In July, 2017 Officer John Monroe of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office filed a report detailing his investigation into complaints made against then-Palominas Fire Chief Mark Matthews. I obtained a copy of the report and interviewed witnesses associated with the report’s content.
Matthews was the first to arrive on scene to the Caldor Fire on August 14, 2021. He has been the fire chief of the Pioneer Fire Protection District since 2018. Prior to this he was the fire chief of the Palominas Fire District in Cochise County, Arizona. It was here that people close to Matthews, including his own staff, became suspicious of his behavior. So suspicious, in fact, that some began contacting law enforcement to report their concerns.
In July of 2017 the first official report against Matthews came in through the Sheriff’s Office tip line. Officer John Monroe received the tip and began investigating the complaint, which would eventually become Incident 17-19797. The tipster chose to be fully identified in the complaint but I will not be revealing the name here in order to protect their privacy. This person, whom I will refer to as Witness A, was a firefighter in Cochise County and is currently a decorated EMT.
In the Sheriff’s office report, Witness A claims to have information indicating Matthews may have been responsible for the ignition of three separate wildfires between April and July, 2017. The first incident which was reported occurred on July 7th, 2017 when Matthews leaves the station, telling personnel that he is heading to an area just outside of town. Not long after, Matthews’ comes across the radio reporting “smoke in the area” and “possible brush fire.”
Firefighters arrived on scene to find Matthews standing near a 20’x20′ brush fire which they quickly extinguished. According to the Sheriff’s report, several firefighters asked Matthews how he came to discover the fire. He replied, “Someone called my cell phone” but he doesn’t say who. He also doesn’t explain why an emergency call came in to his cell phone and not to 911 dispatch or to the station.
Witness A also told investigators about two more incidents in which Matthews again called in reports of brush fires and was again the first on scene. In both incidents, firefighters arrived on scene and found Matthews holding a road flare. When they asked what he was doing, Matthews said he was setting backburns. The firefighters at both scenes described the backburns as unnecessary and dangerous, according to the Sheriff’s report.
Soon after interviewing Witness A, Officer Monroe was contacted by yet another firefighter from Cochise County, whom I will refer to as Witness B to protect their privacy. Witness B is another decorated EMT with several years of experience working as a firefighter in Cochise County. Witness B also reached out to the Sheriff’s Office with information that may indicate Matthews was responsible for the ignition of several wildfires in 2017.
Witness B states that just a few days prior to contacting investigators, Matthews came across the radio to report he had received a call on his cell phone of a possible brush fire on Kings Ranch Road. Witness B states that “within seconds” Matthews called out that he had arrived on scene. Firefighters arriving at the scene asked Matthews how he discovered the fire and how he was able to arrive so quickly. According to the Sheriff’s report, Matthews stated that he came across a female in an area south of the fire who told him that she smelled smoke.
The firefighters on scene at Kings Ranch Road questioned how anyone could smell smoke south of the fire when the winds were blowing to the north, especially given the fire was so small. They also questioned how Matthews came across this female and how she was able to contact him. They state they didn’t receive an answer. According to one firefighter I spoke with who was at the scene, “This happened all the time. You try to pin him down and ask what the hell is going on here, but he just sort of rambles. All the sudden you’re talking about God knows what. That, or he just starts screaming at you. We never really got those kinds of answers out of him.”
Witness B also arrived on scene at the two subsequent fires described in the report by Witness A. Witness B confirms Matthews also called in the fires and was the first on scene at both. Witness B similarly describes seeing Matthews unnecessarily backburning with a road flare which led to the fire tripling in size, according to the report.
Firefighters suspected arson in each of these incidents. However, according to the Sheriff’s report as well as three Palominas Fire District firefighters I spoke with who worked for Matthews at the time, no official investigations were ever completed. In one instance, Matthews stated the fire was started by a tossed cigarette yet no cigarettes were found at the scene. The report also mentions Matthews assigned at least one arson investigation to two new firefighters who had no investigative experience.
This week I interviewed Matthews and asked him if he was ever made aware of these investigations, or any others, into him or his department. He stated to me several times he was unaware he was being investigated and had never even heard of anything I was talking about. He made clear that he investigated many suspicious fires in the Palominas area during his tenure as chief, and he is certain he was never investigated for anything. In fact, he said, Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannals “Is a very good friend of mine, we are very close. We go all the way back to Oregon. If I was being investigated, he would have told me.”
Sheriff Dannals has not responded to requests for comment for this story.
I also asked Matthews if he recalls a newspaper article titled, “Palominas Fire Chief Resigns due to Health; District Under Investigation.” We then reviewed the newspaper article together, including the pieces that confirm the Sheriff’s investigation into Matthews’ department. When we finished Mathews stated, “This just mentions an investigation we were doing with the Sheriff’s department. They weren’t investigating us.” Matthews again reiterates that he recalls no investigation into him or his department for any reason. You can read that newspaper article here as well as my first report on that investigation here.
Towards the end of the Sheriff’s Office Report for Incident 17-19797 Officer Monroe indicates his investigation was left unfinished. Prior to the completion of the report, “Matthews wore out his welcome with the fire board, resigned as chief, and quickly left the area.” Officer Monroe then writes that the evidence against Matthews is circumstantial. “I can certainly say Chief Matthews’ management techniques were way out of date, and his training techniques were severely below today’s accepted standards for training and safety,” Officer Monroe writes.
Less than two and a half months after his retirement from the Palominas Fire District, Matthews submitted his application package to the Pioneer Fire Protection District Board of Directors for the open position of Fire Chief. He was hired the following June.
I have reached out to the Pioneer Fire Protection District Board of Directors with an invitation to comment for this story. At the time of this writing I have not yet received a response. One board member did reply to one of my email’s to tell me she would ensure the entire board has received my questions. (Update: Board Chair Randi Rossi Replies to The Jericho Report).
The Pioneer Fire Protection District Board of Directors previously extended Matthews’ contract to the end of March, 2022 and is currently seeking his replacement. (Update: Matthews out on medical leave, will not be returning).
In the 82 minutes Matthews spoke with me he covered a wide range of topics including his health, the Caldor Fire, and his plans for the future. I will be writing these stories in future posts.
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4 thoughts on “Sheriff’s Report: Firefighters’ Suspicion Prompted Investigation into Fire Chief Mark Matthews”
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This sounds a lot like Jonathon Orr.