BELFAST, Maine — Thorndike Fire Chief George Russell pleaded guilty this week to theft by deception, a misdemeanor charge stemming from the misuse of a debit/credit card issued to the Fire Department.
The 27-year-old, who remains the fire chief, originally had been charged with felony theft, because he had been accused by police officials of stealing more than $5,000 from the department over the course of several months in 2014. Defense attorney Harris Mattson said Wednesday that his client chose to plead to the misdemeanor charge and avoid a trial in order to avoid the risk of a felony conviction.
He will be sentenced sometime after Jan. 1, 2016, with a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail, according to the attorney.
“We did feel that there were many interesting arguments that would have come up at trial,” Mattson said. “He’s strongly supported by many members of the department.”
Other members of the Fire Department disputed the amount of money Russell is alleged to have stolen and believe that it is a lower figure, the attorney said.
Russell’s strong support by some — but not all — in Thorndike generated some tensions in the small Waldo County town, according to Waldo County Assistant District Attorney Neil McLean.
“This was a case that was highly charged in Thorndike,” McLean said. “He had a lot of support in the Fire Department … but some people in the community thought it was a crime that he was utilizing a card and taking money from an account that he wasn’t authorized to use. It was an interesting dynamic.”
According to McLean, because the case is not fully concluded, the exact amount of money involved and what it was spent on are still in contention.
Russell was indicted in August on a charge of theft by the Waldo County Grand Jury.
According to McLean, Russell has been paying back the department for the money he took.
“We thought it was important that we hold him to account, that the money was paid back and that the community is satisfied,” he said.