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Former volunteer chief arrested in Pasco theft

Former Land O'Lakes Volunteer Fire Chief James Byrne was arrested Dec. 30 and accused of stealing thousands of dollars from his fellow firefighters.

Before he was booked into Pasco County jail, Byrne, 37, apologized to his colleagues and vowed to pay back more than $20,000 he used to splurge on car stereo equipment, jewelry, a motorcycle and airline tickets, according to an arrest report.

"Mr. Byrne admitted to me that he used his company credit card for personal use and to enhance his lifestyle," Pasco sheriff's Detective Steven Greiner wrote in the report.

An audit showed the department's bank account was short $28,000. As chief for little more than a year, Byrne controlled the account when the money disappeared. Much of the money was raised from the public with the promise it would pay for training and equipment.

Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said Byrne admitted he illicitly spent $7,000 on a motorcycle, $3,000 for jewelry and $6,000 on car audio equipment. He also mentioned taking cash advances _ the audit said they exceeded $9,100 _ for meals and other spending.

The arrest came after Anthony Lopinto, head of Pasco Fire Rescue, met with Land O'Lakes volunteers. Under the terms of a 2002 merger between the volunteers and the county's paid firefighters, Land O'Lakes manages most of its own affairs.

At Lopinto's suggestion, volunteers agreed to press charges against Byrne, the man they know as "Jimmie." Byrne put in an appearance and tried to explain why he resorted to stealing, Lopinto said.

"He said he was sorry and that maybe he wasn't ready for the position of chief," Lopinto said.

Lopinto stressed the theft was the responsibility of one man, not the whole fire department. Most have regular jobs and serve selflessly with no pay, the chief said.

"These guys are victims, too. This was their money, money they could have used to pay for firefighting classes they needed and EMT classes they needed," Lopinto said.

Byrne was charged with grand theft and booked into the jail, with bail set at $5,000.

With a fundraiser planned for February, volunteers aren't sure how easily they can crawl out from under the financial cloud cast by Byrne's arrest. After an emergency loan last week, the department's checking account balance stood at $10.33.

"They're good people, and they didn't expect someone to take money from them. They're all brothers there," Lopinto said. "They've learned a hard lesson."'