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Fire captain said he believes he'll lose his job

Michael Bechtold appeared in Sonoma County Superior Court Friday to face grand theft charges.

JEFF KAN LEE/THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Saturday, October 29, 2011 at 9:22 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 29, 2011 at 9:22 a.m.

The captain of a rural Sonoma County fire department accused of embezzling more than $63,000 from the firefighters' union and using some of the money to take a trip to Disneyland was arraigned Friday in a Santa Rosa courtroom.

Michael Bechtold, 39, of the Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District, is charged with six counts of felony grand theft carrying a maximum sentence of six years, four months in prison, prosecutor Bill Brockley said.

Brockley said an investigation was ongoing to find out if any theft occurred before a period stretching from 2006 to 2011 when Bechtold was union treasurer.

“If we determine more money was embezzled we'll file more charges,” Brockley said.

Bechtold, who has been in custody since his Wednesday arrest, requested a court-appointed lawyer at his arraignment. He answered yes when Judge Ken Gnoss asked if he expected to be fired from his job of at least 15 years.

Bechtold's bail was set at $60,000 on the grand theft charges but he was prevented from being released on bail because of a probation violation charge. Bechtold was on probation for a 2009 domestic violence conviction.

Bechtold is accused of forging and cashing checks as treasurer of the Rancho Adobe Protection District's union account, Sonoma County sheriff's officials said.

The Rohnert Park resident allegedly used the funds to pay for housing, season tickets to Sharks hockey games and a trip to Disneyland.

Bechtold serves as the department's fire marshal. The district provides fire services for 86 square miles that include Cotati, Penngrove and unincorporated Petaluma. It has 15 full-time staff, 15 part-time firefighters and six volunteer firefighters, according to its website.

Bechtold's peers became suspicious after Bechtold delayed providing financial audits to the association board, Sheriff's Lt. Dennis O'Leary said.

He eventually furnished a financial report that appeared fraudulent, prompting board members to check the books, said O'Leary. The account had been nearly drained, he said.

They alerted the Sheriff's Office on Monday, O'Leary said.

Detectives confronted Bechtold early Wednesday at a scheduled appointment with a probation officer where he admitted to taking the funds.

The funds came from Rancho Adobe firefighter dues to the Local 1401 of the International Association of Fire Fighters Association. The local association includes Santa Rosa and Rincon Valley firefighters, however each department keeps separate bank accounts, the chief said.

The next hearing date is Nov. 8 when Bechtold is expected to enter a plea.

— Paul Payne, The Press Democrat

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