A Manassas volunteer firefighter pleaded guilty yesterday to embezzling from the department's weekly bingo proceeds, a year-long scam that authorities said netted him more than $20,000 in cash.
Ralph Powell, 66, of Battle Street, pleaded guilty to two counts of felony embezzlement during a brief hearing in Prince William County Circuit Court. Powell, who was with the Manassas Volunteer Fire Company for more than 30 years and was a recent past president, admitted that he took thousands of dollars from the department's bingo games while he was in charge of the cash drawer.
Stafford County Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Richard F. Gibbons Jr., who was appointed to prosecute the case, said Powell stole more than $20,000 in denominations of $20, $50 and $100 during numerous weekly bingo games. Police had received an anonymous tip that Powell was pilfering cash and then set up a video camera to catch him in the act, Gibbons said yesterday.
"He would put some money into the cash drawer and then pocket large sums of money covertly," Gibbons told the court. "It was a substantial amount of money and was a pattern of theft."
Although Powell did not testify yesterday, he could testify at a sentencing hearing scheduled for Feb. 23. William Winston, a retired Circuit Court judge who was called in to hear the case because Powell is a well-known community figure in Prince William, accepted Powell's pleas without comment.
Casey Stevens, Powell's attorney, said his client is "truly repentant." Stevens indicated that Powell did not need the cash or offer an explanation for stealing it. Stevens and Gibbons said Powell came to an agreement with the fire company and already has paid full restitution in excess of $20,000.
"I'm not sure there is an explanation," Stevens said after the hearing. "He's not only sorry for what he did, he's sorry because he knows he caused a lot of hurt and a lot of damage."
According to fire company officials, Powell had been taking the money for several months, pocketing a percentage of the cash that was collected at the department's Friday night bingo games. Fire officials have said that more than 200 people attend the weekly bingo sessions, and that the games generate thousands of dollars for the unit's operations.
The money that Powell took was not from public funds but from the pool collected from individual players during bingo nights.
Gibbons said police videotaped weekly bingo sessions from mid-March to mid-June. They arrested Powell on June 19 after catching him putting money into his pockets while he tended the cash drawer. Gibbons said that when police arrested Powell, he had $1,007 in cash in his pockets, although he admitted to stealing just $230 of that sum.
Police later searched Powell's home and found an additional $600 in cash.
Although the maximum penalty for the two embezzlement charges is 40 years in prison, state sentencing guidelines call for Powell to be placed on probation with no prison time. Gibbons said he will request that Winston give Powell some time behind bars.
"I think this calls for incarceration because of the fact that this went on for a long period of time, that there was a large amount of money involved and because he was in a position of trust within the community when he did it," Gibbons said.
Stevens, however, said he doesn't think Powell deserves time in prison.
"I doubt that society is crying out to put Ralph Powell in jail," Stevens said. "He's been convicted of crimes; he'll have to live with it, and he has acknowledged it to everyone. Everyone who knows Ralph Powell knows he's done them wrong. He realizes that what he has done is wrong."