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Firefighter charged in drug buy

Misfortune hit the volunteer firefighter hard:

Dick Churchill lost his home and possessions in a house fire three weeks ago, and his truck broke down a week before that. Without a ride, he has called the Inverness fire station home since.

Churchill got a much-needed boost to his spirits on Wednesday when Inverness Elks Lodge 2522 named him Citrus County's Firefighter of the Year.

He received the award to a standing ovation, the insignias on his uniform still singed from the fire. "I got picked out of 400 firefighters," Churchill said afterward. "I just can't believe it."

Friday afternoon, his colleagues could not believe the latest chapter in Churchill's life: The firefighter is accused of buying crack cocaine from undercover police officers.

Churchill, a 39-year-old lieutenant, was arrested on charges of purchasing crack cocaine and possession of crack cocaine. He is being held in the county jail on $40,000 bail.

"I almost feel like crying," said Inverness fire Chief John Simon. "I'm stunned. . . . There was nothing to indicate something like this was going to happen. He was our Firefighter of the Year for two years in a row."

At Wednesday's Elks luncheon, fire services director Mike Schlaudraff praised Churchill.

On Friday, a stunned Schlaudraff suspended Churchill from volunteer firefighting indefinitely.

"I almost fell out of my chair," Schlaudraff said. "I can't believe that. I just . . . it's beyond my comprehension."

Because of legal and financial constraints, volunteer firefighters in Citrus County are not subject to random drug testing.

If Churchill is convicted, he will be barred for life from volunteer firefighting in Citrus County.

Authorities say that after Wednesday's banquet in his honor, investigators with the county's joint drug task force learned that Churchill was looking to buy a large amount of crack.

"He was wanting to purchase a sizable amount of cocaine to party on this weekend," said Inverness police Chief William Vitt.

The undercover buy of 11 pieces of crack was made for $150 at about 1 p.m. at a residence at 204-B S Pine Ave., authorities say. Churchill was arrested by sheriff's detectives at the scene.

Churchill, divorced with one child, has been with the Inverness Fire Department for four years, according to fire officials. He was promoted to lieutenant six months ago. His brother is a captain with the department.

This year, the Elks decided to revive their tradition of honoring the county's top law officers and firefighters and asked Schlaudraff to pick a firefighter to receive the award.

Considering Churchill's recent adversity and his dedication on the job, Schlaudraff chose him.

"He was picked out after talking to his chief because he responds well to calls and he was a good all-around firefighter," Schlaudraff said, "and we wanted to cheer him up because he just lost his home in a fire. He didn't get it because he did anything heroic, but he was a good firefighter, he was well-trained, and he was willing to work. And I've got 400 of them like that."

Schlaudraff visited the Inverness volunteer firefighters late Friday afternoon to help break the news to Churchill's colleagues.

They wondered when Churchill's misery would end.

"He's been down about the fire and everything else," Simon said. "It's been very hard on him. You wonder what else can go wrong for him."

Simon said that after he heard about the arrest, he searched Churchill's belongings at his makeshift home at the Inverness fire station.

"I just tore through there," Simon said. "I found nothing to indicate this was going to happen. We're just all shocked."

Vitt said Churchill's arrest is just the first of several expected from a long undercover drug investigation. When asked if that investigation could lead to more arrests at the Inverness Fire Department, Vitt said, "No comment."

Schlaudraff said, "I hope it's an isolated case."

Vitt said Churchill may have been using money donated to him after the fire to buy the drugs.

Schlaudraff said the arrest does not take away from the reason Churchill was honored by the Elks.

"The award he received for the job he was doing was for his job with the Fire Department, not his private life," he said.

Thurman Shipley, the exalted ruler of the Elks, said he couldn't believe the news. "Oh boy," Shipley said when told of the arrest. "I can't say that I'm very happy about it. I don't know what to say."

Vitt said there is little about the powerful influence of drugs that amazes him anymore.

"I guess I've reached the stage where I'm never totally shocked or surprised about who's going to get caught buying drugs," he said.