City & Government, Cottage Grove, Creswell, Public Safety & Health

Chief under fire: Investigation reveals ‘hacking’ letter, more controversial posts

South Lane County Fire Chief John Wooten has been under white-hot scrutiny since June 2.

Things are about to get even hotter.

Based upon its own reporting and documents acquired via Freedom of Information Act requests, The Chronicle has learned:

• A letter the chief submitted to the board saying it proves he was hacked does not give any indication that his Facebook page was compromised. 

Additional social media posts the chief made in 2019 – including an image of an African-American TV actor and text about “the cost of a noose.”

Overwhelming public sentiment received by the board of directors since June 2 calling for the chief’s removal.

On July 10, The Chronicle received the document that Wooten said proved his Facebook account was hacked. The letter was sent to Wooten’s personal gmail account on June 2 and is a no-reply email from Mathway, a common software tool used for solving math equations. 

The email uses boilerplate language throughout, and states that the Mathway user’s account experienced a “data security incident on May 15” and there was “no reason to believe credit card or further personal information was affected.” It does not mention Facebook.

It is unclear how this document is related to Wooten’s social media. 

Wooten did not respond to Chronicle inquiries. 

Board president Joel Higdon and former board director Jennifer Radcliffe reportedly were not sent Mathway document until after the June 18 meeting. Division chief Joe Raade said he saw the document for the first time after The Chronicle inquired about it. Higdon and Raade declined comment, saying statements about that document need to come from the fire chief. 

After the board reinstated Wooten without discipline on June 18, Raade said Wooten was on paid personal leave. Wooten is now on paid medical leave, Higdon said on Monday, citing privacy issues around medical concerns. 

Further investigation by The Chronicle revealed that an Instagram account, under the name John Wooten with the handle of @firefighter2296 — the same as his personal email address — shows additional images commenting on race. 

One post shows African-American actor Jussie Smollett with text about “the cost of a noose.” 

On Jan. 29, 2019, Chicago police investigated a suspected racist and homophobic attack of Smollett by two masked men. On Feb. 13, 2019, Chicago police raided the home of two Nigerian-American brothers who had worked with Smollett as extras on the set of his TV show. Police recovered records indicating the brothers were paid $3,500 by Smollett and had purchased the rope found around Smollett’s neck. Ultimately, Smollett was found guilty of paying the brothers to stage a fake hate crime, and filing a false police report.

“Rope noose, $7. MAGA Nigerians, $3,500. Facing up to 3 years in prison for filing a false report: priceless,” the image reads, with a caption from Wooten stating “that says it all!” 

The profile photo on the Instagram account with Wooten’s gmail address is an emblem of the Three Percent movement. Founded in 2008, the Three Percent movement takes its name from the belief that only 3 percent of American colonists took up arms against the British – although historians say the number is much higher. Its website states that the group is not a militia, nor is its aim to overthrow the government. Instead, it states, the goal is “to utilize the fail-safes put in place by our founders to reign in an overreaching government and push back against tyranny.” Group members are fierce defenders of the 2nd Amendment. The loosely organized group rose to national prominence when some of its self-identified members provided security to alt-right rallies around the country.

According to Wooten’s performance review in 2015, during the chief’s first year on the job, Radcliffe made note of the chief’s first recorded misconduct on social media. Radcliffe said that Wooten posted “inflammatory comments” about a Cottage Grove High School football staff member. Radcliffe said that it was more of a warning than a call to action, and the chief was not reprimanded. 

Radcliffe made the note on Wooten’s 2015 board evaluation, stating: “Chief Wooten represents the district very well and actively seeks to improve the district. The only area of discussion was surrounding social media on personal time. It was noted that as a prominent figure, judicious use of the medium was important. There were no issues of direct district representation on the platform of issue, more of an open discussion.” 

“My comment to the chief was that it doesn’t matter whether you’re wearing the uniform or not, you’re in a small town and everyone knows you as a fire chief, and how his comments could have a negative impact on people on the district,” she said.

The Wooten controversy, explained step-by-step in this week’s Chronicle.

As part of its FOIA request, The Chronicle received more than 400 pieces of community input sent to the fire board since June 2, including comments from community members, city leaders and members of the fire district. The Chronicle reviewed the first batch of about 163 letters and secured access to another batch of emails on July 14 for future examination. 

Of the 163 emails, sentiments fell into three categories: Reinstate Wooten without discipline (20), reinstate Wooten with discipline (13) and remove Wooten (130). 

Some letters commended Wooten for the work he has done and state that his track record should speak for itself. Others cited and advocated for his “free speech” rights. Still others noted that while he does good work at the district level, free speech has limitations as a public official and he should be held to a higher standard. 

The letters examined came from Creswell, Cottage Grove, Springfield, Eugene, and from the Portland metro area.

Myron A. Bailey, the Cottage Grove, Minnesota mayor, received and forwarded a handful of emails that were mistakenly sent to him. 

Some people threatened to discontinue their FireMed service or pull their vote for a future district levy if the board did not vote a certain way on Wooten’s status.  

Tessa Horton is a six-year volunteer at SLCF&R. She, too, made an inappropriate comment on Facebook while at the district, and Wooten gave her two years’ probation, according to her letter.

“I once made a Facebook comment that almost cost me being part of the department … Wooten and the staff didn’t put up with it at all,” Horton said, and gave her two years’ probation. 

“… Yes, he was stern and gave a rightful a**-chewing but he also said that they don’t hold grudges,” Horton said. She said, “in spite of getting in trouble for the same thing,” she supports the chief. 

Creswell mayor Ricahrd Zettervall said that he felt conflicted.“Wooten has the freedom to express himself under the U.S. Constitution and his First Amendment Rights, but the content of these posts is what was so hurtful, shocking and very difficult to excuse,” Zettervall said. 

He added on Tuesday that, “The fire board made a decision they feel is right for the district and I support that. It was a difficult decision, and it is what it is.”

Creswell city councilor Kevin Prociw in a letter said that while he agrees public officials should be held to a higher standard, “I’m not sure how I feel about that when it comes to public vs. private posts or comments on social media – but this does feel concerning. Do the statements of an official made on their own time on their private Facebook page constitute grounds for dismissal or calls for resignation? … How egregious does it have to be, and are we really the ones to judge?”

Creswell city council president Amy Knudsen said she is in protest of “Chief Wooten’s blatant call for the murder of citizens. We cannot feel safe having someone in such a powerful position have such hatred towards some citizens. If a peaceful protest were to take place in Creswell, would Chief Wooten be out there with a gun ready to shoot anyone that ‘rioted’ in his view? I am not willing to take that chance.” 

“Comments by public figures, such as John Wooten, can either stoke the fires and bring chaos or console the community and bring calm,” said Sarah Burlingame of Creswell. 

Chronicle reporter Emma Routley contributed to this report.

Next week: The Chronicle takes a deep dive into Wooten’s annual performance reviews and more community reaction.

June 24: Wooten ‘sorry’ for posts

June 18: Wooten reinstated without disciplinary action 

June 12: Wooten investigation ongoing  

April 29: Leading the way: Area doctors, leaders deploy across Oregon



View this profile on Instagram


The Chronicle (@thechronicle1909) • Instagram photos and videos