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Five Officers, Four Dispatchers Suspended in Austin, Texas

The Associated Press | March 8th, 2005

AUSTIN, TX (AP) -- Five police officers and four dispatchers were suspended and a sixth officer received a written reprimand for what Police Chief Stan Knee called "inappropriate'' computer messages sent after an Austin nightclub caught fire.

Authorities said Austin police officer John Lengefeld heard a radio transmission shortly after 7 p.m. Feb. 18 that the Midtown Live nightclub was on fire.

Documents released Friday indicate the seven-year department veteran said he immediately thought of the song "Disco Inferno" and sent a message from his patrol car to fellow officer Josue Martinez that said "burn baby burn."

Martinez replied 37 seconds later: "Hey ... LOL (laughing out loud). Those were my exact thoughts."

So began more than two hours of messages that led to 15-day unpaid suspensions for Lengefeld and officer William White, who sent a note that said, "U can smell from (Interstate) 35. It is the smell of victory."

At one point during the flurry of messages, dispatcher Susan Negron wrote, "I have some extra gasoline if they need it," according to the documents. She was suspended for 15 days. White also messaged another officer: "My nite is made. I just had a lady ask me if it was burning. I said yep. She was upset. I was enthralled."

And dispatcher Ashlye Bauerle wrote, "You hear that Midtown is on fire!! The roof of a club . . . That's funny! Gives a whole new meaning to the roof, the roof is on fire," the documents said. Her suspension was three days.

All of the dispatchers and officers said in written statements that they regretted their actions and that their messages were intended as jokes.

Knee confirmed that another dispatcher also was disciplined for activity relating to the fire and that a sergeant and an additional dispatcher remain under investigation.

Witnesses at Midtown Live saw the "burn baby burn" message on the computer screen inside an officer's patrol car during the fire. Knee said a commander and corporal who responded to the scene worked to calm angry witnesses who saw the message. Had the incident happened in another city, he said, it could have sparked rioting.

The messages also indicated that the officers were tired of responding to calls at the establishment. Statistics show that police responded to 129 calls last year for reports that included a stabbing, gunshots and public intoxication. The calls made Midtown the fifth busiest club for police response citywide, according to police statistics.

The club, with mostly a black clientele, draws patrons from across the city. On a given weekend night, its crowd can include anything from a 20-something interested in hip-hop to a politician seeking votes.

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