On Thursday, officials in Flint, Michigan, replaced Raymond Barton as the local fire chief amid a sprawling controversy in which Barton determined two of his firefighters lied about properly searching for two Black boys who died earlier this year.
Theron Wiggins, a former fire department Chief, will replace Barton following explosive revelations surrounding the deaths of 12-year-old Zy’Aire and 9-year-old LaMar Mitchell after a house fire in May. The news was first reported by Mid-Michigan NOW.
Following the tragedy, an investigation by then-Chief Barton found that firefighters Daniel Sniegocki and Michael Zlotek had not properly searched the floor and lied about having done so on official reports.
Barton later implied publicly that he had been overruled in his official decision to fire the men, fueling speculation of a coverup by Mayor Sheldon Neeley in the leadup to a mayoral election in November.
Mayor Neeley was re-elected last week.
“You can’t make that up,” said Todd Flood, a lawyer for the Mitchell boys’ parents.
“Seems that would be retaliation for saying the truth but I wasn’t in the meeting to determine factors they looked at,” he told The Daily Beast. “However, I can’t imagine, in my wildest fact patterns, good cause to fire someone that has [as much] integrity as the chief.”
Of the family, Flood said: “They admire and respect the chief for speaking the truth on the matter.”
Flint officials did not immediately respond to questions regarding the reason for Barton’s departure.
During the fire department’s response to the burning home —a three minute walk from the fire house— Zlotek and Sniegocki were sent to canvass the second floor of the burning house. They missed the boys, and called off a second sweep.
According to Barton’s report, precious minutes were lost after the two firefighters called an all-clear. Both boys would be found after a team was sent to vent the room seven minutes later, but not in time to save their lives.
Following the tragedy, neither firefighter was fired — a move some city officials called a coverup by Flint Mayor Neeley. (Both Sniegocki and, later, Zlotek eventually resigned.)
The controversy over the Mitchell boys’ deaths intensified when both the boys’ mother, Crystal Cooper, and then-Chief Barton testified publicly at an October city council meeting.
There, Barton implied that his decision was overridden by city officials, which created divisions among the firefighters.
“Let’s say it for what it is — it split the department,” he told Council member Dennis Pfeiffer.
Michigan State Police confirmed to The Daily Beast in early November that they had launched a probe into the fire and its aftermath.
Neither the fire chief nor the mayor responded immediately to requests for comment or questions on why Barton was no longer serving as Chief.
A statement from the City of Flint extolled that city administration are “proud to announce” Chief Wiggins’ appointment as Interim Fire Chief.
“The City of Flint would like to thank Fire Chief Raymond Barton for his decades of service to this community,” it read.