Laguna Fire Official Suspended Over Drinking Incident

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This city's top firefighter on Wednesday was suspended for six weeks without pay for having driven a city emergency car to a fire while intoxicated, city authorities said.

Police Chief Neil J. Purcell Jr., who also oversees the Fire Department as director of public safety, said Deputy Fire Chief James Richard Dewberry failed an alcohol breath test last Thursday.

Newberry had driven the city car--with lights flashing and sirens blaring--from his Laguna Niguel home to an explosion and fire at Ben Brown's Aliso Creek Inn in South Laguna.

Firefighters said that he had the odor of alcohol on his breath, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech and was unsteady on his feet. Dewberry was taken to the police station for a breath test, which showed his blood alcohol level was above the legal limit for driving.

Purcell said Dewberry admitted to having consumed hard liquor at his home.

Purcell said no criminal charges were filed against Dewberry because "no one saw him positively behind the wheel. Unless you can do that or there is an accident or injury involved, you cannot file criminal charges."

Nonetheless, Purcell said he immediately placed Dewberry on administrative leave with pay pending an investigation, which concluded Tuesday.

"I met with him this morning formally, we discussed the issue, and I gave him a 30-day workday suspension without pay, which is effective today," Purcell said Wednesday. "He will return July 9."

Dewberry was not available for comment.

Purcell said Dewberry will lose $8,400 in pay.

But Purcell said he does not believe that there are sufficient grounds for firing or demoting Dewberry. "I took into consideration the totality of the circumstances," he said, "the fact that he has an exemplary work record for the city and that he was cooperative and is very remorseful and saddened and embarrassed by the situation.

"He readily admitted he used poor judgment and made a very big mistake."

He said Dewberry, who reports to him, is in charge of the day-to-day operations of the city Fire Department, which is one of the smallest in the county with 37 firefighters.

Dewberry has earned recognition for his ability as a field commander. "He is a hands-on type," Purcell said.

Dewberry began working for the city in 1971, joining the Fire Department after spending two years in municipal services. He rose through the ranks and was promoted to deputy fire chief in 1986.

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