The former village president of Reese in Tuscola County – jailed in Midland County for embezzling $48,000 from a funeral home that once employed him – has been charged, pending arraignment, with embezzling at least $40,000 from Reese Fire Rescue.
Gerald J. Ellison, 53, is accused of embezzling the funds for more than four years – from Jan. 1, 2012 into March of 2016 – according to Tuscola County Prosecutor Mark E. Reene. During that time, the former village president also served as assistant fire chief and treasurer for Reese Fire Rescue.
Ellison, in the Midland County Jail for embezzling money from the Ware-Smith-Woolever Funeral Home during part of that same time period, will be transported to the Tuscola County Jail for arraignment, Reene said.
The most serious charge in Tuscola County – one count of embezzlement of $20,000 or more – carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Tuscola County prosecutors also charge Ellison with 10 counts of embezzlement of $1,000 or more – a crime carrying a maximum of five years in prison.
Reene said concerns were raised about Reese Fire Rescue’s financial affairs after Ellison’s troubles with the funeral home became known.
Those concerns prompted an investigation led by Michigan State Police, Reene said, that included police pouring through “hundreds, if not thousands, of transactions.”
“Through his role as assistant fire chief and treasurer, he diverted funds to his own personal use,” Reene said, noting that it was too early to publicly disclose how the funds were moved.
“He exploited his role,” Reene said.
Reene said the 11 counts are not separate transactions, but based on activity that was aggregated and broken out “for charging purposes.”
Reene said pursuing cases to the fullest extent of the law, such as the one involving Ellison, is important.
“We just keep seeing so many cases of this sort,” Reene told The Advertiser. “And it often seems to be the case that the entity that’s being victimized is already in a circumstance of struggling just to get by economically.”
“And then to have an entity like Reese Fire Rescue that is providing a service have funds diverted…it’s just something that can’t be tolerated,” Reene said.
In Midland County, Ellison was sentenced in September of 2016 for the felony of attempted larceny in a building in connection with stealing funds from the funeral home, which operates in Midland and Reese, population 1,415.
Ellison entered a plea deal in Midland County, where he had been charged with five counts of embezzling between $1,000 and $20,000 from the funeral home. But he received a delayed sentence of one year on those charges as part of the deal. The agreement requires Ellison to make full restitution to Ware-Smith-Woolever Funeral Home, and the five embezzlement charges could be dismissed after a year.
Ellison paid his restitution “up front” to the funeral home, said Midland County Assistant Prosecutor Geoffrey Rettig, who told The Advertiser he wanted a felony on Ellison’s record “that can be used if he gets convicted in the future, as a habitual offender.”
According to an affidavit for arrest warrant for Ellison, he stole money from Ware-Smith-Woolever Funeral Home between October 2014 and February 2016.
Reese Village Manager David Tatrow announced in a special Reese Village Council meeting in the spring of 2016 that Ellison was asked to turn over the village’s keys, checkbooks and financial documents, and to resign as village president.
Tatrow said at the time he was in “total shock” at the allegations that Ellison, a funeral director for Ware-Smith-Woolever, embezzled funds from the funeral home.
“When I heard about it, it totally drained the life out of my body … It was something that totally blindsided me,” Tatrow said.
Paul Keast, village president, Reese, said he just learned of the charges mid-afternoon Friday –and that officials fully expected them.
“We did an internal investigation into that particular checking account that the fire department had…and where we found some discrepancies,” Keast said.
Keast said it’s important to note funding for Reese Fire Rescue – a volunteer-based operation – comes entirely from donations. That means no village funds were stolen, he said.
Keast said funds for Reese Fire Rescue are now funneled through the village’s business office as part of a new system of checks-and-balances put in place.
However, he said, “the whole situation has affected morale at the fire department.”
Story by Tom Gilchrist and Andrew Dietderich
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org