offer to Faith Mueller, both directly and through the department. We also had sought her input during the reporting process. We never heard back from her.

This was an agonizing story to write and is a difficult story to read. But it’s a story we decided we had to tell.

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