City Paper is not for tourists
D.C. Fire Investigator Greg Bowyer talks like a man whose finest days as a professional are well behind him.
He says he once had the highest closure rate of any investigator in the department. He picked up awards and various honors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for his work tracking down an infamous serial arsonist. In 2007, Fire Chief Dennis Rubin awarded him a bronze bar “for the highest degree of judgment, zeal or ingenuity.”
Bowyer, 38, is proud of the accolades. But after spending several years as a fire investigator, he slowly began turning all that zeal and ingenuity toward his very own employer. In Bowyer’s opinion:
• The department’s brass began filling his investigative unit with uncertified and untrained personnel.
• These investigators started mishandling cases, turning in shoddy work with botched determinations. In some cases, they didn’t know where or how fires were being started.
• Several costly fires that should have been labeled as arsons were instead marked down as accidental.
These were not minor cases. Bowyer contends that the Eastern Market fire was arson (“Was This Really an Accident?” 12/22/2007), a version of events at odds with that of Rubin, who announced at the time that the fire cause was electrical. An ATF report has refuted Rubin’s conclusions and suggests a different chain of events, one closer to that of the fire investigator.
Bowyer did not just sit by and shake his head about the problems at his workplace. He wrote e-mail after e-mail to his superiors, leaving the paper trail of an internal, real-time auditor. “It wasn’t popular,” Bowyer says. “I eventually got labeled for doing that.” He heard people started calling him a one-man internal affairs bureau.
Tensions between Bowyer and management spiked in July 2007. Bowyer and his partner, Gerald Pennington, teamed up on a bust of a fireworks dealer who happened to have a gun stashed in his car. In Bowyer’s retelling of events, the department’s investigators mishandled critical pieces of evidence, including both the gun and the fireworks. What looked like a slam-dunk case was eventually dropped by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Bowyer did not hold his tongue on that case, blasting his superiors for allowing mistakes to happen.
In December 2007, a supervisor took away the office that Bowyer and Pennington had used. They were literally put in the doghouse, ordered to work in a room where the four-legged staffers of the K-9 unit were housed.
Bowyer soon got an allergic reaction to the fleas and had to be taken to Providence Hospital. The department, records show, gave him performance-of-duty pay while he was out over the flea bites.
Bowyer and Pennington fought the unit again after a June 18, 2008, fire in Northeast. It was the same routine: The pair spotlighted all kinds of sloppiness in the investigation and insisted the department’s case be shut down. “We could not legally make the arson case,” Bowyer says. “They didn’t know how or where the fire started as the report clearly showed. They hadn’t even ruled out that the fire was accidental.”
Two months later, both Pennington and Bowyer were transferred out of their detective’s beat. They no longer do the gumshoe work of investigating arsons. They were put in an entity known as the Community Service Unit. Pennington was initially tasked with handing out drinks and snacks to firefighters at fire scenes. Bowyer got placed on hydrant duty. They both had to turn over their guns and badges. In a subsequent WJLA-TV story, an unnamed Fire Department official called them “internal terrorists.”
In late February, Bowyer and Pennington filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court alleging multiple instances of race discrimination and retaliation as well as an attempted coverup of the Eastern Market fire. Their lengthy complaint states that the incidents of abuse began in the spring of 2007.
It’s a funny thing that happens to whistleblowers in the D.C. government. Per tradition, they’re not punished with extra work or an inbox full of tall orders. They’re not asked to do the work of 10 men so that others can take a break.
It’s the other way around. They’re asked to watch the clock day in, day out—using their faculties to devise enough make-work, pointless conversations, and snacks to stretch from one end of the shift to the other. That’s the essence of life in the Community Service Unit: installing smoke detectors, checking hydrants, serving snacks, watching the clock.
Deputy Fire Chief Kenneth Crosswhite, who is in charge of the Community Service Unit, explains that Bowyer and Pennington weren’t demoted. Instead, he says, they were given “a unique opportunity.”
As for the daily grind in the unit, Crosswhite insists: “It’s no different than your day. We can measure their productivity. It’s not like they’re sitting around.”
For three days in early March, we logged Bowyer’s actual minute-by-minute activities in whistleblower Siberia.
Bowyer sits in his 1998 Nissan Altima. He has pulled up along the side of the Fire Department’s training academy, located in Blue Plains. His back is to I-295. He sees a parking lot and the outlines of trees in the dark.
Bowyer flicks the dome light on. Then off. His car is bathed in street lamp. He feels shame, sitting there alone in his black Altima’s worn leather seats.
On the back seat, passenger side, is his book of psalms and scripture (The One Minute Pocket Bible: For The Business Professional). Today it’s pages 62 and 63, “Health” and “Hope.”
“Everything God creates is a solution to a problem.”
In the glove box, he still keeps his last official police notebook, dated Aug. 17, 2008. In it, there are notes from his last time out on the job, a liquor store fire at 900 Kennedy Street NW. The rest of the pages are blank. On Aug. 21, he was transferred to hydrant duty.
Bowyer woke up 4 a.m. and meditated. The unit doesn’t have an office and so each day, it arranges a meeting place. Today it’s the academy. Bowyer is too embarrassed to leave his car. He makes sure to use the bathroom before he comes to work. He chooses to await his orders from the comfort of his Altima.
“You never know what to expect,” Bowyer says. “I know they have spies. There’s no reasonable expectation of privacy. This is the safest place—in this car.…You don’t get as many dirty looks in a car.”
Bowyer opens up his driver’s side door and steps outside. He is dressed in blue work pants, blue uniform shirt, and black steel-toe boots.
The parking lot is busy with cars and recruits getting ready to start their morning routines.
“I’m just going to run in and meet the guy and come out,” Bowyer says. His unit consists of another firefighter and a sergeant. It’s the sergeant’s first day in the unit. He feels he at least has to introduce himself to his new boss and explain that he will be sitting in his car.
The two shake hands at the academy’s entrance. The sergeant turns out to be a straight shooter, even sympathetic toward Bowyer. Other firefighters walk up the entrance steps and shake Bowyer’s hand.
“Stick in there,” one says.
The sergeant lets Bowyer return to his car. He’ll call him on his cell phone and let him know when they’ll be going out to check hydrants.
Bowyer gets his Apple laptop from the passenger seat. He gets WiFi from this spot and logs on to read up on some Fire Department regulations related to his case.
Bowyer’s shift begins at 6 a.m. But that doesn’t mean work starts at 6 a.m. He says he wants to polish his boots.
“Isolation,” Bowyer says. “Everyone else has a real job to do.”
Left, right, left. Recruits, in rows of four, march past Bowyer’s Altima to the flagpole at the academy’s entrance. They look really eager, hungry even, to raise that flag, so they do, stringing up the banners for the United States and the District of Columbia.
Bowyer has taught criminal justice classes at UDC, helped train prosecutors on arson cases, and has a master’s degree.
A few minutes later, the recruits begin jogging laps around the parking lot. They are pale and doughy and dressed in all navy blue. They bark out chants familiar to anyone who has watched a military flick.
“Mama and Papa were laying in bed.…Good for you! Good for me!”
The recruits jog past Bowyer four times.
The sun starts to come up over the tree line.
A man strides out of the academy’s side door and motions for Bowyer to get out of his Altima. The firefighter has a complaint. He is animated and loud.
Bowyer stands and just listens. The firefighter’s main complaint is about simple utilities. The batteries to the generator—which would have illuminated the recruit’s exercise area in the back lot—were stolen so now they have no light.
Since becoming the best-known whistleblower in the department, Bowyer has become a walking suggestion box. Firefighters regularly call on him with their gripes as if he could do something about it.
A truck pulls up and a firefighter gets out and joins Bowyer and the complainer. Bowyer quickly says his goodbyes. He doesn’t know the other firefighter. He gets back to his Altima.
Bowyer takes a call. It’s time to check some hydrants.
Bowyer’s three-man unit pulls out in a big red truck with various flashing lights like it’s a roving carnival ride. They are headed to Minnesota Avenue.
Just after 8 a.m., Bowyer is checking his first hydrants at 44th and Jay NE. He walks up a hill carrying his hydrant wrench and two different tags. Green tags for leaks. Red tags for when the hydrants are out of service. It takes about a minute to check a hydrant.
Water gushes out brown then light brown then clear and foamy white. It makes a clacking sound as it hits pavement. Bowyer turns off the hydrant and speed-walks to the next. And the next.
Bowyer has done eight hydrants and found two leaks. He marks them each with the green tags. There is another hydrant across the street. It is not on their itinerary. Bowyer says they are going to save that one for another day. Spread out the work.
“Hey, Sarge,” Bowyer says into his iPhone. “You still on Hayes Street?…I tagged two. Leaking caps. Nothing major. I’m coming up to Hunt Place or do you want me to take another block? I’ll meet you at Hunt.”
Bowyer walks along the 4400 block of Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE. He says he arrested a guy once across the street in the Willis Paul Greene Manor apartments.
Now he doesn’t even get to carry a department radio.
Bowyer gets his first splash. As he is finishing with a hydrant, a car speeds through the new puddle, showering him with water.
Bowyer and the other hydrant-checker and the sergeant have checked 15 hydrants. They check roughly 30 per shift, which ends at 4 p.m. “You can only stretch the work for so long,” Bowyer says.
A guy stops Bowyer at 44th and Gault Place. “Are they hiring to do that?” he asks. He needs a job. His name is Michael Shumpert, 48.
“It’s pay money,” he says. His breath smells of a morning booze run. “I just need a job.”
This makes Bowyer less miserable. He thinks: At least I have a job.
On his hydrant walk, a dog growls and makes like it’s going to chase him.
Bowyer calls his sergeant. They’ve hit 21 hydrants.
He is told to just hang out.
The crew hits McDonald’s on Nannie Helen for breakfast, which Bowyer chooses to skip. He waits in the parking lot of the Dean Avenue Cleaners, sitting on the curb with a water bottle. He doesn’t have an appetite. He weighs 184 pounds, down from his regular 210. He is 5-foot-11.
Bowyer thinks about his fight, his civil suit. “You can’t do that on a McDonald’s diet,” he says. “I choose not to eat fast food two, three times a day.”
Bowyer hears an emergency called over the radio for a man in distress at 4308 Jay St. NE. Bowyer’s crew is one block away. They go on checking hydrants. They do not take the call.
Five minutes later, a fire truck arrives. In another five minutes, an ambulance shows up. The man inside is having complications from diabetes. He lives in a group home. One of his roommates says the man goes into shock “every now and then.”
The patient is slowly wheeled out. His lips and eyes are wet and he looks small on the stretcher. Paramedics wrap him in a bright, omelet-colored blanket.
Of Bowyer and his fight against the department, one firefighter on the scene says: “More power to him. Hope he wins. It seems as if they’re getting railroaded. That’s the consensus.”
Bowyer’s unit has checked 25 hydrants before a technical problem slows things down. The sergeant must input each hydrant into a handheld device that is then uploaded to WASA computers at the end of the day. For some reason, the handheld is blanking out. The sergeant calls WASA.
A citizen pulls up to Bowyer at 42nd and Hunt. The two have never met. The citizen recognizes Bowyer from the news. He tells him to not give up his fight.
This makes Bowyer’s day. He can’t believe it. Did you see that? he asks his hydrant partner. An average citizen came up to me and shook my hand.
The crew stops at a gas station for a drink break.
The hydrant-checking is done for the day. They have their 30. They have five-and-a-half hours left to kill.
The sergeant drives Bowyer and the other hydrant-checker to Engine 26 at 13th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE. Along the way, they trade the day’s war stories. Bowyer talks about his dog encounter. His partner complains about a yappy Chihuahua he had to fend off.
“You don’t mess with them,” Bowyer explains. “They don’t mess with you.”
Bowyer sits on a wood bench outside the firehouse. He doesn’t want to mess with going inside, seeing other firefighters. He checks his e-mail from the truck on his laptop. He doesn’t have any new e-mails. “It’s a nice day,” he says.
“It’s pretty much over,” Bowyer says. “We’re killing time. They’re in there watching TV. I’m reading…”
His son calls to tell him goodbye. He is heading back to college in Pittsburgh. His wife calls to check up on him. He daydreams about going to a foreign country and helping disadvantaged communities with needs far greater than leaky fire hydrants.
Bowyer thinks that in his dream he was somewhere in Central America doing missionary work. He’s always wanted to preach ever since he was a boy growing up in LeDroit Park and attending Coolidge Senior High School.
The daydream ends when the sergeant comes outside. The sergeant wants to talk about golf.
Bowyer polishes one of his Bates tactical boots.
Bowyer’s unit heads to WASA in Blue Plains to turn in their data. They’ve hit 36 hydrants. They fill the truck with 24.5 gallons of gas while they are there.
The truck pulls into the academy. Bowyer is dropped off at his Altima. He has less than a half-hour to go on his shift. He uses the time to polish his other boot, a job that’s more symbolic than necessary.
Bowyer arrives at his favorite spot in Anacostia Park. It’s a concrete landing crowned with gray-blue rocks. He takes off his blue uniform shirt. He can look out at the water, calm himself, “debrief.”
Everything he sees symbolizes something for him. Straight ahead, a battleship docked at the Navy Yard represents war. The 11th Street bridge to his right represents the journey. Nationals Park to his left represents hope and change.
Bowyer will sit and read his spiritual books.
“I really have to do everything I possibly can to leave this here,” Bowyer says. “I don’t take any of this when I come home. My kids expect me to come home and help them with their homework and take them to dance class or lacrosse practice. I’m expected to come home and smile like I’ve had a great day at work.”
“I’m down this morning,” Bowyer says from inside his Altima at the training academy lot. “Some days you feel really low. This is one of those days.”
The sergeant walks by Bowyer’s Altima to make sure he is here. He said he’d call when he was ready to head out.
Bowyer watches cars go by on I-295. They’re just lights in the dark. “Don’t feel like doing anything,” he says. “I didn’t get any sleep last night.”
The sergeant calls Bowyer. They’re going to go to Engine 27 on Minnesota Avenue NE to hang out.
Bowyer is allowed to follow in his Altima.
Bowyer parks at Engine 27 behind a firetruck and other cars. The garage is lit. There is no sign of anyone stirring. Bowyer is alone.
The sun is just starting to come up, slowly turning the clouds blood orange. “I’m just polishing my boot,” he says. “The right boot. This will get my mind off, get my
The sergeant comes over. He needs Bowyer to fill out an SS71—a leave slip for last week when he went to his UDC classes.
Bowyer is asked to move his car. He’s blocking a captain’s car.
Bowyer sits in his Altima. He has a good view of Minnesota Avenue rush hour and a gas station to his left. He doesn’t feel like reading about departmental disciplinary procedures or meditating on scripture. He just wants to talk.
“Days like this I just cry,” Bowyer says. “I don’t cry to my family. I don’t cry to my friends. I don’t cry to [my co-workers].”
Now, Bowyer is crying.
Bowyer’s wife, Shirell, calls. “I just called to say good morning,” she says, “give him a good scripture.” They were high school sweethearts. They had a son while still at Coolidge Senior High School and married at 21.
“Have a good day,” she says, sounding almost hopeful.
“Love you. Bye.”
The captain finally comes out with new orders. It’s time for Bowyer to move the Altima. While vehicles are shifted around, Bowyer takes temporary custody of a space at the gas station nearby.
Eventually, he makes his way back to the firehouse lot and takes a space along the side, a good distance away from the other cars. He reclines his seat and closes his eyes. He feels a migraine coming on.
Bowyer scribbles down little notes to himself on lined paper. He does this each morning. He lists all the things he needs to get done: “compare FD23 w/ 317 report altered backdated” and “ask Lt. Mal. For 23 at 6/18/08 and who authorized change of document”
And Bowyer addresses the home front: “Stay focused on the priority and promise made to the girls….Get that hole fixed
in the lawn….I should have not gone to bed angry.”
“I’m just out here in my car,” Bowyer reports.
Bowyer’s unit pulls out of the firehouse. It’s time to check their 30 or so hydrants for the day. Bowyer begins his checks at 42nd and Edson Streets NE. By 9:15, he will have done five. No leaks.
“Hey Sarge,” he hollers into his phone. “I just finished…”
This is the most annoying thing he gets to tell his boss: He’s finished. This creates a fussy back-and-forth about what Bowyer should do next.
By 9:24, Bowyer and his partner have done 12 hydrants. He is stuck at 45th and Edson waiting for the sergeant to come and input his work into the handheld. It takes another 10 minutes for his boss to show up.
Bowyer works Fitch up to the corner at 50th. It’s a monster hill. At the crest, there are rows of red-brick apartments. “I made an arrest in the back, at the corner,” he says. “Domestic violence. He set his girlfriend’s car on fire and went back to her house and destroyed all her clothes and children’s clothes. Set the car on fire in front of the apartment.”
Bowyer and his partner are up to 19 hydrants.
Bowyer works down 50th and then picks off hydrants along Nannie Helen. He then hits 49th and Hayes. He imagines he is on a golf course. Each hydrant is a new hole.
Clamp the hydrant wrench onto the operating stem. Twist. Let the water rush out for 10 seconds. Cut it off. And it’s on to the next.
They are on the back nine
Bowyer is up to 29 hydrants.
Bowyer gets picked up. They’ve done roughly 35 hydrants. His work is over. He has five hours to kill.
The hydrant crew pulls into Engine 26. They’ve picked up carryout food at Carl’s Foods. Bowyer orders a No. 3 (veggie sub, six-inch). He thinks this might help his headache.
Bowyer sits at the watch desk in the apparatus room (the garage). “It was good,” Bowyer says of the sub.
A red unmarked Crown Vic pulls up. Two males get out. One is the deputy fire chief for internal affairs.
“Hey chief do you need to see me?” Bowyer asks.
The IA chief just laughs. He shakes Bowyer’s hand. “You going to be all right,” he says.
The chief walks into 26. “I know this guy is not a friend,” Bowyer says. “I know I can’t trust him. But he shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and tried to say in a neutral tone I’ll be all right.”
Bowyer’s sergeant comes out to the watch desk. He murmurs to Bowyer: “I thought they were coming here to see you,” he says.
Engine 26 gets a call. The apparatus room is empty except for Bowyer at the watch desk. The desk is usually the domain of rookies. They must sit there and listen to the dispatcher and sound the alarm when a fire is assigned to their station.
“I [put] the heat up on high,” Bowyer says.
Bowyer signs up for a Gmail account.
Bowyer moves to the sitting room and watches CNBC and then a gospel channel.
Bowyer and his unit leave for Engine 27. He needs to pick up his Altima. “In addition to not doing anything today except the hydrants, I didn’t get any reading done,” Bowyer says. “I didn’t get anything done. It’s just a day where you feel like you were totally unproductive.”
Bowyer gets out his shoe polish.
Bowyer is back at the training academy. He parks at the edge of the lot, near the entrance. “I’m just waiting for 4 o’clock,” he says.
Bowyer pulls into Anacostia Park. By the stone landing, where Bowyer takes his seat, there is a sign. It reads: warning combined sewer overflow discharge point. It’s time for his debriefing.
Bowyer arrives at the Training Academy. He parks the Altima along the fence line. He mediates for 45 minutes on love and loyalty.
“Today I kind of resolved that no matter what they do to me, I forgive these guys,” Bowyer says. “I don’t have any anger or bitterness. I understand they’re doing this to save themselves or save their jobs.”
On the back of Tuesday’s notes, under the heading “Understand me” he makes a series of bullet points.
“Defending myself not fighting back.”
“Forgiveness is better than anger and frustration.”
“Rubin didn’t bring a team with him? Because he doesn’t have a team.…The deception will cause these people to defect under pressure or stress.”
The last thing Bowyer writes for the day: “Corruption perceived as dysfunction especially in government is often allowed to exist. Government must function.”
By now Bowyer and the hydrant team are on their way to Engine 27. They stop at the McDonald’s on Nannie Helen. Bowyer gets an Egg McMuffin, hash browns, and coffee.
Bowyer hits his first hydrant at 42nd and Brooks Streets NE. He works up Brooks to 46th, knocking out seven hydrants. By 9:10, he’s hit 16.
A car rides past Bowyer. He is splashed with a wave of fresh hydrant water. He tries to run but the spray catches the back of his legs.
The water from an open hydrant rushes down 42 Street. A McNuggets box, plastic bottles, and other trash are carried away. The trash flow transfixes Bowyer. It’s a highlight.
“It’s amazing to watch that little trail,” Bowyer says.
Then it’s on for another round of fire-hydrant golf.
They reach 31 hydrants.
“Hold up,” the sergeant says over the phone.
Bowyer suggests they see about installing some smoke detectors. The sergeant makes an inquiry. A resident requested one. Calls are made. It is eventually decided that the unit will save that task for tomorrow.
Bowyer sits on the stoop at 4730 Blaine St. NE and waits for his next orders. Behind him is a red brick house with a black storm door. There are two plastic light-brown lawn chairs and a plastic white lawn table. “Sometimes you just get to hear the birds, you know what I mean?” Bowyer says.
Bowyer points out a gentleman “with tan pants, skull cap, book bag” walking west toward the Sixth District police station.
Bowyer says he used to keep notes on suspicious cars. He’d jot down the make, model, and tag numbers. Maybe they were hoodlums. Maybe they were spies.
They drive over to Engine 30 located at Central Avenue and 49th Street NE. They knock on the door. “We just want to use your bathroom,” Bowyer says. “I know we look like burglars.”
Inside, Bowyer and his hydrant partner debate: liquid soap or bar soap?
On the grounds of Engine 30, they find one last hydrant. They notice that it is facing the wrong way and the operating stem is missing. They mark it as out of service. It is the only out-of-service hydrant they find.
Errand time. Bowyer must turn in his time and attendance records. He must do so at his old fire investigations office located at Engine 24 at 5101 Georgia Ave. NW. He is not allowed to do so without an escort. He lets the sergeant take care of it.
“This is the part where I get my nose rubbed in the crap,” Bowyer says.
The crew hits a credit union at the Reeves Center.
They arrive at the firehouse at 13th and L Streets NW. The sergeant needs to pick up some paperwork and take it to Engine 2 in Chinatown.
The crew enters Engine 2 and then hits the McDonald’s. Bowyer tags along but doesn’t go inside. He’d brought two packets of oatmeal (peach and strawberry).
Back at Engine 2, Fire Marshal Gary Palmer Jr. pulls up to the lot in a dark red Crown Vic. He is one of the named defendants in Bowyer’s civil suit.
Bowyer walks to the edge of the firehouse lot. He is only five or six feet away from Palmer’s Crown Vic. He stares into the car. Palmer doesn’t look in his direction.
After a couple of minutes, Palmer gets on his cell phone.
“He used to act as if he were my best friend,” Bowyer says. “Now he won’t even get out of the car to talk to me. Life of a whistleblower, I guess.”
Bowyer is called away. His crew is getting ready to leave. As Boyer walks away, Palmer drives off on 6th Street.
This moment endlessly pleases Bowyer. “It confirms what I was feeling yesterday after my meditation,” he says. “These guys are retreating. I have nothing to hide. I can walk right in front of him. This is like Saddam Hussein’s top officials throwing down their weapons, and we haven’t even [fought] yet.”
“This is a victory for whistleblowers all over the country,” Bowyer goes on. “I could feel the fear spilling out of that vehicle.”
Bowyer’s crew heads back to Engine 27 on Minnesota Avenue to “kill some time.”
“I’m just going to walk to the corner, Sergeant,” Bowyer asks.
“All right,” the sergeant says.
Bowyer walks over a small bridge, reaches the Exxon station, and turns around. The sun is out. There are few pedestrians along Minnesota Avenue. But it’s a walk and there are trees and that bridge goes over a little creek.
“It’s almost over,” he says. “Another 30 minutes, and I will be sitting at the academy for an hour-and-a-half.”