Exclusive: Payback led to arrest, harassment of citizen journalist in Detroit

File photo by Steve Neavling.

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A citizen journalist whose house was raided in October appears to be the victim of a dirty payback scheme by arson investigators and a top administration official in the Detroit Fire Department.

The raid and seizure of electronic equipment owned by Alex Haggart, a popular fire videographer and contributor to Motor City Muckraker, came just a week after he  outed the third in command at the fire department for using a city-issued SUV to drink at a bar. Deputy Fire Chief Robert Shinske was suspended for five days after Haggart posted a photo on Facebook of the deputy chief’s DFD-marked car parked at a Dearborn bar.

According to two fire department sources, including an arson investigator, Shinske urged arson chief Patrick McNulty to investigate Haggart for a number of unfounded allegations. Shinske and McNulty are friends and graduated from the same fire academy in the 1980s.

The resulting investigation was so weak that the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office declined to file unidentified charges against Haggart less than a week later.

Nevertheless, the fire administration has defended the investigation, which is ongoing. Nearly two months after the raid, the fire department continues to decline requests by Haggart’s attorney to return his seized belongings, which include a phone, computer, camera, drone, scanners and even his children’s electronic tablets.

The fire administration and arson investigators combed Haggart’s phone and discovered who tipped him off about Shinske violating department policy. The fire administration and investigators also read text messages between Haggart and Motor City Muckraker editor and publisher Steve Neavling, raising serious questions about whether they violated a search warrant issued by a judge. Investigators are only allowed to search for evidence related to the warrant.

The fire department also has refused to turn over to Haggart’s attorney the affidavit used to obtain the search warrant.

Haggart has been a thorn in the side of the department for streaming live videos of fires, countering the comeback narrative peddled by Mayor Duggan and his administration.

Several sources told us Shinske was appointed deputy fire chief on instructions from Duggan, who had promised Shinske a job in exchange for refusing to talk to Motor City Muckraker during our one-year investigation of inept management and malfunctioning equipment at the fire department. The series eventually prompted Duggan to force out then-Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins in October 2015 and replace him with former Deputy Police Chief Eric Jones.

In a letter to firefighters in early 2015, Shinske, who was then the Detroit Fire Fighters Association’s treasurer, encouraged his colleagues not to speak to the media. And when his colleagues did, he failed to protect them.

“We know that some of our members want to see us in the media, but our current strategy is to only use the media as a last resort,” he wrote as firefighters’ lives were jeopardized by malfunctioning equipment that violated state and federal safety laws.  “Right now the mayor’s office is open and he is listening. One sure way to shut that door is to put a muzzle on his ears to our issues is through media coverage.”

While arson investigators were preparing to raid Haggart’s home in St. Clair Shores, they missed an opportunity to capture a serial arsonist who had been targeting dozens of houses in September and October. The suspected arsonist, who allegedly set fire to a house while Haggart’s home was about to be raided, has since been arrested.

Haggart was arrested at a fire scene in late October on separate allegations stemming from a citizen’s arrest he made on an arsonist earlier that month. During a live video stream captured by a passenger in Haggart’s car, Haggart said his concealed pistol permit had expired.

Before raiding his house, an arson investigator and Grosse Pointe police officer pulled over Haggart’s vehicle and allegedly found concealed guns in his car.

Haggart was jailed for two days on a felony charge of possessing concealed guns with an expired permit.

The arson team continues to investigate Haggart, despite finding no compelling evidence that he had committed a crime, apart from the gun charge.

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Steve Neavling

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.