KANKAKEE — A Kankakee firefighter repeatedly struck a colleague who was trying to rescue an elderly woman who had caught fire during a blaze last October, according to a recently filed lawsuit. The fire resulted in one fatality.
The firefighter, Lt. Nathan Boyce, got one day of suspension for attacking the colleague, Lt. Michelle Giese, the lawsuit said. Giese has filed a federal lawsuit against the city, Boyce and Chief Damon Schuldt.
City officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, which was filed last month. Boyce did not return messages.
The fire was in the early evening of Oct. 18 at a three-story, 100-unit building in the 100 block of West Mertens Street. An elderly woman perished in the blaze.
While Giese was helping a woman who had caught fire, Boyce, without provocation, started incoherently screaming at his colleague, according to the lawsuit. He allegedly picked up Giese by her shoulder harness, lifted her off her feet and shoved her into the wall.
The lawsuit alleges Boyce refused to let Giese go and the two fell around the corner into a bathroom hallway, letting other firefighters get through.
“Defendant Boyce slammed Plaintiff against the wall three more times and plaintiff took the blows so the other firefighters present could get the victims out of the building,” the lawsuit states.
After the fire, Giese reported she spoke with Deputy Chief Jeff Bruno and the incident commander, David Wiechen, about the attack. Wiechen told Giese that Boyce informed him that he “lost it, got in someone’s face and pushed them up against the wall.”
Bruno ordered all witnesses to produce statements, but no one was removed from the shift or required to undergo drug or alcohol testing, the lawsuit said. Boyce and Giese remained on shift afterward, though they were in separate firehouses.
On Oct. 22, Fire Chief Schuldt met with Giese about the incident. He reportedly told her he would not take it lightly and that Boyce would receive harsh punishment. He suggested Giese change her schedule, so she would not be around Boyce, the lawsuit said. He later told her he knew of Boyce’s previous issues.
In a meeting with the department’s disciplinary committee on Oct. 26, Boyce said he might have blacked out on the night of the incident and did not remember all the details but that he recalled shaking Giese, according to the lawsuit.
In response, Schuldt suspended Boyce for one day without pay, the lawsuit said. He reportedly had the choice of day. He also was given a pamphlet for the employee assistance program and a verbal recommendation not to work the same shift as Giese for at least three months, the lawsuit said.
His disciplinary papers stated he assaulted and battered another firefighter while on duty, a terminable offense, according to the lawsuit.
Schuldt later told union members that Boyce’s one-day suspension was to ensure that the fire and police commission and city administration were not notified of the incident and that it was kept out of public view, the lawsuit said.
On the same day as the disciplinary meeting, the fire department involved the city’s part-time internal affairs investigator, Ronald Bartlett. In early November, he interviewed Giese for two hours.
Bartlett told Giese that Schuldt would be the only recipient of the results of the investigation, and it would be Schuldt’s responsibility to bring them to the human resources department, according to the lawsuit. The chief allegedly never did.
Giese has yet to see the results, the lawsuit said.
RETURNING TO WORK
Giese suffered psychological trauma because of the incident and started using her sick time on Nov. 4, according to the lawsuit. She did this until her workers’ compensation claim was approved more than a month later.
On Nov. 5, Giese informed the human resources department about the incident. She was told she would get a call back, but that did not happen, according to the lawsuit. Within minutes of her call to HR, Schuldt allegedly called Giese to confront her about contacting the outside department.
After she told the chief about the stress from the incident, he again recommended she trade shifts with other lieutenants to avoid Boyce, the lawsuit said. Schuldt said Boyce knew he never could attack her again, it said.
In late March, James Ellexson, the new human resources director, called Giese about her return-to-work plan. The city chose a doctor to evaluate Giese.
After the examination, Giese’s workers’ compensation was terminated. In doing so, the city went against the medical advice of her primary therapist and neuropsychologist and required her to return to light duty April 15, the lawsuit said. She was reportedly told if she didn’t return, she would be fired. She came back.
Three weeks after she returned, Giese was reportedly forced to be sent home because of hives on her face and neck, blisters under her armpits and elevated blood pressure, according to the lawsuit. The fire department confirmed this week she still is employed.
Meanwhile, Boyce continues to get into trouble at the department, but remains on the job, the lawsuit alleges.
In June, Boyce was on duty at Station 4 when he walked off the job, a terminable offense that resulted in a suspension of 1 1/3 days, according to the lawsuit. Last month, he got into a fight with a fellow firefighter, which nearly got physical, it said. As of the July 18 filing of the lawsuit, Boyce had not been disciplined, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges the city violated her civil rights and retaliated against her.
According to the lawsuit, Giese has been a firefighter for the last decade. She and Boyce have worked together for several years and had developed a friendship, the lawsuit said.
City officials were asked for comment. The officials were specifically asked whether they could assure the public that one firefighter did not attack another while firefighting.
Replied city attorney Mike McGrath: “Because there is pending litigation, there will be no comment other than the city will vigorously defend this matter.”
Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong said, “The city of Kankakee has a well-trained and respected fire department that works daily to provide outstanding service to residents. And as you know, I am not at liberty to discuss any allegations pertaining to pending litigation.”
Schuldt said he would go with the attorney’s statement. He became chief in 2017 and has been fighting fires for more than a quarter century.
No trial has been set in the lawsuit. The city has yet to file its official response.
Giese is represented by Chicago lawyer Kellie Walters, who declined to comment.