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Cal Fire hires man twice convicted of impersonating a firefighter

Brandon Visyak, son of a fire captain, pretended to be a firefighter when he was robbing a woman and again when trying to get out of a ticket


By Adam Ashton
Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Brandon Visyak used a stolen state firefighter badge in a ploy to rob a woman the first time he got caught impersonating a public safety officer.

Two years later, he again claimed to be a Cal Fire firefighter while he tried to get out of a traffic arrest.

Both incidents led to criminal convictions on charges that he illegally impersonated a California public safety officer.

Neither prevented Cal Fire from offering him a job as an entry-level seasonal firefighter last summer.

Visyak, 29, the son of a state fire captain, was sentenced last month for his second impersonation offense, and Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said Visyak has not been offered work this year.

Visyak cast himself at his sentencing last month as a reformed man deserving of another chance despite a criminal record that dates back to his teenage years.

"I'm really trying," he told Riverside County Superior Court Judge Charles Stafford, citing his responsibility as a father and an awakening he experienced after a cancer diagnosis spurred him to improve himself.

But the nature of his convictions prompted Stafford last month to dress down Visyak, likening his use of ill-gotten badges to civilians who wear military uniforms and claim to have served in combat.

"If I was a chief of a fire department, there is no way I would let you get near any of my men or my trucks, because I wouldn't trust you -- not with this record," Stafford, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Air Force, told Visyak, according to a court transcript.

"As far as I'm concerned, you have lost the right to be a fireman or a police officer because of this record," Stafford said.

Visyak, of Indio, has not received a paycheck from the state for work in 2017. At his sentencing last month, he told Stafford that he anticipated work on fire lines this summer and had been called to duty by a Cal Fire captain.

Stafford sentenced Visyak to 90 days in jail and three years of probation.

Riverside County released him from confinement after nine days, according to jail records.

Visyak declined to comment.

In court, his attorney said Visyak had "changed his ways." He added that Visyak "has been employed by Cal Fire, and he's been offered future employment by Cal Fire."

Cal Fire's hiring and promotion practices have faced scrutiny from lawmakers since a former Cal Fire battalion chief murdered his mistress in 2014. This year, the department is creating a new office that is charged in part with improving background checks for promotions, as well as with educating firefighters about professional standards.

Upton of Cal Fire said Visyak was not offered a job again because of those changes. The department a year ago created a centralized hiring review process that checks references before hiring someone.

"This case is just an example of that process at work," she said.

Visyak's first arrest for impersonating a firefighter prompted the San Bernardino Police Department to issue a news release in March 2012 reporting that he had used stolen badges to gain the trust of women he later robbed. In one instance, police said he refused to leave a woman's car until he'd stolen her wallet. In another, he stole items from a woman's purse after she fell asleep at a hotel.

In October 2012, Visyak pleaded guilty to one count of impersonating a firefighter and three counts of burglary. He was ordered to pay restitution to his victims, serve 180 days in jail and 36 months of probation. His jail time was suspended because of medical issues he was experiencing, according to court records.

In 2014, Cal Fire hired Visyak as a temporary forestry aide. State salary records show he earned about $14,000 in that assignment. Forestry aides assist in planning for timber harvests, perform some campground maintenance and work in nurseries. He later told a Cal Fire investigator he worked six months that year in that position.

In December of that year, a Riverside County sheriff's deputy pulled over Visyak on suspicion of driving while under the influence of alcohol. Visyak told the deputy that he was an unemployed seasonal firefighter and asked for leniency, according to court records.

Visyak reiterated his claim that he worked for Cal Fire as a firefighter in interviews with a Riverside County prosecutor and at one of his court hearings. The prosecutor called Cal Fire to check the claim.

A Cal Fire investigator found that Visyak was lying.

The investigator wrote in October 2015 that Visyak had never worked as a Cal Fire firefighter, and that he had attempted to mislead a police officer and a deputy district attorney. The investigator wrote that the badge Visyak showed Riverside authorities appeared to be a forestry aide badge that he should have returned to Cal Fire when his assignment ended.

Visyak in 2015 pleaded guilty to reckless driving, resolving his original traffic arrest. He was sentenced to probation for 12 months.

Cal Fire hired him again, this time as an entry-level firefighter, in the summer of 2016. That was three years after his first conviction for impersonating a firefighter.

State salary records show he earned about $32,000 last year as a state firefighter.

The position does not guarantee future work, but it's a considered path to a career in Cal Fire where experienced firefighters and fire captains can reliably earn six-figure incomes. Firefighters tend to spend several years working seasonal assignments before they earn a year-round position.

On June 5, Visyak returned to Riverside County Superior Court, where he pleaded no contest to impersonating a firefighter, concluding the case that stemmed from the 2014 traffic stop.

Stafford told Visyak that he wanted Viyak to spend time in jail because he had largely avoided time in custody for his previous conviction.

"People in the military, people in law enforcement, police officers, firemen, they need to be respected," Stafford said. "What you have done is disrespected them because you attempted to get what they deserve when you did not deserve it."

Copyright 2017 Sacramento Bee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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