Northern California Firefighters Treasurer Sentenced for Thefts

Michael Bechtold had unusual domestic expenses. Unfortunately, he tried to meet them by stealing from his union. Bechtold, formerly fire captain and fire marshal for the Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District, north of San Francisco, was sentenced on January 17 in Sonoma County Superior Court to a year in jail and five years probation for embezzling more than $63,000 over a five-year period from the Rancho Adobe Firefighters Association. He also will have to pay full restitution. Bechtold had been arrested last October and charged with six counts of felony grand theft. The following month he pleaded guilty to one count of theft.

According to court records, Bechtold, 39, a resident of Rohnert Park, Calif. with about 20 years of firefighting experience, admitted he had “never-ending debt” following his divorce and child support order. Discovering that his $67,000-a-year salary wasn’t enough to meet expenses, he decided that his union, where he served as treasurer, could fill the gap. Beginning in January 2006 and ending in October 2011, he stole $63,641. Some of the money was spent on union-related activity, but most went to pay for child support and legal expenses, plus perks such as a trip to Disneyland and season tickets for San Jose Sharks NHL hockey games. His pattern of theft unraveled when his fellow firefighters became suspicious over his delay in providing the union board with a financial audit. A subsequent audit revealed he had written 45 unauthorized union checks, leading to his arrest.

Bechtold could have a gotten a stiffer sentence given the charges against him. Several of his employees, in fact, wrote letters to the presiding judge urging the toughest possible sentence. Firefighter Jimmy Bernal said that divorce and child support were only part of the story. “He wanted to live a life he was not able to afford,” he said. Bechtold, at least, is remorseful. In a probation report, he stated: “I had no intention of hurting anybody. I just want to start my life over.” He’ll get his chance soon. With credit for time already served, he should be out of jail in three to five months.