‘Helmet theft’ latest beef in Ill. fire district where FFs quit over leadership change
The Prairie Du Pont FPD board voted to turn in its former fire chief and assistant chief to the sheriff’s department for not returning their helmets
EAST CARONDELET, Ill. — The Prairie Du Pont Fire Protection District board has voted to turn its former fire chief and assistant chief in to the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department for allegedly stealing two helmets.
It was the latest shot fired in a battle that began Dec. 20, when board members replaced Fire Chief John Rosenkranz with Jerame Simmons, who now is serving as acting chief.
The appointment touched off a controversy because Simmons was convicted of arson as a teenager 24 years ago and because he’s the son of Herb Simmons, mayor of East Carondelet and executive director of the St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency. Some critics also questioned Jerame Simmons’ training and safety record.
The shakeup led many of the district’s 13 firefighters to resign, including Rosenkranz and his wife, Laura, a former captain and assistant chief. Accusations have been flying both ways ever since.
At a meeting Wednesday night, board President John Parke said the Rosenkranzes hadn’t returned their district-owned helmets, valued at about $330 each.
“We have sent them registered letters, and they have not responded to the mail,” Parke said. "... They have not picked up their letters, I guess refusing to sign for it, and we still don’t have the helmets.”
Parke and board member Bryan Reddick voted to file a police report over the “helmet theft.” Member Randy Bolle was absent.
Prairie Du Pont is a volunteer fire department that serves about 2,500 people who live in a 14-square-mile area that includes East Carondelet and some homes with Dupo, Cahokia Heights, Millstadt, and Columbia zip codes.
Monthly board meetings are normally held at the Engine House No. 1 fire station. The January meeting was moved to East Carondelet Community Center due to “massive cleaning and construction” at the station, according to the district’s new Facebook page.
Officials also expected a crowd, according to Simmons, but only about 10 people showed up. No one spoke during the public comment section. The Rosenkranzes didn’t attend the meeting.
Laura Rosenkranz later said she hadn’t turned in her helmet because it’s common for firefighters leaving departments to be given the option of buying or keeping their helmets, and that’s what she planned to do.
John Rosenkranz said, “My helmet was left at the fire station, along with all my gear, and now it’s missing, according to them.”
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Finances at issue on both sides
John Rosenkranz, 37, of East Carondelet, joined Prairie Du Pont in 2003. He was appointed as chief nearly three years ago, earning $750 a year.
Last month, board members called a special meeting to replace Rosenkranz with Simmons, 42, of Dupo, a move that made national news and sparked a social-media debate due to Simmons’ arson conviction.
Board members released a statement saying they had lost confidence in Rosenkranz’s leadership and no longer had a good working relationship with him. Parke later called Simmons “absolutely qualified.”
Rosenkranz accused the board of illegal actions and “reckless” decision-making over the years that allegedly put firefighters at risk. He said their relationship deteriorated when he was repeatedly denied access to financial records needed to apply for grants to upgrade equipment.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Capt. Jeremy Gleich, one of the firefighters who didn’t resign, questioned the conduct of Laura Rosenkranz. She had served as treasurer of the non-profit Prairie Du Pont Firefighters Association, which raises money and otherwise supports the district.
“There have been some financial discrepancies found, and there will be a third-party audit upon completion of an internal audit, and we will determine if formal legal action needs to be taken,” said Gleich, the association’s president.
Gleich maintained that Rosenkranz received a $500 donation from a local company in October and failed to deposit it into the association’s bank account until January, after she had resigned. He also told board members that she had refused to sign paperwork relinquishing control of the account.
Rosenkranz said the bank had asked her to sign a liability waiver that she didn’t feel comfortable signing without her attorney reviewing it. She denied any impropriety related to the donation or other record-keeping.
Rosenkranz said the district is trying to “pull something” to make her and her husband look bad.
“We left (the association) way better than we found it, I’ll tell you that,” she said. “I did reports every month on everything that was spent. Nothing was spent unless we had motions or a trustee approving it. ... Before I took over, we didn’t even have treasurer’s reports.”
Claims of poor stewardship
Simmons was a Prairie Du Pont firefighter in 1998, when he was accused of setting fire to a vacant home and lighting toilet paper and ceiling tiles in the basement of Dupo Senior High School. He pleaded guilty to one count of felony arson as part of a plea agreement. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker pardoned him in May.
Simmons has worked for several other volunteer fire departments in the past 25 years. He returned to Prairie Du Pont in August. The board appointed him assistant fire chief about two weeks later.
Simmons made his first report to the board as fire chief on Wednesday night. He spoke mainly about ongoing cleaning and renovation projects at fire stations and maintenance on fire trucks and other equipment.
After the meeting, Simmons said much of the department’s equipment had been neglected or maintained improperly; many files were unorganized or missing; and fire stations were filthy and in disrepair, including major plumbing issues in one bathroom.
John Rosenkranz countered that many district problems have resulted from board mismanagement and a tendency to “cut corners” instead of spending the necessary funds.
“They’re playing a game,” he said.
The Rosenkranzes and other firefighters who resigned from Prairie Du Pont over Simmons’ appointment have been circulating petitions, asking for district board members to be removed by the St. Clair County Board and for John Rosenkranz to be reinstated as fire chief.
Capt. Gleich, a Missouri police officer who joined the fire department 14 years ago, said he couldn’t comment on why the other firefighters quit.
“I stayed because I’ve got a lot of time invested here,” Gleich said. "... A lot of the allegations and things that (the Rosenkranzes and other firefighters) were saying were done wrongfully were not done wrongfully, and I was not going to, on a knee-jerk reaction, up and leave.”
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Earlier this month, Parke said the Prairie Du Pont board plans to elevate Simmons from acting fire chief to fire chief in the near future. Parke has been in the fire service for 35 years, most notably as a firefighter and emergency medical technician in Smithton.
Simmons said he is building the fire department back up, with several former firefighters already in service and several others who have turned in applications that are being reviewed.
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