State police: Former Indiana fire chief stole $28K to pay cable, utility bills

Posted at 3:06 PM, Feb 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-28 01:32:25-05

PATRIOT, Ind. — Census-takers in 2010 counted 209 people living on the dozen streets that comprise Patriot, a one-church, one-post office town along the Ohio River. The Patriot Volunteer Fire Department sits at the corner of Fourth Street, fewer than five minutes from most of the town and right across the asphalt from Mickey Mathews’ house.

Mathews still wouldn’t expect any help if that house caught on fire.

Even before the fire chief was jailed on felony charges of theft and official misconduct, he said, the department was essentially nonfunctional.

“The whole community knew stuff was going on, but nobody would do nothing about it or prove it,” he said. “They’d get grant money, boat money. Nothing was going on. No improvements, no trucks out, no insurance paid.”

Instead, according to state investigators, chief Gordon Wayne Turner funneled more than $28,000 into personal expenses between 2014 and 2018. About $11,000 went to utilities, a state detective wrote in court documents. Over $3,000 went to TV and cell phone bills.

Another $14,080 went straight into Turner’s pocket.

Throughout it all, the fire engine sat rusting in the building across the street, Turner remained a member of the town’s governing board, and the fire department continued to ask residents — including Mathews — for donations.

“I told them I went to Walmart, I bought 300 feet of hose, and I feel safer,” he said.

Turner would resign from the board in mid-2018, but replacement Wanda Benzing said other members of the Turner family quickly crowded her out of handling the fire department’s books. She estimated she hadn’t seen a fire truck out of the warehouse in three years.

Growing discontent among ordinary Patriot residents finally sparked the state investigation that uncovered Turner’s crimes, town attorney Delmar Weldon said.

As Turner awaits trial, Weldon, Benzing and Mathews will all be searching for a way to get their town the fire department it deserves.

“What’s important is to move forward in a productive way,” Weldon said. “You have property. Buildings. We have equipment and trucks and cash. I’m optimistic and this town is optimistic that we can get this fire station started again.”