Casper Fire Chief Kenneth King’s early retirement followed weeks of turmoil within the department after copies of his emails were distributed to a group of firefighters by an unknown source.
King unexpectedly announced Tuesday that he would retire Friday, more than a month before his expected retirement date of Jan. 2. King told the Star-Tribune Thursday that he retired because his plans to complete a Homeland Security grant fell through and because he hoped to watch the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona with his son if the Ohio State Buckeyes were chosen for the game.
But earlier this month, multiple Casper firefighters received envelopes in the mail that each contained a flash drive and an anonymous letter, according to two of the department’s firefighters, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared repercussions at work. The flash drive contained copies of King’s work emails.
As firefighters looked through the emails, they were shocked by what they saw, the two firefighters said. King used his city email to send suggestive messages to a number of women, both within and outside the city, and make sexual comments about women’s appearances to other fire personnel, according to the interviews with firefighters and copies of the emails obtained by the Star-Tribune.
King spoke briefly with the Star-Tribune on Thursday, but ended the interview when the subject of emails was broached. He later sent a text message in response to a voicemail that detailed the specific emails addressed in this article.
“My only comment is that I’m sorry if any of my emails have made anyone feel uncomfortable,” he wrote.
Both firefighters mentioned one email that stood out.
King sent an email in April 2015 to the entire department that included a link to a news story about a female rescue worker who had died during a water rescue in Alabama. Later that evening, a mid-level fireman responded: “At least it was just a female.” King then replied, “Copy that!”
Not only is that email disrespectful, one of the firefighters who spoke to the Star-Tribune said, but it reflects poorly on the department.
“If the citizens of Casper saw that, they would think that the fire department doesn’t care about women,” he said.
City Manager Carter Napier said he received copies of King’s emails sometime before Thanksgiving, though his were in paper form. He also received a letter that listed concerns with the chief, he said. Napier didn’t know how many people had received the emails but said “it could be a huge spread.”
“I have not seen the emails that are in the flash drive,” he said Thursday. “But I was given a stack of hard copy emails and I assume the two are the same.”
Napier said Thursday that he met with King on Tuesday and the chief asked if it was possible to retire earlier than expected. Napier then called in a human resources employee and King decided then that he would retire at the end of the week.
Napier said he did not ask King to retire early and then noted that he does not discuss conversations about personnel issues with the media. When asked if the emails played a factor in King’s early retirement, Napier deferred to King.
“For him to attribute that to his decision would be up for him to declare one way or another,” he said.
In a phone interview Thursday, King told the Star-Tribune that he was aware his emails were circulating the department. When asked when he became aware of the emails being passed along, King said he did not want to discuss emails. When asked if the emails played a factor in his decision to retire early, the phone call became disconnected. King did not return further calls from the Star-Tribune.
In an email sent Tuesday to fire department staff and obtained by the Star-Tribune, King said that he had planned to retire at the first of the year.
“But I just can’t get the Fiesta Bowl out of my mind, and why drive all the way home just for a retirement ceremony,” he wrote.
King announced his January 2018 retirement date in October 2016, hours after apologizing for an email asking a fire investigator to delete “bad parts” from video evidence of the Cole Creek Fire. King said the email was a joke, but apologized for “insensitive words and lack of judgment” after the Star-Tribune published a story about the email. A city investigation found that some video evidence was not made public, but that none of the video had been altered.
Former City Manager John Patterson appointed King as fire chief in July 2013.
Napier declined to comment on any conversations he’s had with King about the content of the emails, citing the need for privacy regarding personnel matters. When shown a copy of the email about the deceased female firefighter, Napier said he had not seen it previously, but that it was “disappointing.” When asked about the sexual nature of some of the emails, Napier spoke broadly.
“When we have interactions through any part of the organization that are sexual in nature or are innuendo in any way, that is something I follow up with immediately,” he said. “There’s just no room in the workplace for that level of inappropriateness.”
In multiple emails with fire personnel, from higher ranking staff to line firemen, King discussed “crushes” he had on various women in both his private and professional world and those women’s appearances. In a September 2013 email, he sent a mid-level firefighter a comparison of two women’s physical appearances and ages. He wrote that one woman, who is identified by her initial and last name and does not appear to be a city employee, is “younger and will be hotter” while the other woman, identified similarly, “is hot now.”
He also sent images of women dressed seductively to multiple women within the city — including women who were his subordinates — implying that the images resembled the women or insinuating that the women should dress similarly. In one 2014 email, he responded to a city employee’s question about dress code for a promotion ceremony by insinuating she should wear a sexy Halloween costume.
When shown some of the emails containing the sexual innuendos on Friday, Napier said, “It’s incredibly disappointing to see this stuff.”
The two firefighters were also shocked when they discovered the sexual content of the emails.
“Reading it, it was blatant flirting, always leading to blatant innuendo,” one firefighter said, noting that he thought some workplace flirting among peers is OK. “But from a department head, my jaw just dropped open.”
Napier declined to comment on whether other fire department employees were being investigated or disciplined in connection to the emails. Napier said that he had received questions from City Council about the emails but declined to comment further on the nature of those conversations.
The atmosphere at the fire department has been tense since the emails came forward, both firefighters who spoke to the Star-Tribune said. The emails were another setback in an already divisive work environment, they said.
“It’s very disheartening,” one said. “To think you have a brotherhood ... then to find out it is not universal.”
Napier said he became aware of the divisive culture within the fire department while speaking with firefighters about what they wanted in their next chief. He said the city will now work to determine how pervasive the damaging culture is within the department, though he believes it is a reflection of a small percentage of the staff.
“We obviously have some things to correct, and we will correct this,” he said. “We don’t serve the community well when we’re divided.”