East R’ham firefighter charged with fraud

Ryan Sweatland

Ryan Sweatland

Chief Watson: ‘We will prosecute to the fullest extend of the law’

By Kevin Spradlin

An East Rockingham Fire Department firefighter has been charged with nearly a dozen felony counts related to financial fraud.

Michael Ryan Sweatland, 19, is listed as one of 27 full members of the East Rockingham Fire Department. However, he is due on Richmond County District Court on July 17 on charges of financial card theft, obtaining property under false pretenses (five counts) and financial card fraud (five counts).

Chief Mitchell Watson, a 29-year veteran of the department and chief since 2007, called Sweatland’s actions “a slap in the face.”

Watson said if a firefighter is in need of assistance, there are multiple avenues within the department that a volunteer can pursue to obtain some help.

“He never asked for it,” Watson said. “It never seemed there was an issue.”

The scam worked like this, Watson said: Sweatland took one of the fuel cards off a firetruck and used the card, along with his personal four-digit personal identification number, to purchase fuel for his personal vehicle. Since early December 2013, Sweatland purchased 423 gallons of fuel. At retail price, that’s worth more than $1,500.

It got worse, Sweatland said. Figuring he’d be caught if company leaders found a pattern, Watson said Sweatland stole a fellow firefighter’s four-digit PIN and used that members. Watson said that member was originally the department’s primary suspect and was actually suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.

That member, Watson said, “had the same questions we had.”

The stolen PIN number “threw a red flag for us,” Watson said. Eyes turned toward Sweatland. Video surveillance showed Sweatland fueling up his personal vehicle and at least one other vehicle multiple times over the past six months. Watson was able to match up Sweatland’s use of the stolen PIN number, as well as his own, with a copy of a report of fuel purchases the department receives on a regular basis.

Watson, a Richmond County sheriff’s deputy, said the department turned all the evidence over to the sheriff’s office on June 25. The next day, deputies arrested Sweatland. Additional charges are pending, Watson said.

It was an investigation with a personal loss, Watson said.

“Outside of having to notify a family member of the loss of one of  their loved ones, this is probably the hardest thing a fire chief would have to do, to make charges on one of his own,” Watson said. “I think he made some bad decisions and he didn’t think he was going to get caught.”

Watson said he intends to “prosecute to the fullest extent of the law,” in part to reassure residents who support the taxpayer-funded department that officials of the nonprofit fire company are keeping a close eye on each penny of revenue.

“We frown on this,” Watson said of the 32-member, all-volunteer unit. “It’s unacceptable. It’s bad on many levels. We are good stewards of our taxpayers’ money.

The East Rockingham Fire Deparmtent is funded by way of a tax, 10 cents per $100 property valuation within the East Rockingham district. Fundraisers such as the annual barbecue each October, which raises between $6,000 and $8,000 each year, go to the department. How the money is spent is voted upon by the firefighters. One year, Watson said, two Rohanen Junior High School students weren’t able to afford to go on a class trip to Florida with their classmates. Firefighters sponsored those two students to allow them to go, Watson said.

Sweatland was a junior firefighter at the department on Airport Road from March 2010 to September 2012. It was then that he joined the department as a regular member. Sweatland attended the Cleveland Community College Firefighter Academy in Shelby.


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  • Wendy

    I hate this. Ryan’s a GOOD kid who was raised right, he just made a bad call. There’s always that 1 lesson that takes you from being a teenager and turns you into an adult.. I know I had mine and this will probably be his.

  • Mblmr

    I do too Wendy. He was a student of mine. He is a good kid. We all make mistakes and I hope that Ryan can learn from this.

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