WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Eastern Market fire, one of the most destructive in D.C. history, was deliberately set, according to two men who worked on the case.
Firefighters Gerald Pennington and Greg Bowyer used to be known for their skills as two of the top arson investigators in the country. Now, they are recognized for checking fire hydrants.
Pennington and Bowyer traded their guns and badges for wrenches and now make more than $100,000 dollars a year checking fire hydrants. "This is a nightmare. I can't believe this is happening to me," said Bowyer.
Just how do two of the nation's top arson investigators with one of the highest arrest and conviction rates go from solving crimes to checking hydrants? The two said that they are being punished for speaking out about botched fire investigations, including the massive 2007 fire at D.C.'s Eastern Market that inflicted $20 million in damage and caused vendors like Mel Inman to relocate.
Inman said he was "floored" at the fire's devastating results. "You don't believe that your business will burn down," he said.
The public has always been told that the Eastern Market fire was not suspicious, but for the first time, two investigators who worked on the case have come forward to say the case was botched and that a potential suspect was arrested, but never held responsible.
While Fire Chief Dennis Rubin announced the likely cause of the Eastern Market fire was "electrical," Pennington and Bowyer believe the blaze began with a deliberately set fire in a nearby dumpster. "And we were ordered to keep this information quiet, which we did," said Bowyer.
As two of the most experienced arson investigators, Pennington and Bowyer were also on a covert team searching for a person responsible for a rash of dumpster fires. Five months later, 28-year-old Joel Ramos emerged as a suspect. He was picked up by police on a malicious burning charge for setting a fire in an alley near Eastern Market. "It's pretty troubling. It's pretty troubling because it's been going on for so long," said Pennington.
Sources said the arrest wasn't publicized because arson didn't fit with the department's original theory. According to police records, Ramos never stood trial because a couple of months later, his body washed ashore in King George County, Va. After his death, which investigators deemed natural, the dumpster fires stopped.
While crews continue to rebuild Eastern Market, Chief Rubin won't discuss the disaster that nearly toppled a national landmark. Instead, when probed, he referred to the official report which lists the cause of the fire as "undetermined."
While Chief Rubin also won't discuss why Pennington and Bowyer are now turning hydrants, one of his top deputies referred to the two investigators as "internal terrorists."
Still, despite their demotion, Pennington and Bowyer say Eastern Market isn't the only botched investigation. "These cover-ups happen often and frequently," said Bowyer.
Pennington and Bowyer said the fire department recently filed administrative charges against them in a different case, accusing them of "interfering with the integrity of government operations." Both men strongly deny the allegations.
The fire departments only official response to repeated requests for a comment reads, in part, "It is inappropriate to comment on these matters inasmuch as the investigations of these cases and individuals are ongoing."
Republished with permission of WJLA-TV.