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SGI first responder fired after slapping incident

David Adlerstein
The Apalachicola Times

It began with a slap to the face and it ended with more than a slap on the wrist.

At a special meeting Friday morning by the board of directors of the St. George Island Volunteer Fire Department, a divided board voted 5-3 to remove John Hockman as a first responder, following allegations by a colleague he deliberately slapped her while the two were responding to a 911 call on August 30.

The special meeting Friday morning, Sept.4 of the board of directors of the St. George Island Volunteer Fire Department

A 5-3 vote in favor of removing Hockman from the board of directors fell short, as it required a two-thirds majority.

The grievance action by Sandy Mitchem had been filed August 31 with St. George Island Fire Chief Kevin Delahanty, and then was heard by the entire board last week.

The meeting, convened by Board Chair Bob Landiss, was conducted by Apalachicola attorney Donna Duncan, who serves as the department’s lawyer.

At the subdued hearing at the fire house, complete with court reporter Connie Hunnings on hand, Duncan heard testimony from Mitchem, her words largely drawn from a three-page statement she had drawn up in preparation for the hearing.

Hockman was afforded a chance to testify as to what had happened, but he declined comment, citing the advice of his attorney, since Mitchem has sworn out a complaint with the sheriff’s office regarding a possible assault.

Duncan stressed to the eight board members who would decide Hockman’s fate that they should draw no inference of guilt due to Hockman’s silence.

In her account, Mitchem said the two were among the first responders quickly on the scene of a 911 page of a possible heart attack victim trapped in an elevator on the first floor of a Plantation home.

She said Hockman was working to open the elevator door when, as she stood next to him, she pointed to the elevator mechanism and said that because she had an elevator in her old house, she thought that opening that mechanism might help.

“He slapped me. I was stunned,” she said. “I thought maybe I had just gotten in the way of him trying to fix it.”

Mitchem said she repeated her advice and again pointed to the mechanism. “He hit me in the face harder and told me that I did NOT have an elevator,” she said. “I was completely stunned.”

Mitchem said she spoke to the victim inside the elevator, asked him to slide the gate back and forth so as to trigger the pin in the mechanism, and the elevator door opened. She said the emergency medical crew then attended to the man, who was not hurt, and both they, and she, then left.

“I was crying and absolutely in shock,” she said.

After calling Delahanty, the chief came to Mitchem’s house and heard details of what had happened. On a subsequent call from Hockman, which was put on speakerphone, Mitchem asked why he had struck her, not once but twice.

“He said ‘you yelled in my ear,’” Mitchem recounted. “I told him that we needed to talk tomorrow.”

Mitchem, a longtime first responder who years earlier had taught a class for trainees that included Hockman, said he neither apologized nor called to discuss what happened. It was then she decided to go to law enforcement with her accusation.

Mitchem, a petite woman, said Hockman has admitted shoving her, and has said “if she was any taller, I would have hit her in her f***ing (breasts).”

She closed her testimony by noting that “I am completely still in shock. This is a very unfortunate situation and John’s actions were unacceptable.”

After Delahanty, a non-voting member of the board, recommended Hockman be terminated as a first responder, a discussion ensued in which Ben Mathewson emerged as Hockman’s chief defender.

Duncan told the board that it had a choice of either doing nothing, suspending Hockman pending the outcome of a full investigation, or terminating him as a first responder.

Mathewson offered testimony that indicated witnesses could not confirm they had seen Mitchem being slapped or later crying. A later discussion was marked by Delahanty saying Mathewson was not in a position to have witnessed what had allegedly happened.

“I didn’t cry on the scene,” said Mitchem. “I waited until I left the scene. I got in my car and that’s when I got upset.”

In the first vote, to remove Hockman as a first responder, which required a simple majority, the five aye votes were cast by Bud Hayes, Cindy Whiteman, Debbie Flowers, Skip Kemp and Landiss, with Bob Shiver, Mathewson and Hockman voting no.

Shiver said he voted no because he had insufficient information to confirm Hockman’s wrongdoing in this incident.

But on the subsequent, unsuccessful vote to temporarily suspend Hockman from the board of directors pending a complete investigation, Shiver voted in favor of the motion, as did Landiss, Whiteman, Flowers, and Hayes.

But on this vote, Kemp voted no, siding with Hockman and Mathewson.

“As far as I’m concerned, that (the incident) has nothing to do with his position on the board of directors,” Kemp said.

Forty-five minutes after it had begun, the meeting adjourned.