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The State

For firefighter, sense of brotherhood shattered

December 14, 2006|SANDY BANKS | Times Staff Writer

Before he was Big Dog in the fire station, he was Big Fella because of his giant frame and Bigfoot because of his size 15 boots. Before there was the dog food in his spaghetti, there was the noose draped over his station locker and the white flour sprinkled in his bed.

And before Tennie Pierce became the Los Angeles Fire Department's $2.7-million man -- a symbol of racial discrimination to some and political correctness gone wrong to others -- he was an ordinary firefighter, who had spent 17 years pledging allegiance to the department's notion of brotherhood.

That allegiance began unraveling two years ago, when a firefighter at Pierce's Westchester station mixed dog food into his dinner -- a practical joke intended to "humble" him, the department's investigative report said, for "declaring himself Big Dog" in a volleyball game.

Pierce sued the city for racial harassment last year, after enduring what he describes as months of taunts and retaliation. The City Council voted to settle his case for $2.7 million last month, but, after a public uproar, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed the settlement.

Pierce's claim and its repercussions -- a respected fire department unmasked; a popular fire chief dispatched; a racially divided populace at odds -- unhinged the city and unmoored the man.

"I didn't expect it to go the way it went," said Pierce, whose public claim and private life -- from his work habits to the state of his marriage -- provided weeks of fodder for talk radio programs. Hosts such as John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou on KFI-AM (640) fielded dozens of calls from disgruntled white firefighters, who castigated Pierce for "playing the race card" and produced photos of him joining in the hazing of others.

The storm took Pierce by surprise. "I always felt I was part of a great brotherhood," he said. "I know I have always been upright and fair. When I see how the masses turned on me...." He shrugs his giant shoulders and stares at the floor.

For some, he's become a caricature -- a big, strong, black man brought down by a couple of bites of dog food. But to his friends and family, the reality is considerably more complicated.

"The Fire Department was Tennie's life," said L.A. firefighter and friend Johnny Green. "He would much rather be at work than going through this foolishness."

Pierce knows those photos of him standing over firefighters smeared with condiments and shaving cream made him a lightning rod for criticism. But the pranks weren't done to hurt anyone, he said. "Basically, it's a celebration of love. It's your birthday, your last day at the station.... I've never heard a guy say, 'Stop. Don't do this to me.' "

But Green said Pierce was one of relatively few black firefighters who participated in hazing rituals. "He assimilated with those guys" at his station, Green said. He went on ski trips with them, helped work on their houses, spent his days off with them riding Harleys.

"That's why the betrayal he feels is so strong," Green said. "He's the O.J. of the Fire Department."

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Recognized by strangers

Pierce is 6 feet 5 and weighs more than 250 pounds, so it's hard for him to hide. Strangers recognize him at the gym, at his daughter's school. People he doesn't know feel free to scold him.

"There are all those people out there casting stones," he said. "Reporters standing on my porch, [confronting] my daughter coming home from school."

His lawsuit has not only angered many whites but has also divided black firefighters and made Pierce a pariah among men who were his friends.

The black firefighters organization the Stentorians has refused to back his lawsuit. "Right case, wrong guy," one black captain said. Because Pierce participated in hazing rituals, supporting Pierce would undercut the group's official stance that "no member be subjected to any form of unprofessional behavior or practices in the workplace."

The rift is hard for Pierce to bear, Green said. "He's a teddy bear. Did he have fun and play games? Yeah. Hazing, condiments ... that was all good-natured fun. Tennie did that real well."

The dog food was another matter. There are three rules that every firefighter knows, Green and others say. "You don't mess with people's family, you don't mess with their safety equipment, you don't mess with their food," Green said. "What they did to him crossed the line."

Pierce has been off work now -- relying on a combination of sick leave, disability, vacation and administrative leave -- for more than a year, collecting a portion of his salary while he spends his days working out, visiting doctors and therapists, and helping out at his daughter's track practices.

The enforced idleness has been hard on their marriage, his wife says. Pierce is often irritable and unable to sleep, ashamed that he must rely on his wife's salary to support the family.

His case is headed for trial next year, though city officials could offer another settlement. But his career as a firefighter is over, he said.

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