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The test, which is no longer used, was supposed to be performed once a year. But the captain was skeptical of a back injury that Cadorna had reported years earlier and determined to find out how serious it was. "He wanted to see if he could get my back to fail," Cadorna says. "Those were his exact words."

Brennan got involved in the case, and the threatened disciplinary action that Cadorna was facing soon went away. "My last words to Bill were, 'Whatever you do, you've got to be purer than Caesar's wife,'" Brennan recalls. "'If you look at these assholes crosswise, they're going to stick it in your ass and break it off.'"

He shakes his head. "The next time I hear from Bill Cadorna is in August of 2003 — eight months after he's been shitcanned."

The events leading up to Cadorna's termination were much disputed in court, but certain facts are well documented in the heap of memos, investigative files and deposition transcripts assembled in the case. Starting in the summer of 2002, Cadorna had a series of run-ins at Fire Station 27 in Montbello with a superior, Lieutenant Frank Hoffman. The two men had once been diving buddies — Cadorna had even introduced Hoffman to the woman who would become his wife — but the relationship later soured. Hoffman complained that Cadorna was insubordinate, changed the oil for his personal vehicle at the station and neglected to clean up when he cooked or even to turn off the grill — a potential public-relations disaster if it ever resulted in a fire at the station. Cadorna claimed that Hoffman made crude remarks suggesting that Cadorna performed fellatio on officers, that the lieutenant denigrated his cooking as "slope slop" or "gook food" (Cadorna is of Filipino/Hispanic/European heritage) and threw out a $160 cooking pot belonging to Cadorna.

Both men had supporters at the station, and both were reprimanded after a testy exchange in which Hoffman referred to Cadorna as a "sniveling little bitch." Another firefighter would testify that Hoffman told him he intended to get Cadorna fired, a remark Hoffman himself would deny.

On December 7, 2002, Cadorna, Hoffman and others from the station were shopping at a local Safeway when they were called out to answer a fire alarm. They had no time to pay for their groceries and left them behind, yet Cadorna emerged from the store clutching a copy of the Junior League of Denver's Colorado Colore cookbook, on sale at Safeway for $20.97. Later that day, Hoffman contacted assistant chief Joe Hart and told him he suspected that Cadorna had stolen the book.

Questioned by Hart, Cadorna explained that he'd left his own copy of the cookbook at the store on an earlier visit. He'd asked a clerk named Kevin if it had been found, and Kevin had told him it was okay to just take another copy until his own turned up. Skeptical of Cadorna's version, Hart launched an investigation into the caper with such zeal you'd think one of his fire trucks had been swiped. Within a day, he'd persuaded a Safeway manager to file a shoplifting complaint against Cadorna. Within a week, Cadorna was put on notice of pending disciplinary action. Within a month, he was fired.

By the time Cadorna contacted Brennan, the shoplifting case against him had disintegrated. A trial in Denver County Court ended in a hung jury. Afterward, Michael Brown, the Safeway manager who'd filed the complaint, admitted that he'd lied on the stand when he'd denied that Cadorna's original copy of Colorado Colore had ever been found. Just such a book, with the firefighter's name and other information written on the first page, had been turned in by an employee two weeks after the incident. But Brown suspected the book had been planted in the store after the alleged theft, so he'd cut out the page with Cadorna's name on it and put the book back on the shelf for sale.

To Cadorna's amazement, even this admission failed to change the fire department's dim view of him.

At first Brennan was reluctant to take up Cadorna's cause. "I'd wanted out of the business for years," he says. "I had grown to hate the legal business and the inverse relationship between the degree of your integrity and the degree of your success. And really, the person responsible for this is Bill Cadorna; instead of buying another cookbook for twenty dollars, he took a gift from Safeway. Still, he didn't steal it. He was tried, proved innocent, yet executed."

The more Brennan looked into the case, the more incensed he became. Firefighters accused of felonies are routinely suspended pending the outcome of their criminal case, yet Cadorna had been fired over a petty shoplifting beef before he even had a chance to clear his name in court. It's standard policy at Safeway not to file shoplifting charges unless an employee actually observed the theft and detained the suspect on the spot, yet Hart had coaxed a store manager into signing a complaint based solely on Hart's claim that three firefighters had witnessed the theft — which wasn't true. The Denver police hadn't even bothered to question the only eyewitness, the clerk who'd allowed Cadorna to take the book. Instead, the cops had relied on the investigation that Hart had done, which Brennan considered biased from the get-go.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast