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5:57 AM Thu, Dec. 13th

Officials warn of possible 'wildland firefighting' scam

CAFMA, Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office express concern, say volunteer fire department startup is suspicious

The Viewpoint Fire started along Highway 89a in Prescott Valley on the morning of May 11, 2018. The fire, driven by a sustained wind, headed north into the Poquito Valley area. (Les Stukenberg/Courier, file)

The Viewpoint Fire started along Highway 89a in Prescott Valley on the morning of May 11, 2018. The fire, driven by a sustained wind, headed north into the Poquito Valley area. (Les Stukenberg/Courier, file)

The motive of two men who claim to be starting a “volunteer wildland firefighting engine crew” in the quad-city area is being called into question by local authorities.

On Thursday, Nov. 8, the Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority (CAFMA) and the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office (YCSO) put out a public awareness alert about a group called Yavapai Co. Yavapai Volunteer Fire Protection.

Their concern was that this group, headed by two men who identify themselves as Joe Stanton and Raymond Bagger, are running what may be a scamming operation.

Through social media and during a meet-and-greet hosted in Prescott Valley on Nov. 8, the two men have claimed they are raising money in order to support a nonprofit they have started that specializes in providing contracted wildland structure fire protection services.

At first, some in the community believed the men and decided to donate to help them acquire the equipment they needed to get the effort off the ground.

Local residents Vennie Bowden and her husband were two of those initial supporters. The couple own Arrow Fire and Land Management, a Prescott-based tree, forestry and defensible space contractor, and decided to pitch $500 toward Yavapai Co. Yavapai Volunteer Fire Protection in May.

“We are in the fire business, and my husband had a soft spot for a ‘volunteer FD’ just starting out,” Vennie said.

As time passed, they began questioning the legitimacy of the nonprofit. That concern only heightened when CAFMA and other local agencies started poking holes in what the men were telling people.

“They have stated that we (CAFMA) do not provide wildland protection out of our Chino stations or in Prescott Valley,” Freitag said. “This is a material misstatement of fact. CAFMA provides fire protection services both structural and wildland throughout our 254-square-mile coverage area.”

Additionally, Freitag said what Stanton and Bagger are saying they wish to do is not legal.

“Under state law, they can’t try to sell contracts within our jurisdiction,” Freitag said.

If Stanton and Bagger wanted to provide fire protection services to those living in unincorporated areas of Yavapai County outside the boundaries of any already established fire districts — such as Cherry or the outskirts of Paulden — then they could potentially do that if they receive approval through the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors, Freitag said.

Given what he believes is a fraudulent scheme, Freitag has been speaking with the Arizona Corporation Commission as well as the IRS with intention to file a complaint.

The sheriff’s office has also been investigating the matter for several weeks, said YCSO spokesperson Dwight D’Evelyn.

“We share CAFMA’s concern about the behavior of the two individuals who claim to run this ‘agency,’ ” D’Evelyn said. “A YCSO detective was recently assigned to the case.”

Attempts to reach Bagger and Stanton via a cellphone number believed to belong to Stanton and through several of their social media accounts has elicited no response.

However, Vennie video recorded a conversation she had with the two men in Prescott Valley on Nov. 8. In the video, they maintain their story that they’re just a couple of guys trying to support the community.

“I was told that we were really needed (in this area),” Stanton said in the video.

“Needed for what?” Vennie said.

“To help put out fires,” Stanton said.

BAGGER’S SUSPECT HISTORY

This isn’t the first time Bagger has attempted something similar to this effort. According to the Sahuarita Sun in Sahuarita, Arizona, Bagger reportedly tried to put together a volunteer fire department to serve an unincorporated area east of the town in mid-2017.

The newspaper reported that Bagger had lied to community members and reporters on multiple occasions about the legitimacy of his organization and its intentions before shutting down fundraising efforts.

Bagger reportedly launched another series of fundraising efforts in that area in November 2017, but nothing has been reported in the news about his activity in that area since.

While deputies investigate Bagger and Stanton’s activities locally, “YCSO encourages the public not to donate or otherwise engage these individuals in person or by social media during this time,” D’Evelyn said. “We understand the community concern about their ongoing activity in the area, but ask for patience as we wait for subpoenaed documents linking certain individuals to this apparent scheme.”