John Knox, a dedicated and incorruptible Fire Marshal who played a major role in exposing a multi-million-dollar arson-for-profit ring in the 1980s and was the first Fire Marshal Representative on the Uniformed Firefighters Association board, died March 16 at 84, three days after being diagnosed with coronavirus.
Mr. Knox had been rushed to the hospital Feb. 26 with what family members believed was the flu. He was particularly vulnerable to coronavirus because of his age and his suffering from both chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and reduced lung function due to weeks he spent at the World Trade Center site in the aftermath of 9/11.
The Daily News reported that family members were told two days prior to his death that doctors at Mt. Sinai South Nassau Medical Center could not honor their request that he be given the experimental drug Remdesivir because he was also suffering from renal failure.
"It's just terrible this [pandemic] is affecting anyone," retired UFA President Nick Mancuso, whose tenure overlapped with Mr. Knox's for nearly a decade, said in a March 17 phone interview. "John took care of a lot of issues for Fire Marshals; if the Marshals had a problem, he was there. He was the right guy for the job" on the UFA board.
Retired Uniformed Fire Officers Association President Al Hagan, who got to know Mr. Knox when they were both "pretty active delegates in the UFA," recalled him as "a very nice man, a decent guy."
But one colleague of Mr. Knox said he was also capable of raising hackles because of his outspokenness on matters ranging from the quality of fire investigations at a time when arson was wracking poorer neighborhoods of the city to his championing of racial equality after a 1973 hiring quota ordered by a judge to redress past discrimination against black candidates for Firefighter stirred resentment in the ranks.
'Not Afraid to Speak Up'
This individual, who spoke conditioned on anonymity, said that what was interesting about Mr. Knox's expressing his views on the latter subject was, "The times that I was present when he spoke to that issue, he didn't get resistance. He wasn't afraid to speak up."
William Kregler, president of the Fire Marshals Benevolent Association, which Mr. Knox co-founded, called him one of the Marshals who "worked to enhance the way the FDNY handled fire investigations. He was at the forefront in changing state laws in obtaining Police Officer status for Fire Marshals and creating a civil-service promotion position in the FDNY. He essentially created his own police department within the Fire Department" and built up what is now its Bureau of Fire Investigation.
Veteran investigative journalist Tom Robbins March 18 recalled Mr. Knox as someone who became a Fire Marshal by mishap and because he was convinced by a friend that his willingness to speak his mind would work to his detriment if he became a Police Officer.
After breaking his leg and suffering serious burns fighting two separate fires, he said in a phone interview, "He was gonna become a cop and a friend of his said, 'John, you got too big a mouth. You'll get in trouble as a cop,' " persuading Mr. Knox to become a Fire Marshal instead.
Mr. Robbins, who would later distinguish himself as a reporter and columnist for the Village Voice and an investigative reporter for the Daily News, was working for City Limits in the early 1980s when he became acquainted with Mr. Knox, who was the lead Fire Marshal investigating an arson-for-hire ring that arranged for the torching of buildings in every borough except Staten Island.
Got Ringleader to Turn
The man coordinating those activities, Mr. Robbins said, was Joe Bald, a landlord who contracted with arsonists on behalf of himself and several other property-owners, who among them netted more than $5 million in fraudulent fire-insurance claims.
Along with a Federal investigator who was also looking into the scheme after it generated stories in The Voice, Mr. Knox persuaded Mr. Bald to cooperate with prosecutors in return for leniency.
It wasn't quite as simple as getting the middleman to flip, Mr. Robbins said. At the time, he explained, the Brooklyn District Attorney was Eugene Gold, who had close ties to Brooklyn Democratic Leader Meade Esposito, who was connected to some shady landlords and organized-crime figures. Mr. Knox, knowing of those associations, was unwilling to tell Mr. Gold—who after he left office in 1982 ran afoul of the law for unrelated activities—the identity of that witness.
"Anyone who tells a DA he's not going to give up his source has got some big [brass]," Mr. Robbins said.
'Lived and Breathed Case'
Despite that impasse, he continued, Mr. Knox was able to held build criminal cases in both Brooklyn and The Bronx and in Federal court [that led to] multiple convictions. John Knox was a guy who took his job so seriously that he lived and breathed that case for two or three years and made sure those guys got convicted."
Mr. Robbins concluded, "He was a hard-headed, hard-driving two-fisted investigator who believed one of the worst crimes you could commit was arson in buildings where people were living."
Mr. Knox also investigated the terrorist bombings committed by the pro-Puerto Rican-independence group known as the FALN, among them the 1975 bombing of Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan that killed four people and injured another 40.
Peter Gleason, a former Firefighter turned attorney, said that Mr. Knox after leaving the FDNY did investigative work for him on fires until shortly before he became ill. The News reported that he examined the fire on a movie set that caused the death of Firefighter Michael Davidson and disagreed with the FDNY's conclusion that the producer of the film, "Motherless Brooklyn," was not at fault.
Mr. Knox is survived by a son and three daughters.
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