Former PJ fire chief facing three felonies

Ernie Gencarelli, the former chief of the Pacific Junction Fire Department, was charged with three felonies last week.

The former fire chief for the Pacific Junction Volunteer Fire Department was arrested last Wednesday on multiple charges related to theft of more than $40,000 in donated funds to the now closed department.

Ernie Gencarelli, 67, was arrested by Mills County Sheriff’s Deputies following a months long investigation he inappropriately used a charity fund intended to be used by the department for training, equipment and other operational expenses.

Gencarelli is charged with three felony counts: ongoing criminal conduct, first degree theft and money laundering. Ongoing criminal conduct is considered the most serious of the charges; a Class B felony, it carries a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison and a fine. Money laundering and first-degree theft are both Class C felonies carrying a maximum 10-year sentence for each charge.

Mills County Attorney DeShawne Bird-Sell announced Gencarelli’s arrest in a press conference last Wednesday. Gencarelli was booked into the Mills County Jail where he remains after a magistrate set his bond at $25,000 at an initial hearing Thursday.

Gencarelli is represented by attorney Brian Tackett.

“He’s looking at 45 years in prison,” said Bird-Sell. She added in most cases of theft like this the court will seek restitution but with the Pacific Junction Volunteer Fire Department folding last December, she questions if that is even an option in this case.

Gencarelli served as Pacific Junction’s fire chief for five years before resigning in May 2023. He was succeeded by Steven Bogert. In December, as the department shut down, Bogert had difficulty obtaining financial information from Gencarelli and noticed irregularities in the accounting. He alerted the Mills County Sheriff’s Department with his suspicions and an investigation was launched.

As part of a five-month probe, Deputy Jeremy Ripperger served multiple subpoenas to obtain bank and financial records and used a forensic accountant to look into the former department’s Pacific Junction First Responders Association Fund. That fund was a result of money donated directly to the department by community members.

The investigation revealed dozens of inappropriate charges, presumably by Gencarelli, which led to the charges.

“They found $40,000 of apparent misappropriations,” Bird-Sell said.

All the spending came out of the account made up of donations from the community to the department.  

Bird-Sell said Gencarelli was in essence the lone “oversight” of the fund while he served simultaneously as president, secretary and treasurer of the Pacific Junction First Responders Association.

Bird-Sell declined to say what Gencarelli is alleged to have spent the money on but did say those charges led directly to the indictment.

“That will be revealed,” she said. “There is zero percent possibilities this (fund) could have been used for fire department use under their non-profit. The things that were purchased is the main reason these charges were filed.”

Most volunteer fire departments, according to Bird-Sell, are dependent on grants and donations to sustain themselves.

“This donation fund was people coming down as giving money because they went through the flood and here’s some money,” she said. “Some people would just drop off checks, they’d get money from fundraisers. These are funds that people just flat donated.”

When asked if she felt the missing $40,000 played a factor in the fire department’s closure, Bird-Sell replied, “I don’t know how it could not have.”

“The funds needed for training, to just maintain and the funds needs for everything in the fire department, the donations, were gone,” she said. “I know they had a hard time maintaining personnel and the leadership as this was happening. It had to have an impact on the sustainability for that small of a department.”

The trial is expected to begin this fall.

The Opinion-Tribune

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