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A 'Hernando County embarrassment': Ex-fire chief's plea deal appalls residents, officials

In the years leading up to David Freda's 2017 arrest by Hernando County Sheriff's deputies, word circulated of tawdry goings-on in the volunteer fire department he ran in Hernando Beach: reports of sex and drinking in the station, complaints about shoddy or nonexistent emergency service, missed audits and allegations of stolen and misspent taxpayer money.

The arrests of Freda and two fellow former Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department chiefs, Travis Morris and David Murdock, inscribed those accusations in the public record. All three faced organized fraud charges, with Freda accused of stealing more than $50,000 and staring down a first-degree felony, one that could carry 25 years in prison.

The department closed and Hernando County Fire Rescue took over service in the Hernando Beach area. Residents built what they called a positive relationship with their new firefighters.

But the outcome of Freda's case has reignited furor in Hernando Beach. He pleaded no contest last week to a reduced charge of grand theft, and Fifth-Judicial Circuit Court Judge Stephen Toner agreed to withhold adjudication as part of the plea agreement. Freda faces five years of probation and will have to pay nearly $49,000 in public restitution, plus $14,000 more to the Sheriff's Office, but he won't spend time in prison or have a felony conviction on his record.

The case's outcome landed with a painful thud for the Hernando Beach residents and local officials appalled by Freda's alleged theft. In interviews and social media posts, they've called the plea deal a failure of the criminal justice system, a slap in the face and a "Hernando County embarrassment."

"Like everyone else, we're kind of astonished that this is the way it ended up," said Charles Greenwell, a former candidate for county commission who lives in Hernando Beach. "There's no apology, no nothing."

READ MORE: Fire Chiefs Gone Wild: Ex-chiefs ran free-spending 'frat house,' investigators find

Greenwell was frustrated with a lack of accountability on Freda's part, he said. He also worried that the plea deal would open the door for Morris and Murdock to get similar deals. In court last week, Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson alluded to a possible deal in the works between Murdock and prosecutors that would include pre-trial intervention for Murdock. Both Murdock and Morris still face organized fraud charges, and each is set for a pre-trial hearing Monday.

Greenwell, a retired attorney, said he didn't want to speculate as to why Simpson offered the plea agreement. Others were less hesitant to blame the prosecutor.

"Oh, lordy," said Paul Sullivan, a Hernando Beach resident, Hernando County housing authority chair and former county commissioner. "I just find it unbelievable that the prosecutor, this Simpson guy, he acts more like a public defender."

Sullivan and others said they took issue with how Simpson, an assistant state attorney who specializes in white-collar crime, characterized the plea deal as "not unusual at all," given Freda's lack of a criminal record and the nonviolent nature of the allegations.

Simpson did not respond to multiple interview requests from the Tampa Bay Times for this story.

County Commissioner John Allocco worried that the outcome of the case unfairly casts the county in a bad light because of a decision by the State Attorney's Office, he said. He fears that cases like Freda's and that of former county commissioner Nick Nicholson, who last year had judgement withheld on prostitution-related charges, give the county's residents the impression that officials and people with connections to get better court treatment.

"The general public has the feeling that people in high profile positions get a different criminal justice system than they do," Allocco said.

County Commission Chair Jeff Holcomb piled on, too, writing in a Facebook comment that Simpson "sent a clear message that he does not have a problem with corruption."

But county commissioner and Hernando Beach resident Wayne Dukes, a vocal advocate for Freda and the volunteer fire department, said he had nothing to say about the plea deal. In an interview last week, he said he hadn't followed the Freda case since the former chief's arrest, though he had heard about the outcome.

In 2018, Tampa Bay Times reporting showed that Dukes knew about and looked the other way from the department's failings.

"That's a long time ago, and anything I say now is redundant," he said last week. "At this point in my life, I have better things to think about."

Kathy Frase, president of the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association, said in an email statement that even if restitution payments go directly into the Hernando Beach community, it's not a satisfying ending without an admission of wrongdoing.

"I hope that these men realize how they have hurt this community, and I would like to see a formal apology from each of them," she wrote. "We deserve that much."

The destination of the $49,000 is not set in stone — the county commission will make that decision — but signs point toward it going to the Hernando Beach area, and possibly to fire rescue operations there. Several residents advocated for the bulk of the money to go toward remodeling the Hernando Beach fire station.

And in an email to county officials, Hernando County Fire Chief Scott Hechler asked that county commissioners direct any restitution from Freda and the other chiefs to the remodel.

"That was what the money was intended for," he wrote.

County Administrator Jeff Rogers is evaluating the restitution, he said in an interview last week, but he thinks it should go back into the Hernando Beach community. He believed it would go toward fire rescue operations in Hernando Beach or to general fund expenditures in Hernando Beach.

In court last week, Simpson gave an itemized breakdown of the restitution Freda was ordered to pay: about $10,000 for salary he wrongly paid himself; $26,000 for firefighting courses he was paid, for but never taught; $6,000 in online university class tuition paid from the department's fund; $4,000 in per diem pay that he also got reimbursed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency; and cash withdrawals of $1,400.

Testimony last week from Hernando County Sheriff's Det. Michael Junker also revealed the total cost of the Sheriff's Office's investigation into Freda, Murdock and Morris. Junker said he lead the investigation, which lasted seven months and involved seven other detectives. Among the numbers he ticked off: 41 reports and supplements filed, 26 interviews conducted, 18 subpoenas issued, five search warrants executed, three arrest warrants executed, two computer analyses run and six out-of-town trips. It all totalled 743 hours of work.

That labor cost $22,810, he said, and the agency paid an outside forensic accountant another $19,000 for an audit of financial records. A few hundred dollars in transportation and technology costs brought the total to about $42,000. Because the agency investigated Freda and the other ex-chiefs simultaneously, Toner ordered Freda to pay back a third of the cost, about $14,000.

Just as this case resolves, Freda has fresh legal trouble in Pasco County. He faces a misdemeanor hit-and-run charge in connection with an early-morning collision March 10 near his Port Richey home.

Freda allegedly struck a parked car, which then moved forward into another parked car, before leaving his rental car at the scene and fleeing on foot, according to a Florida Highway Patrol report. Nobody was hurt in the incident, and Freda told troopers he fled the scene when men came out of a nearby house and threatened to fight him, according to the report.

In addition to the misdemeanor charge, he received citations for failing to report the collision to law enforcement, failing to provide information to victims at the scene, failing to provide proof of insurance at the scene and failing to carefully operate a vehicle.

It's unclear whether the charge, which came April 8, two days before Freda pleaded no-contest in the Hernando Beach case, could affect his probation.

Some Hernando Beach residents and officials said they expected Freda to violate his probation, which according to his plea agreement could be reduced to as little as one year if he pays restitution and other fees early. Others weren't convinced Freda would pay the full restitution, though Simpson said last week he expected it to come in a lump payment.

And several said they feared that, without a criminal conviction, Freda could get another public service job somewhere else. The Florida Department of Health's license verification database lists Freda as having a "clear active" status for his EMT and paramedic licenses, though both were set to expire Dec. 1. He works as a manager at a strip club in Hudson, according to his Facebook page.

"He could turn around when this is all said and done and get a job at another municipality," Allocco said.

The whole ordeal left some residents doubting the integrity of the justice system.

"If we brush it off with that comment," Greenwell said, returning to Simpson's explanation of the plea deal, "we're really headed in the wrong direction. We need to make the system right."

Contact Jack Evans at Follow @JackHEvans.