Texas fire department addresses embezzlement claims

By Jessica Bruha
Odessa American

ODESSA, Texas — The West Odessa Volunteer Fire Department named their new fire chief Wednesday during a news conference and addressed the claims of embezzlement made against former longtime chief Jimmy Ellis that led to his ouster.

Secretary and treasurer Stacie DeMoss acted as a mouthpiece for the volunteer department Wednesday although newly appointed fire chief Sean Dixon stood by, sometimes offering guidance to questions via text message as the media awaited answers to lingering questions. Dixon said he could not comment on anything related to the investigation involving Ellis because he is a deputy for the Ector County Sheriff’s Office — the agency the claims were submitted to for investigation.

DeMoss confirmed Ellis is under investigation on suspicion of embezzlement. However, that investigation currently seems to be in limbo. Ector County Sheriff Mike Griffis said he turned the investigation over to Texas Rangers, but they are not “officially” investigating the matter at this time, according to a spokesperson for the rangers.

Oscar Villarreal, Texas Department of Public Safety’s public information officer, said the Texas Rangers have not yet taken control of the situation because it has not been approved. Villarreal said a lot of times something will get referred to them, but since they are such a large agency those referrals have to go through a review process and sometimes will get reverted back to local officials.

“At this time we’re not investigating anything officially,” Villarreal said.

How exactly the allegations were turned over to authorities remained unclear following the press conference.

DeMoss said the department received phone calls from people in the community about the department’s funds and when questions could not be answered, an investigation was called. Who exactly called for the investigation, she said she did not know.

“We didn’t go to the sheriff’s office,” DeMoss said, adding she did not know who took the matter to authorities and did not know who exactly made the calls about the department’s funds. “Questions were asked about the financials and the only response that we received from them (Ellis and his wife, Sherry) was that the bills were paid.”

Once the department learned the matter was being investigated though, DeMoss said they felt new leadership was needed.

“We as members felt that if allegations were being investigated that it would bring more negativity to an already broken department. We felt as a department seeking new leadership would help restore the faith and trust in citizens of West Odessa,” she said.

DeMoss called the decision to have the Ellis’ step down “tough and difficult.”

“The members of West Odessa Volunteer Fire Department hold no ill regard towards Jimmy or Sherry. Jimmy Ellis has served this fire department for 20 years and had done the job well with what he had,” DeMoss read from a prepared statement.

She later said they all hope the allegations are not true, describing her relationship with the former chief as “awesome.”

“I can’t speak for everybody, but from my point of view, it was an awesome relationship. I mean, he was an amazing chief. I mean, he taught us a lot and I fought a vehicle fire right next to him and that was amazing. I just, I really loved him. So he does know his stuff,” she said.

Losing the leadership of Ellis was a shock, she said, but she hopes the outcome is a positive one. While she doesn’t know what’s next for the couple, she said they wish them all the best.

The department’s plans moving forward are to build their relationship with the community and surrounding departments. Dixon said they plan to have a membership drive so more people will be available to respond to calls. There are currently about 10 volunteers serving the department, DeMoss said.

“To the community out here in West Odessa, I know your faith in our department has been shaken, but we will overcome and do everything in our power to rebuild the faith and trust within our community,” she said.

Following Ellis’ ouster, the department’s members did elect a new chief, but that person has since taken a position with his job that would not allow him to serve as chief, which is when members appointed Dixon. Dixon has been involved with the department since he was a child, as his father John Turner was fire chief before Jimmy Ellis.

“So Sean has roots well planted in the department here,” DeMoss said. “Sean has always wanted nothing but the best for the West Odessa Volunteer Fire Department and has stated to members that his priority as fire chief is to make the station and the area around the station more presentable to the public and get his firefighters up to date equipment and more training.”

Once the investigation is over, Dixon said he will make himself more available to the media to help keep the West Odessa community updated and involved.

Copyright 2017 Odessa American

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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