HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. – James Campbell seemed to relish being a firefighter.
He showed up in the uniform of a Los Angeles County firefighter at the World Trade Center, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and to help fight the Esperanza fire in Riverside County last year. He even posed for his driver's license in uniform.
Problem was Campbell was never a firefighter, said authorities.
Police arrested Campbell at his Huntington Beach apartment on Friday on suspicion of impersonating a firefighter, possession of stolen property and being a felon in possession of firearms.
Inside his apartment officials found a pile of official fire gear: a double-breasted dress uniform, a flight suit, a yellow firefighting suit, department patches, a fire helmet, a wallet badge and an L.A. County Fire Department radio. Authorities also found a 9-millimeter handgun and a shotgun.
On Campbell's walls were hundreds of framed photos of him at disaster sites in uniform said Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Andre Manssourian. There were also letters of commendation that appeared to be forged, authorities said.
"This is a guy who really wanted to be a firefighter. He wanted to act as a hero," Manssourian said.
But Campbell could never become a firefighter in real life. While working as a paramedic for an Arizona ambulance company, Campbell was convicted of credit card fraud in 1987. His paramedic's license was revoked and the felony would have prevented him from joining the L.A. County fire department.
L.A. County Fire Department spokesman Sam Padilla said the department was unaware Campbell had been pretending to be a member of its ranks.
"The public puts a lot of trust in firefighters," he said. "People don't think twice about an unknown man with big baggy clothes or a uniform. It's a shame that someone is pretending to be a firefighter to take that trust and bend it, distort it."
For the past six years, Campbell showed up at disasters across the country. He showed up at the 2002 Metrolink crash in Placentia, in which three passengers were killed and 260 were injured; at the Sawtooth Fire in San Bernardino last year; and at hurricanes Rita in the Gulf Coast and Dean in Florida.
Campbell created a DVD of some of his firefighting excursions, which may have been used to promote his business. As president of Frontline Safety Products, he sold safety equipment online and taught first aid courses, mostly to construction companies and government agencies, Manssourian said.
"It gave him credibility to be selling these products as someone who works on the front lines of these disasters," Manssourian said.