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Liberty probe dismays trustees

Firefighters could face criminal charges after 1 dies of drug overdose

LIBERTY — Liberty trustees Devon Stanley and Arnie Clebone both expressed disappointment over the behavior of four firefighters no longer on the job over drug-related issues.

“It’s extremely disappointing and unfortunate. They were a main part of our leadership structure at the fire department,” Stanley said.

Trustees on Wednesday dismissed two fire lieutenants and accepted the retirement of one fire captain after a Liberty police investigation revealed the trading of prescription drugs among department members and possible malfeasance involving the April 12 death of firefighter John Beard.

Township law director Cherry Poteet said the investigation now has been turned over to the Mahoning Valley Drug Task Force for possible criminal charges.

Lts. Justin Graham and Josh Cleland were dismissed, while Capt. Chris Olson was allowed to retire and Capt. Cathy Maccione was placed on administrative leave, trustees confirmed.

Stanley, a first-term trustee, said he didn’t know the firefighters involved well yet, but the investigation indicates “we have — perhaps at least on that shift — a culture of poor behavior, poor decision-making and poor judgment.

“And the circumstances that led to us finding out about it were even more unfortunate. There was a loss of life in Mr. Beard. He was one of our firemen. And for his family, I feel like we had a duty to follow the facts wherever they led. Unfortunately the facts led to what seemed to be some systemic bad behavior.”

Neither Stanley nor Clebone stated directly they were disappointed in the performance of Chief Gus Birch, but Stanley raised the possibility. Stanley said the firefighters worked at the Belmont Avenue fire station near Tibbetts Wick Road together on the same shift and may have “found a way to become on the same shift.”

Stanley said it appears that most of the drug behavior occurred at the Belmont Avenue station.

Stanley said, “I’ve asked Chief Birch to find out who made that decision, and how it came about that they could use one station outside of the eye of the chief to kind of commit this behavior behind his back.”

Stanley added, “These are self-inflicted wounds that the fire department brought on themselves, but we will do everything in our power to make sure the force gets rebuilt the proper way. We’ll use every resource to find good character.”

When asked whether the incident will hurt the public’s respect for the department, Stanley said, “I want the residents and taxpayers of Liberty Township to understand that we are good stewards of their resources. Their life and their safety, as well as people passing through this town, are of the utmost importance to us, which is why we made swift and immediate action to ask these people to resign. It was either fire or resign.”

When asked whether the trustees are disappointed in Birch, Clebone said Birch “is looking at everything. We’re looking to see what we can do to obviously make sure this kind of situation doesn’t come up again.”

Birch released the following statement via email Friday:

“The members of the Liberty Township Fire Department have cooperated in the internal investigation. All members of the Liberty Fire Department voluntarily submitted to drug testing and those results were negative,” the statement reads.

“The wrongful actions of a few are not reflective of the many hard-working dedicated firefighters of the Liberty Fire Department. Everyone can be assured that we are doing everything in our power to move forward and work through this ongoing investigation. We recently had the Ohio Board of Pharmacy come in to evaluate and inspect the fire department to assure we are doing everything required by the State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy. We are attempting to continue to provide the service to the residents and visitors to Liberty Township to the best of our ability.

“We will move forward and will do everything in our power to regain the confidence in the Liberty Township Fire Department,” Birch’s statement reads. “Again, the actions of a few employees do not define the Liberty Township Fire Department or the fire service in general. Please understand this is an extremely hard time for the remaining members of our department, but we will persevere.”

Reporter Guy Vogrin contributed to this report.

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