Although the controversy over the Soldiers Grove Fire Department’s missing radios and their replacement has been discussed at the last five Soldiers Grove Village Board meetings, most of the facts surrounding the radios disappearance and replacement remain unknown to the public.
In some cases, rumors and a loose rendition of the facts seems to have replaced the real version of events.
The Crawford County Sheriff’s Department’s investigative report, a memorandum from Crawford County District Attorney Tim Baxter concerning that investigation and an interview with Bill Zirk, the owner of D&Z Rescue Products, help to shed some light on a confusing situation. D&Z Rescue sold the replacement radios to the department. Zirk is also a Lieutenant and Treasurer of the Soldiers Grove Volunteer Fire Department.
The loss and subsequent replacement of five portable radios, valued at more than $2,000 each, has raised concerns among village board members, volunteer firefighters and local residents.
It seems most people with knowledge of the situation believe that theft was probably involved in the disappearance of the radios, but who might have stolen them remains unknown at this point.
The situation appears to have started early this year or even the year before, according to the investigative report of Crawford County Sheriff’s Department Lieutenant Wade Hutchison. He indicated in that report that he was contacted by Soldiers Grove Fire Department Lieutenant Bill Zirk on Tuesday, Feb. 5. However, Zirk recalled the date as Tuesday, March 5 in village board meetings last month and in an interview with the Independent-Scout.
Hutchison reported Zirk told him that Soldiers Grove Fire Chief Dave Clason had instructed him to call the sheriff’s department and report seven portable radios and some other equipment missing on Tuesday, Feb. 5, following a fire department meeting on Monday, Feb. 4.
“Lieutenant Zirk offered a nine-month timeframe in which they (the radios) have been either stolen or possibly misplaced,” Hutchison wrote in his report.
Both Hutchison and Crawford County District Attorney Tim Baxter wrote that the missing radios should be viewed as a case of theft.
“At this point, the whereabouts of missing radios is unknown,” wrote Baxter in his memorandum of August 29, which was based on a review and opinion of Hutchison’s report. “You referred the file to me so that I could review the case for any possible theft charges. Since it seems very strange, if not inconceivable, to me that an entity such as a small fire department could simply ‘misplace’ five very important and very expensive radios, I agree this can, and perhaps should be viewed as a theft case.”
Actually, it’s an opinion shared by Soldiers Grove Fire Department Lieutenant Bill Zirk, who believes the loss of two radio chargers in addition to the radios tends to indicate theft rather than loss through misplacement.
Despite the district attorney’s belief that the radios were probably stolen, he declined to prosecute anyone for their theft.
“At this time, while I do feel that these radios were not simply just misplaced or lost, I do not have the evidence to file theft charges in connection with this matter,” Baxter wrote in his memorandum.
Hutchison reported that when he discussed the matter of suspects in a theft of the radios with Zirk, the fire department lieutenant named Luke Kleiber as a person of interest. Zirk is reported to have told Hutchison that Kleiber might be trying to start his own emergency product supply company. He also told the investigator that he believed Kleiber had the knowledge necessary to reprogram the Icomm brand radios.
When Hutchison contacted the 19-year-old rural Readstown resident, Kleiber denied any knowledge or involvement relating to the missing radios. Kleiber told Hutchison he is a member of both the Readstown and North Crawford Rescue Squads. He also confirmed he has an aspiration of starting his own emergency products supply company.
Kleiber stated he and Zirk recently had a falling out over a matter and as a result, he had been contacted by a collection agency that he believed was orchestrated by Zirk, Hutchison reported.
The Crawford County Sheriff’s Department Lieutenant went on to report his considerable effort working with Zirk and others to find the serial numbers to the missing radios. Zirk repeatedly told Hutchison that he was unable to locate the serial numbers, but assured the officer he would keep trying, according to the investigation report.
Eventually, with the assistance of a Soldiers Grove Village Trustee, Hutchison was able to obtain serial numbers for the radios kept by the Office of Justice Assistance, a federal agency responsible for supplying grants to purchase the local fire department radios originally. By matching those serial numbers to the serial numbers on the radios still in the possession of the fire department, Hutchison was able to construct a list of serial numbers of the missing radios.
Zirk explained in an interview with the Independent-Scout that the fire department lost the list of serial numbers, when a laptop computer provided to him by the fire department crashed. He said he had entered the serial numbers on the computer and failed to keep any other list.
Later in June, Hutchison checked the numbers of new radios supplied to the department. During that check, it turned out one of the seven new radios was actually one of the department’s radios on the missing list. When Zirk was made aware of the situation, he changed his billing to the village from selling them seven radios to selling them six radios.
How did Zirk come to ‘sell’ the Soldiers Grove Fire Department one of the missing radios?
Zirk, the owner of D&Z Rescue Products, offered this explanation in his interview with the Independent-Scout. At some point, Soldiers Grove Fire Chief Dave Clason misplaced his radio and Zirk furnished a ‘loaner’ radio for the chief to use. Then, the chief found his own radio and the loaner was never returned, according to Zirk.
When the department tried to assemble all of the radios to determine how many were missing, another officer in the department identified one of the radios as the ‘loaner’ and handed it to Zirk. The owner of D&Z Rescue Products said he thought he had the loaner returned and did not have serial numbers to check on his own ‘loaner’ radio or those of the department.
Then, Zirk ordered six radios from a supplier and figured the loaner would make the seventh needed replacement radio. However, when Hutchison discovered the seventh radio was actually one of the lost or stolen radios, Zirk changed his bill to reflect the sale of six not seven radios.
How many portable Icomm radios does the Soldiers Grove Fire Department now own?
The fire department actually owns 21 radios even though OJA grants only paid for 20 originally. It turns out after determining seven were missing and taking steps to replace as many, another radio was found by Chief Clason between the seats of one of the fire trucks. In all, of the 20 original Icomm radios bought with two OJA grants, nine have now been replaced. In addition to the six replaced this year, the department replaced three lost at the scene of a fire in 2010.
How common is it for a department to lose portable radios?
While Baxter, the district attorney, seemed to think it was highly unlikely a small fire department would lose or misplace five highly expensive radios, Zirk, the owner of D&Z Rescue Products, took a different view.
Zirk said as a supplier of radios he saw cases where radios were misplaced and then had to be replaced. He cited instances locally of both Readstown and LaFarge EMS or Fire Departments needing to replace two or three radios. However, he went on to acknowledge that missing six or seven radios was unusual.
Another issue discussed at the village board meetings and elsewhere has been the cost of replacing the radios and the amount of interest charged for late payment. Like most parts of the missing Soldiers Grove Fire Department portable radios, their cost is also complicated, a bit confusing and a subject of contention.
Ultimately, Zirk through his D&Z Rescue Products billed the village $1,999.99 per radio or $11,999.94 for six radios. Zirk was forced to alter his billing from seven radios to six when one of the seven replacement radios was found to be one already owned by the department through a serial number check.
Village trustee Jerry Moran claimed to have found the exact same radio as purchased by the department from D&Z from another provider for $940. In his report, Hutchison references the fact that the prices charged for the radios appeared to be about twice the price quoted by another supplier.
“The assertion of Zirk’s financial gain was supported when a price comparison for the recent Icom portable radios provided by Zirk’s company to the Soldiers Grove Fire Department, was provided by ComElec Service on July 23, 2013,” Hutchison wrote in his investigative report.
“The quote from Com Elec relating to those radios was less than half the price per unit, in comparison to the D&Z Rescue Emergency Products charge for the same unit,” according to Hutchison.
Despite the price discrepancy, the village board voted to pay the price, $11,999.94, billed by D&Z. Initially, the board also agreed to pay $8,399.96 billed by D&Z in late fees. However at a subsequent meeting, the board rescinded that motion and agreed to pay just $660 in late fees or 5.5 percent of the total purchase.
In his initial billing, Zirk had noted on the bill that there was a 10 percent charge for payment after 30 days and another 20 percent payment for every 30-day period past the initial 30 days. Although the radios were not delivered and made operable until some time in June, a date disputed by the board and the fire department, Zirk began counting the first 30 days from May 2, when he presented an invoice for billing purposes to the village for us in filing their insurance. This bill was for seven radios, although six would be the number delivered. And even by Zirk and the fire department’s version the radios were not present or operable on June 1. D&Z added $1,200 to the bill on June 1, 30 days after the initial billing of May 2. The bill was later adjusted to show just six radios, instead of seven sold, at a cost of $12,000 instead of $14,000. D&Z then added $2,400 (20 percent of the cost of the purchase) on July 1, another $2,400 on August 1 and another $2,400 on Sept. 1 for a total cost of $8,400 (actually $8,399.96).
When the board rescinded its action and reduced its late fee payment to just $600, Zirk immediately accepted the payment along with the payment for the radios, even though the late payment fee offered was just a little more than seven percent of what he had billed in late payments.
The cost of the radios and the machinations around it brought up a larger issue to board members, Hutchison and others familiar with the situation.
Is there a conflict of interest in having D&Z Rescue Emergency Products sell equipment to the Soldiers Fire Department, when D&Z’s owner also serves as a lieutenant on the department and its treasurer.
Hutchison said in an interview about his report that the issue of conflict of interest was an ethical question and not a criminal matter.
At one point during the last five years, the Soldiers Grove Village Board had told the fire department to stop purchasing equipment and materials from D&Z, but that pronouncement was ignored as the administration of fire chiefs changed.
For his part, Zirk sees no conflict of interest. He noted that while he does serve on the department, he has never voted on any sales involving his company.
Zirk, as well as other members of the department, believe buying from D&Z is a good deal because Zirk does installation and minor maintenance free of charge and is on hand, as a resident to the village, to help with the products he sells.