DC fire lieutenant charged with neglect of duty fails to show at disciplinary hearing

FOX 5's Paul Wagner reports.

- The D.C. fire lieutenant accused of neglect of duty after a child died choking on grapes last year was a no-show at his disciplinary hearing on Wednesday.

The attorney representing Guy Valentine told a panel of fire officials the lieutenant was officially retired and they no longer had the authority to judge his actions.

FOX 5 was allowed into the hearing without a camera to witness for the first time how members of the D.C. fire department are disciplined.

The father of the little boy who died was also allowed in and was permitted to make an opening statement. But the one person he wanted to see, the lieutenant accused in the case, was not there.

Jose Cuesta arrived on the fifth floor of headquarters just before the hearing began with the promise he would be allowed in.

"She said to me that we would go down to the hearing, but it's not clear at this point whether it’s going to be public or private,” he told us.

Just after 10 a.m., we were told we could come in.

Inside, four fire officials assigned to judge the case would hear testimony from witnesses. Six of those witnesses were all sworn in.

For the next three hours, the case was laid out with Cuesta listening to every word.

Last year on March 13 at 8:36 a.m., a house guest called 911 to say the victim, Martin Cuesta, was choking on some grapes.

Engine 20 with a paramedic on board was in the station just three blocks away, but was never dispatched. It was a breakdown an investigator today called a perfect storm of human error, electronic error and apathy.

The apathy allegedly came from Lt. Valentine, who heard the call go out but failed to respond. He knew a child was choking, but told an investigator he would not respond because he wasn't dispatched.

Engine 20 was not put on the call because new GPS tablets installed in the engine had become disconnected from the system and the dispatchers at the 911 center did not know the engine was in the station ready to go.

Instead of a quick response to the house on Warren Street, it took first responders from more than a mile away ten minutes to get there.

For the first time, we heard the lieutenant’s defense on Wednesday.

"(The charges) are not fair or reasonable," said attorney Brian Bregman. “Lt. Valentine did everything he was supposed to do … you can't self-dispatch. (The fire departments tablet communications system) did something wrong – the system failed. The lieutenant never had any problems on the job before and he cannot be held responsible for system failures.”

Jose Cuesta declined to comment on what he has heard so far and let his attorney do the talking.

“I'm very impressed with the agency’s presentation of the evidence so far and we just want to let that process go, and Mr. Cuesta and his family just want to keep the faith in the process,” said Cuesta’s attorney, Salvatore Zambri. “We have every reason to do that based upon what we have seen so far.”

That process was in question until recently when it was learned the fire department never adopted the regulations of a D.C. Council law that would prevent firefighters facing misconduct charges from retiring.

Those regulations are now in place, but Valentine's attorney said his client is already retired.

Amy Mauro, the fire department’s chief of staff, said Valentine is conditionally retired and his benefits will not be paid until the outcome of the disciplinary hearing is known.

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