Background checks didn't find warrant

Company twice missed 1987 incident in Florida on volunteer firefighter

Case is expected to be dropped

Howard resident says he was unaware of charge


March 11, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Two background checks conducted by a private company on a former Elkridge volunteer firefighter failed to turn up a 17-year-old grand-theft felony warrant in Florida that would have disqualified him from serving, according to Howard County fire department officials and Florida law enforcement records.

The former firefighter - Louis F. Diegel, 41, of Elkridge - volunteered at the station on and off for about nine years, but was voted out last month because of inactivity, Elkridge fire officials said.

Chief Joseph Slavotinek, who heads the Elkridge Volunteer Fire Department, said that Diegel was voted out once before for inactivity and reapplied. He said that background checks were done twice on Diegel.

"We have a company that does the background checks for us, and evidently they didn't pick it up," Slavotinek said. "We do our best to keep these people away. If a person has a warrant on them, of course we're not going to allow them into the department."

Diegel has been wanted in Okeechobee County, Fla., since 1987 on a charge of grand theft - a count that applies when something with a value of $300 or more is stolen, said Sgt. William Markham, who works for that county's Sheriff's Department. He said that additional information on the case was no longer available.

But there is some good news for Diegel, who said in a telephone interview that he was unaware of the warrant. Because it is so old, the warrant likely will be tossed out in the next two weeks by the state's attorney's office, the sheriff's office said.

"They're purging a bunch of old warrants, and that one was on the list to get purged," Markham said. The small county does not have the resources to extradite most people wanted on warrants, other than in exceptional cases such as homicides, he said.

Elkridge Volunteer Fire Department officials said they have used Kroll Background America, a nationwide background-research firm, since the mid-1990s to conduct checks on its volunteers. Firefighters who apply for paid positions in the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services are also checked by Kroll, which has an office in Hampstead.

A Kroll official refused to comment on the case yesterday.

In the high-stakes world of background checking, Kroll has had its successes in Maryland. Three years ago, 25 youth coaches in Anne Arundel County had to resign after checks by Kroll turned up criminal convictions.

A stumble

Kroll also has had at least one stumble. In December, a Kroll check mistakenly showed that a Prince George's County woman who had applied for a school cafeteria server job in Anne Arundel County was wanted on a felony theft charge. Despite being cleared, the woman quit the job in frustration.

Julie Casey, president of the Elkridge fire department's board of directors, said that volunteer applicants are asked to list their current and previous addresses going back seven years. Diegel said he lived in Florida for two years in the 1980s.

But Casey said she thought the company also does a nationwide search for information based on the person's name, Social Security number and birth date.

"Florida should've came up, unless they only went back for the seven-year period," Casey said.

"We never had an issue like this before," Casey said. "When something does come back, we question the member ... and go from there."

Awaiting information

Casey said she is waiting for information to be forwarded to her by the fire department's headquarters, so that she can address the issue with Kroll.

M. Sean Kelly, a Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services spokesman, said that department first learned of Diegel's outstanding warrant through an anonymous fax this week. The Sun received a similar anonymous letter.

Kelly said he contacted the Okeechobee County Sheriff's Department and was told that the warrant was so old that it probably would be thrown out.

"As far as our career people go, they get criminal background checks and psychological tests before they're hired, and if something was to come up, they wouldn't be a firefighter," Kelly said.

In the telephone interview yesterday, Diegel said he could not recall an incident involving theft, but he acknowledged that he was arrested around the time the warrant was issued - Sept. 21, 1987 - on a charge of passing a forged check at a truck stop to pay for gasoline while working as a truck driver.

Diegel characterized the incident as a misunderstanding.

He said he had company-issued checks that were made out to specific truck stops to pay for gasoline, but he stopped at another one. A clerk there told him to cross out the name on the check, and write in the name of that truck stop, Diegel said.

As he was filling up his truck, police pulled up and arrested him, he said. He said he paid $50 back to the trucking company, soon left Florida and has not returned since.

"I've been stopped by the state police and ticketed for speeding," Diegel said. "They never said anything, and I'd assume if I'd had something they'd have arrested me. So I never knew this was even out there."

Diegel and his wife operate a small health care-related business. He said he has been required to go through about eight or nine background checks over the years, and the warrant never showed up.

"I don't know what all is going on with this," he said. "I didn't know that this warrant was out. It would've been taken care of a long time ago if I had known."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.