Don't Stand So Close to Me 

As a veteran Oakland fire lieutenant faces molestation charges, the OFD's past willingness to hire ex-cons has come back to haunt it.

As police reports tell the story, it was the night of Saturday, June 29, and Lieutenant Delmont Waqia, a nineteen-year veteran of the Oakland Fire Department, had invited his grandkids to spend the night after a party at his North Oakland home. A preteen granddaughter asked if she could sleep upstairs on his bed -- as she had before -- instead of downstairs with everyone else. When Waqia agreed, the others asked to sleep upstairs too, but he said no.

Taking her customary spot at the foot of his bed, the girl fell asleep while her grandfather was still in the bathroom. She woke, police allege, to find him kissing her face and rubbing her crotch. Startled and confused, she went to the bathroom and then returned to the bed. At that point, her grandfather pulled her pants down and began to penetrate her, allegedly stating, "I won't hurt you. You're just a baby." The girl pushed him away and ran downstairs to sleep with her siblings.

Word got back to the girl's mother, who called the cops. On July 11, Waqia was arrested and charged with molestation; a pretrial hearing is scheduled for this week in Alameda County Superior Court. The fire department, meanwhile, has put him on paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation.

While the lieutenant steadfastly maintains his innocence, few in the fire department appear willing to rally on his behalf. Given the firefighter's past history with the department, in fact, some of his colleagues weren't surprised by the allegations.

Indeed, if the department is embarrassed by the charges, it may have only itself to blame. Fire officials knew when they hired Waqia that he was a twice-convicted felon. What's more, female firefighters serving under the lieutenant's command have previously complained to higher-ups that their boss had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior that in some cases bordered on sexual assault. As a result of one woman's charges, the lieutenant was demoted, but was eventually returned to his management role over the women's strong objections.

Citing personnel privacy issues, current Chief Gerald Simon would not comment on Waqia's history. But reviews of records and interviews with numerous sources close to the department, including current and former Oakland firefighters and Waqia's accusers, have revealed some of those details.

Firefighters, like police officers, are in a position of public trust. They are authorized to enter homes and buildings unattended in an emergency and are the folks people turn to in times of desperation. But unlike cops, Oakland firefighters are not required to be free of a rap sheet. According to California Professional Firefighters, the state firefighters' union, there are no restrictions to prevent cities from hiring firefighters with criminal records; each department makes its own policy. "Having a felony in itself is not a disqualification," says Dan Farrell, OFD's deputy chief of operations; the bigger issue is usually whether an applicant lies about his past.

An independent background check is mandatory, Farrell says, and any applicant determined to be dishonest about prior convictions is seen as untrustworthy and would probably not get hired. According to Chief Simon, no one with a felony conviction has been hired during his three-year tenure.

But things were done differently back in 1983, when Waqia was hired. The department, insiders say, was trying hard to diversify its ranks at the time. Then-Chief Sam Golden seemed determined to create a force more reflective of Oakland's complexion -- almost at any cost, some say.

As a result, the OFD now has a more balanced workforce, but in its rush to diversify, sources say, the department hired a number of candidates that OFD screeners had rejected. All of them except for Waqia and one other firefighter were later fired.

A former Oakland fire captain who at one time was responsible for screening new applicants recalls one candidate who had lied about his educational background; the applicant failed to mention that he had flunked out of a local private high school after his freshman year and had never completed his degree.

The former captain says he was ordered to complete the background check nonetheless. In doing so, he says, he contacted four employment references provided by the applicant, all of whom said they wouldn't hire the man again. His superiors, the ex-captain says, disregarded his recommendations and hired the man anyway, prompting the captain to quit his job as an applicant screener. Six months later, the new hire was arrested for using a fake prescription to purchase drugs while in uniform and was fired as a result.

Waqia, born Delmont Owens in 1952, was hired despite two prior felony convictions -- one for burglary in 1971 and another for robbery in 1973, according to court documents. "They knew he was a convicted felon, but they wanted to fill a quota," says one firefighter. "Background investigators told the chief not to hire this man and they did anyway."

The state firefighters' union is generally opposed to hiring felons. "Firefighters hold themselves and each other to the highest standards," says spokesman Carroll Wills. "It is a very team-oriented profession, and not a firefighter in the world is interested in having someone next to them that they can't count on."

Reached at home last week, Waqia says he's not the man he was when convicted back in the 1970s. He found religion, he says, and chose a new surname from the Koran. "[Owens] was basically a different person," Waqia says. "I don't even remember most of those things."

But it wasn't the priors that irked his female colleagues. In 1992, he was promoted to lieutenant under Chief Lamont Ewell. The very next year, one of his subordinates filed a complaint with the department alleging that Waqia had "grabbed her breasts."

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