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Baltimore fire chief nominee should have talked to the reporter

Chief James Wallace was charged with having pipe bombs 3 decades ago but it appears they were actually M-80s

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Previous coverage of this story

A former deputy state fire marshal told a reporter Thursday that while Baltimore’s interim fire chief was charged 31-years-ago with having more than 50 pipe bombs, in reality, they were M-80s. Mayor Brandon Scott finally provided similar details yesterday calling them “fireworks.” All of this came many hours after the Baltimore Sun first reported the story. The big question is why didn’t the mayor and Chief James Wallace provide this crucial detail for the original story?

I imagine most, if not all, the decisions about responding to this story were made at City Hall and not the interim fire chief’s office. Whoever made it, it wasn’t very well thought out. Sun reporter Emily Opilo and her editors apparently only had available a criminal record that was mostly expunged and old news articles that said the arrest was for possession of more than 50 pipe bombs. It appears the information about the charges was very accurate. The problem is it didn’t tell a complete story.

The Sun also had something else. Prior to publication, Opilo reached out to two people who should have been able to better explain this story. We know that because the Sun article had written statements from Scott and Wallace that both came from the mayor’s office. Those statements further confirmed the arrest but said nothing about M-80s or fireworks.

Chief Wallace apparently had a much better story to tell than what was available to the reporter. While I’m sure this was a chapter in his life the chief would like to forget, telling his story likely would have made a world of difference. It also would have explained why the charges brought only a suspension from his job as a paramedic for the Baltimore Fire Department at the time of his 1992 arrest.

I don’t know for certain what interactions there were between Chief Wallace, Mayor Scott’s office, and the reporter prior to publication. I do know there should have been an on-the-record explanation of what this whole episode was about, directly from Chief Wallace. In other words, an interview. I know it flies in the face of many who believe you shouldn’t talk to the press and, at most, only give them a written statement. That’s not a way to make sure your side is heard. Especially when your side can change the whole complexion of the story.

There’s a very good chance that knowing these details the Sun may have killed this story or portrayed it in a different way.

The mayor’s office admits they knew of Chief Wallace’s expunged criminal record well before the Sun contacted them. You have to wonder why they weren’t able to come up with a better plan to handle it when it did finally surface.

Here’s the operative part of the new details from Alexa Ashwell and Gary Collins at WBFF-TV/FOX45. It revolves around Ashwell’s interview with former deputy state fire marshal John Brazil. Follow the link to read the complete story and listen to the interview.

“We searched two apartments and located what was M-80 fireworks, which is basically a large firecracker. They are dangerous and unsafe and illegal then and now,” said Brazil. “They were no more than 2.5 inches long. They were a red cardboard tube with a canon fuse sticking out of them.”

So why then was Wallace charged with possession of pipe bombs?

Brazil weighed in.

“The law under fireworks is up to a certain amount of powder. Basically any larger firework came under the pipe bomb law,” said Brazil. “These were dangerous but they were just over the edge as far as crossing the line between fireworks and what was considered pipe bombs.”

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