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Fire captain gets 1-year jail term for embezzlement

Michael Scott Bechtold sentenced for embezzlement while Rancho Adobe fire captain

PD File Photo
Published: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 9:49 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 9:49 a.m.

The Rancho Adobe fire captain who embezzled more than $63,000 from his union to cover personal expenses including a trip to Disneyland and San Jose Sharks season tickets was sentenced Tuesday to a year in county jail.

Michael Scott Bechtold, 39, of Rohnert Park, sobbed as Judge Kenneth Gnoss meted out the punishment for the theft, which occurred over a five-year period while Bechtold was treasurer of the firefighters association.

Gnoss ordered Bechtold, who was on misdemeanor probation for a domestic violence conviction at the time of his arrest, to also repay the money and serve five years' probation.

“You certainly have punished yourself in the public eye,” Gnoss told Bechtold, who was dressed in a blue jail uniform. “You can't go back to the fire department. That must be sort of painful.”

Bechtold, a firefighter for 20 years, did not speak. But his lawyer, Kathleen Pozzi, said he was embarrassed and remorseful.

In a letter to the judge, Bechtold said he stole the money to pay off “never-ending debt” that followed his divorce and orders to make child-support payments. He said his plan was to slowly pay back the money after he reestablished himself.

Bechtold asked to be released on probation or given electronic home confinement.

“I had no intention of hurting anybody,” he said in a Probation Department report. “I just want to start my life over.”

But prosecutor Amy Ariyoshi said he seemed more sorry for himself than the victims – 11 employees of the Rancho Adobe Firefighters Association.

She backed a probation recommendation that he serve 12 months in jail followed by probation.

“I do believe he's earned himself a year in the county jail,” Ariyoshi said.

With credit for time already served, he will be out in three to five months, his lawyer said.

Bechtold was arrested in October after an investigation revealed he wrote 45 unauthorized checks from the union account between 2006 and last year.

Firefighters became suspicious when he delayed providing the union board with financial audits.

He was initially charged with six counts of felony grand theft but admitted a single count in a plea bargain with prosecutors.

His maximum jail sentence could have been three years.

A half-dozen former peers pushed for the toughest sentence in letters to the judge. Many accused Bechtold of violating their trust and sullying the department's reputation.

Firefighter Jimmy Bernal, who worked under Bechtold, said his former boss refused to live within his $67,000-a-year salary. Bechtold traveled, bought a house with his new girlfriend and even upgraded his hockey tickets, Bernal said.

Bernal dismissed the notion Bechtold took the cash to help his children or pay for his divorce.

“He wanted to live a life he was not able to afford,” Bernal wrote. “A life we all wanted but never by those means.”

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