HOLLIDAYSBURG - Two representatives of Roaring Spring's Friendship Fire Company, Katlyn Ritchey and Bobbi Beers, on Tuesday told a Blair County judge that volunteer firefighters are family.
They train hard, work hard and play hard, but they also have their collective ear to the scanner and are ready to respond to an accident or a fire, the women told Judge Daniel J. Milliron.
That's why the scene in the judge's courtroom late Tuesday was solemn. A member of the family had strayed.
Former Fire Chief Gary Dennis admitted he stole money from the volunteer fire company to the point that it could not make its monthly payments for two firetrucks and was days away from having them repossessed by a Texas bank.
Many fundraisers later and a $17,500 cashiers check presented by Dennis on Tuesday will help to get company back to par financially, Milliron was told.
Milliron sentenced Dennis to 10 years' probation and ordered him to repay not only the fire company for its losses but the borough, which paid $10,000 to make sure the firetrucks were not repossessed, and $14,000 spent for a forensic audit to determine how much money was stolen.
The judge wants Dennis for the next six months to pay at least $300 a month on the outstanding $24,000. After that, the judge will hold another restitution hearing to see if even more can be paid.
Milliron would like to see all the money paid back in five years, but he extended Dennis' probation to 10 years to ensure the court has control over him in case he doesn't pay.
Dennis, standing next to his attorney, R. Thomas Forr Jr., turned and faced his longtime friends, including Beers, who said her husband regarded Dennis as a father figure. Dennis told them, "I want to express my sincere apology to the Friendship Fire Company for my actions to the fire department and for all the suffering I caused you."
Milliron barred Dennis from future service with any fire or rescue company.
The judge also ordered Dennis to publish a statement in the Morrisons Cove Herald telling the public it wasn't the fire company that did wrong. Dennis will say he alone was responsible for taking the money.
Sue Ann Feather, Roaring Spring Borough Council vice president, testified how members of the fire company in 2011 received a notice that its 2008 engine truck and the 2006 tanker truck were to be repossessed because of nonpayment of loans.
She said Borough Council had no other option but to make the payments.
"Mr. Dennis' actions threatened the ability of the Friendship Fire Company to provide fire protection not only to borough residents but also to people in adjacent areas for whom the company provides protection," she said to Milliron.
She told the judge that many people in Roaring Spring rejected the idea of probation for Dennis.
"If guilty, there is a general belief that Mr. Dennis should be incarcerated for a period deemed to be appropriate by the court," she said.
The idea of probation wasn't popular among those in the courtroom either.
Beers said fire company members are proud of what they do and she found it "unconscionable" that one person could tarnish the fire company's reputation.
Ritchey related how company members conducted fundraisers and shed "blood, sweat and many, many tears" to make the fire company financially whole again.
She asked that "justice be upheld."
The judge said probation in Dennis's case will allow him to keep his job with a West Virginia equipment company and enable him to continue to repay what he owes.
Dennis entered pleas to theft by unlawful taking and theft by failure to make disposition of funds.
Beers said the fire company has changed its ways and believes that in the public's mind the company is on its way back.
Friendship, she said, now requires two signatures on checks and a bill can't be paid without a receipt.
Two people now handle the money from fundraisers, she said.
Beers said people are now saying, "Things are being run professionally."
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.