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Update: Detroit Police said Monday that they are now investigating the cause of the fire, which would be unusual because the Fire Department’s arson division usually handles those probes. Stay tuned for more details.
When Detroit firefighters arrived to a burning house on Detroit’s east side, they called for police after finding “an illegal drug operation” and “an illegal electrical hookup.”
Firefighters, one of whom was rushed to the hospital after sustaining injuries, found garden hoses snaking from the burning house at 2152 Concord to an adjacent lot where marijuana plants were found. It also appeared the fire started in the back of the house where firefighters said they found a crudely wired electrical hookup.
DTE confirmed the house was not receiving legal electrical services. The utility company said it’s investigating whether an illegal hookup caused the fire.
Despite what firefighters and neighbors said was clear evidence of wrongdoing on the night of July 29, fire officials and police were quick to defend one of the occupants – rookie Detroit firefighter Donnie Dickerson, whose step-father is a long-time member of the Fire Department, even as community members doled out more than $10,000 to the firefighter through two fundraisers.
The duplex has been owned by the firefighter’s family since the 1940s.
The fire damaged a neighbor’s house.
“The fire that occurred at the firefighter’s home last week was ruled accidental,” Executive Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins told Motor city Muckraker. “Electrical has been ruled out as a possible cause of the fire. It appears to have started on the sofa in the living room.”
But the lone occupant at the time of the fire, Dickerson’s cousin, James Cox, told us the fire couldn’t have started on the sofa – or anywhere near it – because he was sleeping on the couch when he was awoken by flames in the rear of the house, where the illegal electrical hookup was.
“No, the fire definitely didn’t start in the living room,” said Cox, who was taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation. “There were a lot of flames in the back of the house.”
Cox’s memory of the fire also aligns with the original fire report, which contradicts the fire commissioner’s later claims that the blaze started far from any illegal hookup.
Soon after the fire, at least five local news agencies, including the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and Fox 2, ran positive stories about the firefighter and provided links to the two fundraisers.
The reaction from the Fire Department’s top brass is baffling for another reason: When a firefighter blew the whistle on hazardous conditions at a firehouse in Midtown, he was immediately disciplined.
The city declined to disclose any records of the fire. Motor City Muckraker filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the records.
When police arrived on the scene that night, they uprooted the marijuana plants, stuffed them into bags and left. Neighbors, who complained to firefighters about the grow operation, said they were never interviewed by police.
“There isn’t anything that proves he (Dickerson) was the owner of the plants,” Police Sgt. Cassandra Lewis told Motor City Muckraker.
Many firefighters are angry and said the city has a responsibility to determine what really happened, especially because a firefighter was injured and because residents shelled out a lot of money. That’s not to mention damage to the neighbor’s house.
Mayor Mike Duggan’s office declined to comment and expressed no interest in hearing what we discovered.
Motor City Muckraker will provide more information when the city turns over the investigative records as required by law.
This is part of our yearlong investigation of the beleaguered Fire Department.
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.