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Firefighters question use of retention bonus to aid families of paramedics convicted in Elijah McClain's death

Aurora Fire Rescue firefighters have raised "moral and ethical concerns" about a retention bonus that was redirected and went toward a fund to support the families of Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec
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Posted at 2:29 PM, Mar 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-04 11:41:41-05

AURORA, Colo. — Some Aurora firefighters are publicly denouncing a decision made this week to redirect retention bonuses from their paychecks that later went on to support the families of the two paramedics convicted last year in the death of Elijah McClain.

Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec were convicted in late December of criminally negligent homicide after injecting the 23-year-old with a heavy dose of ketamine following a violent encounter with police that ultimately led to his death a few days later. McClain had committed no crime.

But more than two months since their convictions, Denver7 Investigates has learned the City of Aurora used taxpayer funds to give Aurora Fire Rescue firefighters and paramedics a retention bonus that was then taken out of their paychecks to go to a "benevolent fund" supporting the families of the paramedics convicted in the 2019 death of the unarmed Black man.

In the last 24 hours, multiple Aurora firefighters have reached out to Denver7 Investigates, saying they are not only unhappy with the city’s decision, but the optics of these payments, as well.

"I think there was probably another route that they could have taken to provide money, or support or whatever their approach would be to these families, without having to... what appears to be laundering the money through the employees," an Aurora firefighter, who wants to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told Denver7 Investigates.

Checks received by firefighters in Aurora Thursday included a new item line, titled “retention bonus” for $385. But a nearly exact amount was taken out of their individual checks, a donation fund totaling more than $150,0000 for the families of Cooper and Chichuniec.

This controversy comes on the day Cichuniec was sentenced for his involvement in the aftermath of McClain's violent arrest by police.

“I don't think it looks good,” the Aurora firefighter said. “The city unilaterally decided to donate money to the families and to the individuals who were convicted. As far as optics are concerned, these folks were convicted for their involvement in the death of Elijah McClain.”

But Travis Pulliam, union president representing Aurora Fire Rescue, said many firefighters did want this. He told Denver7 Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski the retention bonus was in an effort, based on polling, to show support for the increased risk some firefighters believe they now face after the McClain verdict.

“We did a vote. And the reason the union got involved is, we have the ability to survey all of our members. So we sent out the survey. It passed 82 to 18…. So it overwhelmingly passed,” he said. Pulliam is referring to a recent vote where 82% of union voters supported the transfer of bonuses to the benevolent fund.

Aurora firefighters who reached out to Denver7 Investigates believed all the money donated would go directly to the families of the firefighters involved in the death of McClain. But Pulliam said not all the money from the benevolent fund is guaranteed to them.

“Part of the hope was that it would go to their families… their wives and kids are not guilty of anything,” he said. “It's going to the Firefighters Reward Benevolent Fund. And then they'll decide what happens with it after that.”

The Aurora firefighter added that these donations are a slap in the face to the McClain family.

MiDian Holmes, supporter and friend of Elijah's mother, Sheneen McClain, agreed.

"Her response is one of disdain. What she thinks is that no matter how much money they receive, this money is cursed," she said. "These firefighters that sat down and expressed their discomfort, that's humanity."

Following calls from Denver7 Investigates detailing the outcry from firefighters who were not in support of their retention bonuses going toward the benevolent fund, the union sent out a letter stating those who are opposed can contact the Firefighters of Aurora Benevolent Fund at The union states the bonus portion would be returned directly.

Denver7 Investigates reached out to The Firefighters of Aurora Benevolent Fund to find out exactly how the money would be used. According to the president of the fund, "...decisions on when, who and how much assistance is provided are determined by the elected volunteer board of the fund. At this time there have not been decisions made as to where these funds will be dispersed, as these funds just came into our account today. Obviously, the families of our two firefighters in the Elijah McClain case are in need and that will be taken into consideration."

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