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O.C. man accused of faking heroism

With uniforms, badges, gear and honors, he allegedly posed as a firefighter at major U.S. disasters. Police say he also had guns illegally.

September 08, 2007|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

James Campbell showed up in the uniform of a Los Angeles County firefighter at some of the nation's worst disaster sites, including the World Trade Center and in the devastation following Hurricane Katrina.

He flashed a badge as he strode into secured areas to help fight the Esperanza fire in Riverside County last year. He even posed for his driver's license photo wearing a crew cut and his uniform, with his badge on his chest.

The trouble is, authorities say, he wasn't a fireman.

Campbell was arrested early Friday at his Huntington Beach apartment on suspicion of impersonating a firefighter, possession of stolen property and being a felon in possession of fire- arms.

His walls were adorned with hundreds of framed photos of him in uniform at disaster sites, said Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Andre Manssourian.

Officials found a collection of official fire gear: a double-breasted dress uniform, a flight suit, a yellow firefighting suit, department patches, fire helmets, a wallet badge and an L.A County Fire Department radio.

Some items, including the identification card affixed to his wallet badge and letters of commendation, appeared to be forged, authorities said.

"This is a guy who really wanted to be a firefighter. He wanted to act as a hero," Manssourian said.

Also found in his apartment were a 9-millimeter handgun and a shotgun, which authorities said he could not legally possess because of a felony conviction.

While working as a paramedic for an Arizona ambulance company, Campbell was convicted of credit card fraud in 1987, and his paramedic's license was revoked. The felony would have prevented him from joining the L.A. County Fire Department.

He got a California emergency medical technician's license in 1995, but it was revoked two years later because he failed to disclose his criminal record.

That incident led the Sacramento Bee to cite him as an example in a January article about flaws in the state's paramedic licensing process.

L.A. County Fire Department spokesman Sam Padilla said the department was unaware Campbell had been masquerading as a member of its ranks.

He said some items found in Campbell's apartment would have been very difficult to obtain. To receive a badge, he said, one would need an official ID and a letter from the department.

Padilla, who went to Manhattan to help in 9/11 relief efforts, expressed disappointment that Campbell allegedly acted under false pretenses.

"The public puts a lot of trust in firefighters," he said. "People don't think twice about an unknown man with big baggy clothes or a uniform. It's a shame that someone is pretending to be a firefighter to take that trust and bend it, distort it."

For the last six years, Campbell showed up at disaster scenes in his uniform and played the part of a paramedic captain, claiming to fly helicopters for the department, said Farrah Emami, spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney. He showed up at the 2002 Metrolink crash in Placentia, in which three passengers were killed and 260 were injured; at the Sawtooth Fire in San Bernardino last year; and at hurricanes Rita in the Gulf Coast and Dean in Florida.

Campbell's disguise also could have helped him with a business he owns. As president of Frontline Safety Products, a Huntington Beach company, he sold safety equipment online and taught first aid courses, mostly to construction companies and government agencies, Manssourian said.

He sometimes brought a camera person to highlight his appearances at disasters, authorities said. He distributed a DVD that shows him at disaster scenes, said an employee who declined to give her name.

"It gave him credibility to be selling these products as someone who works on the front lines of these disasters," Manssourian said.

Two of his employees, who declined to give their names, expressed disbelief Friday and said that their boss would often excuse himself to go on official fire department business.

Campbell was arrested after a two-month investigation prompted by a tip from someone who doubted his claims of being a firefighter, Emami said.

"He was endangering other people," she said, "putting himself in restricted-access areas."

Jim Slack, Campbell's downstairs neighbor, said Campbell was always on the go, planning trips to hurricane and wildfire sites. He once showed him an award for firefighter of the year.

He said news of Campbell's arrest hasn't drastically changed his opinion of the neighbor he's known for 10 years.

"Here's a guy trying to help people. I would never fault anybody for that," Slack said. "Maybe he just went about it the wrong way."

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

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