Sunday, September 23, 2018
Public safety

Arrests bring more scrutiny, criticism of defunct Hernando Beach Fire Department

BROOKSVILLE — For years, there have been rumors and anonymous complaints about bad behavior by the leadership of the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department, ranging from improper spending to firefighters drinking alcohol and having sex in the fire station.

Failure to follow basic protocol — including not responding to all fire calls, not having regular audits done and not having a medical director — cost the department its contract with the county earlier this year. Hernando County Fire and Rescue stepped in to take over in February.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: County officials raise questions after unreported dog bite at Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department

Then last Friday, three of the department's former chiefs were arrested on charges of organized fraud. One of those was David Freda, 31, chief of the Brooksville Fire Department since February 2016. Another was one of Freda's Brooksville fire captains, David Murdock, 29. The third was Travis Morris, 39, who works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The arrests have sparked a barrage of new criticisms about the former volunteer department and those who have supported it and Freda. They also have created a quandary for the city of Brooksville, which already was significantly down in fire personnel and now is without Freda and Murdock, who are both on unpaid administrative leave.

The arrests were the result of a seven-month investigation by the economic crimes unit of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office which has been working with the office of State Attorney Brad King.

READ MORE: Defunct volunteer fire department faces criminal investigation, lawsuit

A fourth man was also arrested when Freda was fleeing from the warrant issued for his arrest, several hours after the others had been apprehended. Anthony Bucaro, 64, was charged with obstructing without violence and resisting an officer. It is believed he knew that Freda had a warrant out for his arrest, yet agreed to take him to a location in Brooksville for several hours.

The two were arrested at gunpoint at the 7-Eleven store at U.S. 19 at County Line Road without incident, according to the body camera footage made available by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. During the footage, a deputy asks Freda, "Why did you take off, man?'' Freda responds: "Take off where?''

All of those arrested have been released on bail, and the Hernando Sheriff's Office is saying little else about the investigation other than that they are still interested in talking with anyone who might have useful information about the case, which remains open.

On Monday night, the Brooksville City Council discussed the leadership issue at the city Fire Department, and Interim City Manager Lyndon Bonner supported the appointment of Stan Mettinger to fill in the chief's job for now. Other council members balked at the selection for a variety of reasons, but the city charter requires the city manager to make the call on the fire chief. The council discussed advertising to fill the open positions.

Mettinger is the senior person in the department, but council member Natalie Kahler suggested that someone with management skills from the city Police Department take over as public safety director. That idea failed.

Mayor Robert Battista called the arrests "an unfortunate incident,'' noting that the alleged actions took place in Hernando Beach and not in Brooksville. However, both Freda and Murdock were working for Brooksville at the same time they were chiefs in Hernando Beach.

Mettinger came to Brooksville to be a fire chief, Battista said.

The union representing Brooksville firefighters met Tuesday and issued an email to the city, voicing concern about Mettinger and serious issues that they say need to be addressed in the department, including staff levels, experience, hiring practices and the importance of having a plan to convince Brooksville residents of the value of the city's fire service. That service is being scrutinized by the City Council as a possible way to save money.

Mettinger is also seen by city employees as a strong supporter of Freda. In 2014, he wrote a glowing seven-page letter about Freda to the Florida Fire and Emergency Services Foundation, praising him for his high level of customer service to Hernando Beach, his fiscal conservatism, his community service and his ability to juggle the job and caring for his young son.

Freda won recognition as the Florida State Volunteer Chief of the Year that year, based on letters from Mettinger and County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes, who lives in Hernando Beach.

READ MORE: Proposal withdrawn for independent fire district in Hernando Beach

Since the arrests, Dukes has been criticized on social media for his support of Freda. In public meetings over the last several years, he has spoken out, supporting Freda and his department, and criticizing Fire Department critics. He has been especially protective of the volunteers in the face of the procedural errors brought forward earlier this year. He cast the lone vote on the commission against ending the county's contract with the volunteers.

Dukes, a former fire chief himself with the Air Force, told the Times that he has only tried to help Freda be a better fire chief. He said he didn't involve himself in the department's finances and hasn't had anything to do with the department since Freda moved to the city of Brooksville as chief.

Sheriff's investigators have been looking into allegations that the volunteer fire department was misspending dollars it collected from property owners in Hernando Beach, Aripeka and Forest Glenn, their designated district. The criminal investigation was sparked by an anonymous complaint.

"I've been alerted to activity regarding the writing and cashing of checks for personal interests," the homeowner wrote in the original complaint. "I've been told that a former chief bought and paid for travel expenses for him and his girlfriend to attend an international chief's convention overseas."

In addition, the tipster noted that there had been talk about the department's monthly gasoline bill running in excess of $2,000 and speculation that the chief was trading gas paid for by the county for beer and cigarettes with the volunteers. That, along with an allegation and pictures of volunteers drinking in the firehouse, resulted in Freda being verbally disciplined by Hernando County Administrator Len Sossamon several years ago.

Budget documents also indicate that the chiefs and others received thousands of dollars in monetary compensation for their volunteer jobs.

The tipster also stated that one of the department's former chiefs remodeled his home using tax dollars and that budgets, records of expenditures, personnel records, logs of who was on duty and other materials had never been compiled, and "there is speculation of a county commissioner sweeping it under the rug."

The tipster mentioned that county officials knew the department wasn't meeting its contract obligations, and dozens of emails showed that county fire officials, including Chief Scott Hechler, had been writing critical memos for several months about procedural breaches by the volunteers.

A former career firefighter who volunteered with the department for a while, Don Bisson, sent the county an email earlier this year calling the Hernando Beach department "the worst run fire department I have ever seen."

"If the residents are thinking they are getting any form of fire/EMS service, they are deceiving themselves. It is unprofessional to say the least,'' Bisson wrote. "The county should take over the coverage.''

He detailed his concerns about being given a key and a pager before the department checked his credentials, and walking in on firefighters drinking beer. He reported that once, "I walked into the day room and a firefighter and a girl were engaging in sex. I left.''

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

 
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