After a months-long police investigation, a 66-year-old Manassas volunteer firefighter was arrested Saturday night for allegedly embezzling funds from the department's weekly bingo proceeds.
Ralph Powell, of Battle Street, was charged with two counts of felony embezzlement for allegedly taking more than $200 from the bingo register on at least two occasions. Powell, a member of the Manassas Volunteer Fire Company, was released on his own recognizance pending an arraignment at the end of June. If convicted, he could face up to 40 years in prison.
Powell, a volunteer for the last 34 years and the fire company's immediate past president, was expelled from the organization during a special meeting of members Monday night, said Wade House, president of the Manassas Volunteer Fire Company. House said the 65 members of the company were "stunned, shocked and then maddened" by Powell's alleged embezzlement.
"It's an unpleasant experience, and we certainly hope it doesn't happen again," House said. "The law did what it was supposed to do, and that was to stop it."
Powell could not be reached for comment.
Capt. Billy Crisp of Manassas police said yesterday that police detectives were contacted in early April to investigate ongoing reports that bingo players had noticed Powell siphoning cash from the weekly game proceeds. Crisp said players had seen Powell putting cash into his pocket while serving as the bingo cashier and had reported the incident to fire company officials.
Crisp said that the total amount of embezzled funds is yet to be determined and that he thinks "there is a solid case" against Powell. Crisp and local authorities say that Powell embezzled an unspecified amount of money from March to May and that he did so again Saturday.
Police had been working on the case "on a weekly basis" until they were able to make an arrest Saturday night as Powell was leaving the bingo hall, Crisp said. He declined to elaborate on the police department's investigative tactics.
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Dixon, a member of the volunteer fire company, said yesterday that police were present at the bingo hall Saturday, when Powell allegedly took additional funds.
House said the investigation "was kept very secretive and was done very quietly and discreetly" so as not to alert Powell to the fact that he was being watched. House said he has contacted the Virginia Gaming Commission about the incident and will seek assistance in safeguarding future funds.
Dixon said a special prosecutor will likely be appointed to pursue the case because of Powell's influence in the community. House and Crisp described Powell as a "well-liked" man who has been involved in many local organizations and who has strong ties to Manassas. Dixon, who said he has known Powell for many years, was stunned by the allegations and by the outcome of the investigation.
"I was more than surprised," Dixon said. "This is just something that you never expect to hear from someone who is as well-known and well-liked as he is. I'm sure it is quite a shock to the entire community."
The money taken from the fire company was not public funds; rather, it was generated from bingo players who attend the weekly sessions.
House said each Saturday night bingo session draws about 200 players and can generate thousands of dollars, which are then pumped in the company's operations.
Last month, the former president of the neighboring Manassas Park Volunteer Fire Department was arrested amid allegations that she was embezzling money from the tiny agency's operating budget -- funds that are entirely garnered through bingo games and private fund-raising. Edith Plaugher was indicted on charges that she took at least $3,000 by writing a series of checks that drew on department funds.
In Plaugher's case, a co-signer on the checks reported irregularities to local authorities, who teamed up with the Virginia State Police to investigate the department's finances.