AUSTIN (KXAN) — The former Austin Fire Department lieutenant who was charged with filming a female coworker in the AFD women’s shower room has agreed to a plea deal, his attorney said.
Larry Sauer, who represents James Baker, explained that Baker has agreed to plead guilty on Friday in exchange for a deferred adjudication probation of 5 years. That means Baker will not be in a penitentiary or a prison, but he will have regular check-ins, he will not be allowed to leave the county without permission, he is not allowed to drink or do drugs and, as a special condition, he will not be allowed to ever work as a firefighter or a paramedic again.
In light of this news, the victim of this alleged crime has come forward, identifying herself as Kelly Gall, a fire specialist with AFD.
“No one should ever have to endure what Ms. Gall is going through in any capacity, and much less at the hands of a supervisor,” said Christopher Wike, Gall’s attorney, in a statement to KXAN. “The City of Austin failed Ms. Gall by allowing this to happen, and now Travis County is failing her by not prosecuting Lt. Baker to the fullest extent of the law.”
Larry Sauer said his client has accepted full responsibility for his actions. He also noted that Baker has no prior criminal history.
“We’re satisfied with the way it’s come out,” he said of the plea deal negotiations.
Many in the firefighters union have characterized the plea deal as letting Baker get off with a “slap on the wrist.” Sauer doesn’t agree with that characterization.
“I think anytime a person pleads guilty to a felony, even if you don’t go off to the penitentiary or to the state jail, that’s a huge punishment, a felony is going to stay with him for the rest of his life,” Sauer said, noting that Baker will have many requirements to fulfill during his probation.
“It precludes him ever going back to firefighting or being a paramedic, I don’t think he ever intended to, that’s just something that he’s certainly giving up after so many years of being successful at that job,” Sauer said.
He added that Baker will make his guilty plea on Friday, then return in a month for formal sentencing.
The Austin Firefighters Association, the union for Austin firefighters, plans to protest at 9 a.m. Friday at the Travis County courthouse.
Anna Watson, an Austin Fire Association member, plans to be there. Watson didn’t know Baker when he worked at AFD, but she was trained under Gall as a recruit.
While Watson said she feels very safe in her daily work, she admits that from time to time she has looked around in AFD bathrooms since the allegations came out, wondering if cameras might be watching her as well.
“It’s so personal, so close to home because Kelly has a great reputation at the fire department,” she said.
Watson doesn’t believe that promising to never work as a firefighter or a paramedic again will actually be a burden for Baker.
“He got his retirement, it’s not like his career ended at six years and he now has to get another job,” she said. “There’s no ‘he’s suffering because he’s not a firefighter,’ I don’t buy that for a second, he’s off living his retirement life now.”
KXAN confirmed back in 2017 that Baker retired from AFD very close to the time when these allegations surfaced.
“I think he should serve time for what he did, and that’s not going to happen,” Watson said.
For the time being, Watson plans to channel her frustration by showing up to support Gall later this week.
“As a union, we as a whole, all of us are very supportive of Kelly and we can’t stress that enough,” Watson said. “We’re really proud of her for coming forward and saying, this is what’s happening. To me, that shows an unbelievable amount of courage.”
“It just brings up more to me how our society treats these sort of crimes and how our society views criminals that can get away with stuff like this which is they don’t prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law,” she said.
Bob Nicks, the president of the Austin Firefighters Association confirmed Baker is receiving a pension. Nicks also confirmed that Baker used to be not only Gall’s friend but also her supervisor.
The maximum punishment for this crime would have been two years in state jail prison, explained Leslie Boykin, a criminal defense attorney in Travis County.
Boykin has no connection to this case but weighed in based on her experience as a defense attorney. She noted that if Baker doesn’t violate his probation, his conviction will be waived to the outside world, though the government can still see it. This type of probation defers finding any guilt until the person is at the end of their probation, at which point they can be eligible to have their charge dismissed if they haven’t violated probation terms.
She added that Baker’s lack of a criminal record may have played a role in why the Travis County District Attorney’s Office agreed to deferred adjudication.
Boykin explained that had a plea deal not been reached, Baker’s case could have gone to a jury trial. Theoretically, a jury could have decided to give Baker that state jail sentence, she said.
“Deferred [adjudication] is good for the defendant, in that he can get a dismissal in the end,” she said. “If he violates it in any way the judge has a huge hammer and can give him the maximum punishment.”
Boykin wonders if the laws in Texas around different types of sex offense can be better tailored to make sure that those people who are actually preying on others wind up serving time in prison, much like the way Texas DWI laws require repeat offenders to serve time.
The Travis County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on this case because it is still pending.