In the course of their duty, firefighters regularly save lives by charging into burning buildings, administering CPR, and resuscitating overdose victims.
But what Peter St. John did on Oct. 19, 2016, was anything but routine.
That morning, an excavation contractor accidentally breached a natural gas line underneath Northwest 23rd Avenue and Glisan Street in the heart of the Nob Hill shopping district. Before the gas could dissipate, three explosions ignited a fireball, threatening several buildings and destroying a three-story structure that housed Portland Bagelworks, among other shops. Nobody died, but the incident injured eight, including two Portland police officers and three firefighters.
Then-Fire Chief Mike Meyers credited one Portland firefighter, Lt. Peter St. John, with clearing buildings of occupants right before the explosions.
“This man single-handedly, I believe, saved the lives of a lot of citizens today,” Meyers said at the time. “And a lot of firefighters.”
The force of one blast propelled St. John 20 feet in the air, breaking both his legs. In an interview from his Legacy Emanuel Hospital bed, St. John—his unlined, cherubic face cross-hatched with cuts from the explosion—told reporters: “I’m not a hero. I just did what anybody else would have done.”
St. John’s actions exemplified the best of Portland Fire & Rescue, whose 700 sworn firefighters staff 31 stations and are trained to run toward danger.
Eight years after his heroic acts, however, WW has learned that St. John, 39, finds himself in the middle of an ugly controversy over his behavior that threatens his career and his reputation. It’s a tale that exposes the clannish culture of the fire bureau—and lays bare a cover-up that extends to the bureau’s highest levels.
Found in police reports and other records from a criminal investigation in Clackamas County, as well as records from the state Employment Relations Board, is a previously unreported story about St. John, who, in the words of a state prosecutor, “should no longer be a member of the Portland Fire Bureau, or any fire department for that matter.”
St. John “has engaged in some very disturbing conduct,” wrote Scott Healy, first deputy district attorney in Clackamas County, after a 2021 criminal investigation of St. John’s alleged actions. “Furthermore, the conduct of some of the other personnel at the Portland Fire Bureau is concerning as well.”
The matter entered the public record recently because the firefighters’ union is defending St. John—and, for now, winning. His case demonstrates the difficulty of terminating a member of a public safety union.
The situation also illustrates the findings of a 2022 city audit that the fire bureau “does not have a coherent employee accountability system,” in part because “the family-like culture allows some employees to behave unprofessionally in the workplace.”
Peter St. John always wanted to be a firefighter. It ran in the Beaverton native’s family: His half-brother, his half-brother’s father, and his grandfather all served as firefighters.
The son of a Korean mother and white father, St. John didn’t fit the mold at Portland Fire & Rescue, where 92% of sworn officers are white. He drives a Prius rather than the pickup truck many firefighters favor. But his heroism during the gas explosion won him respect.
Four years after the blast, however, he found himself facing allegations of misconduct.
It all began with a fire bureau investigation in September 2020 of text messages seemingly from St. John to a subordinate female firefighter and Facebook messages to a female dispatcher at the Bureau of Emergency Communications. (After returning to duty following the explosion, St. John worked for a time as a fire bureau liaison to BOEC, which dispatches police, fire and medical services to 911 calls.)
The female firefighter, according to a city investigation, found the text messages concerning “because they became increasingly bizarre and at one point felt like it was a form of harassment.” (The actual messages are redacted from the public record.)
The BOEC dispatcher said the messages St. John sent her were “upsetting and she feared for her safety and that of her family.”
Then came a tumultuous day that would have lasting consequences for St. John and his superiors, some of whom would be implicated and others of whom took rapid action to contain the damage.
On Sept. 14, 2020, St. John arrived at his place of work, Station 16 at 1715 SW Skyline Blvd. He came to empty his locker. He’d requested a transfer to another station and, as he would later tell investigators, it was for an unusual reason: His wife, Karyn, had seen text messages between him and a female firefighter who worked at the same firehouse. Hence the transfer request.
St. John told colleagues at the station that his marriage was collapsing and he might have to sleep in his car. In response to questions, records show, he admitted he might hurt himself. Rather than let him leave, colleagues summoned a fire bureau peer support counselor, Lt. Jon Harrell.
Harrell soon arrived at Station 16, records show, and St. John’s wife called the station on a landline. Harrell picked up the phone and Karyn St. John unloaded. She told Harrell that her husband had used a messaging app called Kik back in 2014 to communicate “with an unknown woman for the purpose of having sex.”
Her husband and the woman exchanged photos of their young children, Karyn St. John said, along with suggestive comments.
Here’s how Karyn St. John characterized the woman’s texts: “She also said she thought [one of St. John’s children] was cute and she said something along the lines of she wouldn’t mind sleeping with [the child].”
Harrell immediately got off the phone and spoke to Peter St. John. Records show St. John “admitted he had a conversation with the woman from the Kik app about what his wife reported.”
Under Oregon law, all firefighters are mandatory reporters. That means if they suspect child abuse, they must report their suspicions to authorities immediately.
Harrell properly notified two of his superiors about what he had learned about the Kik communication. Those fire bureau officials immediately filed a report with the Oregon Department of Human Services, which opened an investigation and looped in police in West Linn, where Peter and Karyn St. John then lived.
Healy, the prosecutor in Clackamas County, says any mention of kids and sex, especially conversations that include steps such as exchanging photos, must be reported.
“We unfortunately see this type of thing quite a bit on the internet,” Healy says. “Each situation needs to be treated seriously and investigated thoroughly.”
By the end of an eventful day, the fire bureau had placed Peter St. John (whose 2020 compensation was $120,000) on paid administrative leave pending investigation of the Kik communication.
Karyn St. John declined to comment for this story; Peter St. John did not respond to requests for comment.
Upon learning of the allegations, the West Linn Police Department immediately launched its own investigation into possible child sexual abuse.
The transcript of separate police interviews with Peter and Karyn St. John on Sept. 15, 2020, runs to 99 pages and reveals a troubled marriage—and anger at the fire bureau.
Karyn St. John told police her husband had beaten and choked her six years earlier after a night of heavy drinking, then grabbed a knife and cut his own chest. (She did not report the alleged violence at the time.)
In his interview with police, Peter St. John didn’t deny hitting his wife, claiming instead he had no memory of it. He said whatever happened followed “a drinking tournament” with his station house colleagues. He told investigators he did remember a friend hauling him away in the middle of the night from the Portland apartment he was then renting.
As for the most damaging allegations against him, St. John again acknowledged the inflammatory communication on Kik.
He admitted to police he had indeed exchanged photos of one of his children with the woman on Kik.
When a West Linn detective challenged St. John about his responsibility as a mandatory reporter, St. John acknowledged he had failed.
“I should have reported it,” he told the detective. His explanation for why he did not: “My whole goal was to, you know, hook up with this lady.”
Karyn St. John told police she had not reported the discovery of the Kik conversation, but she had shared the information with another person: her husband’s half-brother, Bill Goforth, a deputy chief at Portland Fire & Rescue. (That makes him one of the bureau’s 10 most senior officers. Compensation in 2022: $207,000.)
She told West Linn police that Goforth in essence told her to keep her mouth shut.
“Bill told me I would be ruining my kids’ lives if I do anything that could get Peter fired,” she told police.
Peter St. John also told police he’d discussed the incident with his half-brother. He said Goforth urged him to keep the matter quiet or it would make him a pariah.
“Everyone’s going to look at you different in the bureau,” Goforth told St. John. “No one’s going to want you at stations. No one’s going to want you around their kids if they know that you were talking to someone like this.”
Goforth, who, like all firefighters, is a mandatory reporter, told police he didn’t take Karyn St. John’s story seriously. He acknowledged talking to Peter St. John about it, but didn’t think it merited a report. (He declined to comment to WW for this story.)
In early 2021, after concluding its investigation, the West Linn Police Department presented its findings to the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office, which ultimately decided not to prosecute. The investigation never yielded any evidence Peter St. John actually met the woman from Kik or that any child was harmed.
Healy, the prosecutor who reviewed the case, however, wrote a searing seven-page memo outlining his frustration with St. John and the fire bureau.
“The State cannot pursue criminal charges in this case because there is not enough evidence to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt regarding the alleged sex abuse, and the statute of limitations has run on the failure to report child sex abuse and domestic violence charges,” Healy wrote March 4, 2021.
Healy, however, found the behavior of fire bureau brass lacking, calling out a captain, Greg Wong, for deleting a voicemail from St. John relating to the conduct for which he was under investigation.
“This conduct defies logic, and suggests an effort on Captain Wong’s part to either eliminate incriminating evidence against the defendant, or at the very least recklessly dispose of it,” Healy wrote. (Wong did not respond to WW’s request for comment.)
Healy was even more displeased with Goforth.
“The Deputy Chief is a mandatory reporter as well, and a person in a leadership position at the Portland Fire Department,” Healy wrote. “Both the defendant and Ms. St. John talked to Deputy Chief Goforth about what this woman had said in some detail, and then he actively advised not to report it to protect the defendant. If this woman truly is a sexual predator, which is a real possibility; by his inaction, Deputy Chief Gofoth has also put future children at risk by failing to report.”
That echoed Karyn St. John’s appraisal of the bureau’s actions.
“Portland Fire has this culture of sexual harassment and alcoholism and all this horrible stuff,” she told West Linn detectives. “And you can’t report anything.”
For much of its 140-year history, according to city audits, Portland’s fire bureau has been less than vigorous at holding its employees accountable.
In 2020, Fire Chief Sarah Boone, the first Black woman to run the bureau, faced a difficult situation. A firefighter named Nick Perkins had gone to Nashville, Tenn., for a bureau-sponsored training session. He got drunk, locked himself out of his hotel, and railed at a desk clerk, yelling, “I have my key, you black bitch…you black n—-r, open the door!” according to a subsequent investigation (Perkins is white).
Perkins’ direct superior ordered him fired. But Boone, perhaps seeking to extend an olive branch to the rank and file suspicious of her, overruled him. It didn’t hurt that the powerful firefighters’ union, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 43, also went to the mat for Perkins.
Chief Boone told WW at the time that she believed not firing Perkins presented an opportunity to improve the bureau’s culture. “As a Black person in a white institution, you have to create the change you want to see,” Boone told WW.
That was the backdrop in the spring of 2021, when Boone ordered Fire Marshal Kari Schimel to resume the investigation of Peter St. John, which had been paused while West Linn police and DHS did their work.
In addition to the most serious allegation—the failure to report possible child abuse—the fire bureau focused on whether St. John’s communications with his female colleague and the 911 dispatcher violated bureau or city rules. (It also investigated a related allegation—that St. John had taken his wife to Bureau of Emergency Communications headquarters at 3 am so he could access a BOEC computer and show her his communications with the female dispatcher were proper.)
St. John told investigators his wife was responsible for the inappropriate messages to female colleagues—she’d had his phone, he claimed.
The fire bureau didn’t buy it. On Nov. 16, 2022, more than two years after placing him on paid administrative leave, the bureau fired St. John.
That’s when the union kicked into action.
Portland Fire & Rescue, with an annual budget of more than $175 million, is the city’s second-largest general fund bureau, after the police.
But there’s no question which bureau is more popular with the public.
“Portlanders have viewed Portland Fire positively for a long time,” says pollster John Horvick of DHM Research. “Many people see them as heroes. Kids want to dress up and be them. People who have an experience with fire are so grateful they’ve had the help. It just carries a different emotional weight.”
Firefighters’ popularity means their union, IAFF Local 43, enjoys political clout, which can be seen in a number of ways. The union’s incentive-laden labor contract is the reason 57 members of the bureau made more than $200,000 last year, and the city’s three highest-paid employees were firefighters. (Collectively, the trio made more than $1 million.) Two former presidents of the union, onetime state lawmaker and City Commissioner Randy Leonard and statewide AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain, moved on to bigger stages.
When firefighters get in trouble, the union defends them with vigor. Given firefighters’ lives—daily immersions in trauma and regular shifts cooking and sleeping in stations—it’s more of a brotherhood than a business organization.
The Portland Police Association regularly wins reinstatement of fired officers at arbitration (“The Blue Wall,” WW, June 24, 2020). The fire bureau terminates firefighters less frequently, but its union also tends to win at arbitration.
One year, for example, a firefighter was terminated for using meth on the job. An arbitrator overturned the firing. When an injured firefighter got caught running a restaurant in Seattle while collecting disability from the bureau because he was purportedly too badly injured to work, an arbitrator overturned his termination. When the bureau demoted a firefighter for using his badge to get free entry and drinks at nightclubs and later drove home drunk, an arbitrator overturned the demotion.
And when the fire bureau terminated St. John, the union filed a grievance saying the move was made “without just cause.” Their argument: His wife sent the offensive text and Facebook messages to his female colleagues and, as for the Kik conversation, it happened while St. John was off duty. (The union declined to comment for this story, saying its position in the grievance proceeding speaks for itself.)
On Nov. 1, 2023, arbitrator Eric Lindauer set aside the termination, calling it “unreasonable.” Lindauer found St. John had improperly entered BOEC after hours and failed in his legal duty to report possible child sexual abuse, but determined the city had failed to prove St. John was responsible for the offensive messages to female colleagues. Citing St. John’s previously exemplary record, the arbitrator faulted the city for moving to termination without taking intermediate steps.
Instead of termination, Lindauer said the appropriate discipline would be a 30-day unpaid suspension, followed by reinstatement. St. John should also get a year’s back pay.
On Nov. 17, 2023, the city told the union it was refusing to take St. John back. The union didn’t like that response and filed an unfair labor practice complaint—effectively an appeal—against the city.
“The City’s flagrant and intentional violation of the law means that the affected firefighter will not be able to work as a firefighter until this matter is resolved,” union attorney Margaret Olney wrote Nov. 22. “Having won reinstatement, what he thought would allow him to return to the job he loves and move on with his life has been yanked away.”
St. John’s appeal is currently pending before the state Employment Relations Board. His wife divorced him in July.
Fire Commissioner Rene Gonzalez declined to comment on St. John’s situation, saying it is a personnel matter. Bureau spokesman Rick Graves says neither Greg Wong nor Bill Goforth received any discipline for the actions prosecutor Scott Healy criticized.
Graves says bureau leaders feel they handled St. John’s case expeditiously and fairly.
“PF&R takes the trust and respect of our community extremely seriously,” Graves says. “The values exhibited by Lt. St. John are incompatible with our mission. We strongly believe Lt. St. John’s conduct warrants termination and that there is a strong public policy interest in support of our position.”