Arbala residents urge chief to return
DA, others discuss $69,000 theft at community meeting Thursday
By FAITH HUFFMAN, News-Telegram News Editor
August 10, 2008 - Arbala residents made it clear to volunteer firefighters Thursday night that not only do they not blame them for the alleged actions of a former member, they made it very clear they will continue to support the department and want longtime officer and member Autry Darden to reconsider his decision to resign and return to the department.
After having their questions answered regarding exactly what resulted in Arbala Fire Dept. secretary/treasurer Yadira Darden being arrested for theft, the future implications resulting from the theft for both the department and Darden, they also rallied for the department. Several community members made a point to let AVFD's other members know the community supports them, the department and its longtime officer Autry Darden. They emphasized the community does not harbor any ill will or blame toward the department and its members for what Yadira Darden is accused of.
The meeting was called following the arrest of Yadira Darden, 42, for theft of $69,000 from the department, as a means to clarify what happened and to let community members voice concerns and ask questions about the case.
District Attorney Martin Braddy and investigators said all indications are that Yadira Darden made the transactions from June 2007 to July 2008 by electronically transferring funds from one of the department's two bank accounts into her own account, via the Internet. They said she spent the $69,000 on numerous small purchases with nothing of redeemable value to show for them.
The transfers left enough funds monthly to pay the bills, but very little else. At one point, the account was drained to $75, according to Braddy.
AVFD member Trevor Tanner said that in the past their questions to view bills were ignored or put off. Banks statements were mailed to the Darden home, not the fire station. Yadira Darden always gave a figure that sounded within the range of what she said total monthly operating costs were, so they had no reason to question the amount further.
Members of the volunteer fire deparment said that due to the varied working schedules of members, AVFD hasn't always been able to hold monthly meetings, so expenses and finances weren't gone over routinely, either. Regular meetings will be held at designated times in the future, and all financial information will be presented at that time, each time, members assured those in attendance Thursday.
A checks and balances system had also been set up which required two signatures on all checks made on the checking account. Darden apparently figured out a way around that through electronic banking, according to Braddy.
The second account at another bank contained grant funding and the majority of insurance payments from the January fire which damaged the fire station and two trucks. That account was set up in such a way that the funds could not be accessed by AVFD members, but was controlled by bank personnel. Funds paid out of the account for such purchases as repairs to the outside roof metal and insulation, cleaning smoke damages in the station and a for truck to replace the lost engine were handled by bank authorities. Fire department personnel would take the note to the bank and personnel there would make the transactions.
Community members suggested that a certified public accountant be brought in to check the books, and an annual audit conducted by an outside source. AVFD officers noted that those possibilities were discussed during a meeting this week. Others in attendance recommended a "block" be put on the checking account to ensure no other electronic transactions could be made as a preventive measure.
The district attorney indicated that with tight finances due to the large loss and the specific nature of the transactions, which he said are easily detectable, that bringing in a CPA to evaluate the books or handle them regularly shouldn't be necessary or cost efficient.
"Is any of it recoverable?" one person asked.
"No, it appears she was spending it as she was stealing it," the district attorney explained.
Hopkins County Sheriff's Investigator Lewis Tatum and Texas Ranger John Vance assured the approximately 50 people present that after combing over the records for a day and a half, they found no indicators that anyone else was involved in or had knowledge of the thefts.
"We talked to her. She cooperated fully. No one else was involved or had knowledge of it, we're almost certain," Braddy said. "Her husband [Autry Darden] I'm almost 100 percent sure he was not involved. We're going to go back through and check pretty close, but we are not expecting to find any others were involved or knew about this."
"We don't know what caused all of this," said J.W. Ragan, who stepped up as interim chief after Autry Darden, a long-time member and officer with AVFD, resigned during an emergency meeting Tuesday. He said he felt it was inappropriate for him to continue to serve as chief because he's related to the secretary/treasurer, despite the fact he has been cleared by law enforcement of any wrongdoing.
"We've just reorganized down there," Ragan said, explaining that would be serving as fire chief and Clay Bartley will take over as secretary and treasurer.
Hopkins County Chief Sheriff's Investigator Toney Hurley also spoke on behalf of Autry Darden, who did not attend Thursday's meeting.
"I've known him all my life," Hurley said. "This lady in question, we called in and questioned her. She laid it all on the line. We called Autry in. He was beside himself, ashamed of what she did. He's probably wishing he could be here himself, but afraid you would be mad at him.
"If you see him out and about, I encourage you to tell him how bad you feel for him and his family," Hurley added. "We all have someone bad in our family, someone who does bad things. I do, too, and you don't understand why they do it, they just do."
Many others made it clear they still supported Autry Darden
"He spent may hours up there working [with the department]," one community member said.
"He's a hard-working guy, one who'd give you the shirt off his back," said Clay Bartley, the acting secretary/treasurer, said of the chief. "If he's called to help, he'll be the one to respond. It might be in a truck, it might not, but he'll help."
Another said Autry Darden and his deceased father "are" the department. Wymon Darden helped found the department and served as an officer until his death a few years ago. Autry served under him and was asked to step up as chief in his father's absence.
The community residents, before the meeting concluded Thursday, asked AVFD members to express to Autry Darden that they do not hold him responsible for the theft Yadira Darden is accused of. They also gave him and AVFD an ovation for their continued work in the community. They decided to take a vote. The result: A "unanimous we want Autry back."
(Those Arbala residents will be glad to know that, as of Saturday morning, Autry Darden had officially returned once again a responding member of Arbala Volunteer Fire Department. The slate of officers announced Thursday night will remain in place at this time.)
"We don't know if we will be able to keep the department going," Ragan said. "Any of you who have a few hours you could volunteer, we could sure use the help. We ran 190 calls. Autry and his wife made a lot of those calls They're not on the department now."
The 190 calls for service Ragan referred to were made by AVFD in the last 15 months and exclude first responder calls, which until Feb. 8 were tracked by hospital personnel, not county fire or sheriff's officers. At that time, county communications operators began dispatching Hopkins County Fire Department and the county's volunteer fire departments to first responder calls, and HCFD began monitoring service calls, Hopkins County Fire Chief Carl Nix explained.
AVFD has had at least 33 first responder calls since Feb 8. AVFD's call volume is one of the heavier among the volunteer departments in the county, with more first responder calls answered than other service calls of late. Arbala has the only large fire apparatus which carries a large water supply, hose and ladders on the western portion of the county south of Interstate 30, making the department a vital component in emergency services in the southwest portion of the county. AVFD is one of the minimum three departments sent to fight blazes when local fire personnel are dispatched to structure fires in neighboring fire districts, according to Nix.
"We're down to the four members you see in this room, with a few who respond less frequently. We need more members to respond," said AVFD member Trevor Tanner.
"If you've got time on your hands, come drive a truck, help drag hose and spray some water," Bartley urged.
"The fire department does a great job. She [Yadira] did not," said an Arbala resident, who has lived next door to the Dardens for a long time and noted the shock the entire community felt upon hearing Yadira had been charged, as they've often seen both Yadira and Autry responding day and night to calls. "They should not be held against for what she did. These guys saved us a lot of money out on the farm, and all our neighbors, too. They should be commended."
Fire department members asked for the community's continued prayer for Autry Darden and his children in this difficult time.
One resident asked when the next fund-raiser would be held to assist the department in recouping their losses. Another requested a hat be passed around to collect checks and other donations to help ensure AVFD has money to fund operational costs.
Meanwhile, Yadira Darden remains in the county jail in lieu of $50,000 on the third-degree felony theft charge.
"I've been asked why there wasn't a higher bond set," Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Yvonne King said. "Usually, bond is set at $10,000 for that degree of offense. When we set bond we look at certain things, including the severity of the offense."
Judge King also explained that bonds, which are a guarantee the accused will answer the charges against them in the legal system, are not used as a way to punish a defendant.
"Someone asked me, "Why can't it be $69,000? That's the amount she stole,'" King noted. "Bond can't be a punishment."
"There's a checks and balances here. If a bond is too high it gets dragged into court and they'll appeal it," Braddy said, further adding, "The defendant has the right to request an attorney and get one appointed. She has done that."
Braddy added that the attorney may not stay with the case, however, "as he said he thinks he may have a conflict."
A conviction for a third-degree felony offense carries a range of punishment from 2 to 10 years in prison, but Texas law stipulates that if the person has never before been convicted of a felony offense, they are considered "probation eligible." That means Yadira Darden, if convicted, could face a sentence of up to 10 years in prison but would more likely serve the sentence on probation.
Generally, in theft cases of this nature, the person could be ordered to pay restitution as part of punishment, but that is no guarantee the loss will be repaid, the district attorney noted.
Sheriff Butch Adams said his officers are "still looking into it for this department. The ongoing investigation is expected to take "not more than 30 days" to determine "what did and did not take place," Braddy said.
"It'll be presented to the grand jury what took place, and I anticipate an indictment. Then it will go through the court process," Braddy said.