ROCKINGHAM — A volunteer firefighter is accused of buying more than $500 in gas for his personal vehicle on a department gas card, according to Richmond County sheriff’s deputies.
Michael Ryan Sweatland, 29, of Wheeler Lane in Hamlet, was arrested Thursday and charged with five counts each of obtaining property by false pretenses and financial card fraud and one count of financial card theft.
Warrants show that Sweatland, a volunteer with the East Rockingham Fire Department, racked up $248.27 at the Murphy’s gas station in Rockingham between Jan. 26 and June 17.
Fire Chief Mitchell Watson said Sweatland also purchased as at Hess stations in Rockingham and Hamlet and said additional charges will be filed.
Watson said each truck in the fleet has a gas card and each fireman has a four-digit identification number to use when filling up the trucks.
He said records show details including when and where fuel was purchased, the number of gallons, the cost and the type of fuel — unleaded or diesel.
The chief said when officials noticed that one of the cards was missing, he began looking into the accounts and found unexplained purchases.
“It took a little time to catch on to the pattern,” he said. “When he took the card, the frequency (of the purchases) increased and it was easier to put it together.”
Watson said the truck that the card was assigned to, which has a 25-gallon tank, had only been driven 166 miles in a two-month period. In that time, Sweatland had bought 178 gallons of gas, including two purchases in the same day.
In all, Watson sayid Sweatland bought 423.04 gallons of gas.
Watson said Sweatland was also buying fuel using another firefighter’s identification number. The chief said he originally confronted that fireman and had suspended him pending an investigation. That fireman has since been cleared of accusations and reinstated.
The chief said when confronted, Sweatland denied the accusations. Watson said he has video evidence of Sweatland filling up at the Murphy station.
“This is totally unacceptable,” Watson said. “We will continue to be good stewards of our taxpayers’ money.”
Sweatland started at the department as a junior firefighter when he was a teenager and became a senior fireman when he turned 18, according to Watson.
The chief said there is a fund set up to assist firefighters with financial issues.
Watson said if Sweatland needed help, “all he had to do was come to us. We could have helped him out.” He went on to describe how the department already has.
He said the department gave Sweatland money to go toward books and commuting costs for firefighter training in Cabarrus County. Watson added that money was also given to Sweatland’s mother when the young firefighter was in the hospital at Chapel Hill.
Watson said that money used for scholarships is raised by firefighters and does not come from taxpayer funds.
“We’ve bent over backward for this guy,” he said.
Sweatland has been dismissed from the East Rockingham Fire Department and has no access to the station, according to Watson.
The chief said he has not had any contact with Sweatland recently, but added the former fireman still has gear that belongs to the station.
Sweatland was released from the Richmond County Jail on a $2,500 secured bond.
Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-997-3111, ext. 16.