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Judge sends former Superior fire chief to prison

A Douglas County judge is sending Superior's former fire chief to prison.

Douglas County Circuit Court Judge Michael Lucci handed down the sentence shortly after noon Monday, following more than two hours of testimony, victim impact statements from city leaders and a statement from the former chief, Stephen A. Gotelaere, 61.

"He converted public funds for his personal gain, most of which were grant moneys that were earmarked for the benefit of the fire department," Lucci said in reaching his conclusion from two sentencing recommendations.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice recommended a prison sentence; a Wisconsin Department of Corrections presentence investigation recommendation probation and local jail time.

Lucci ordered six years prison with two years confinement for thefts between 1999 and 2003; five years prison with 1 1?2 years confinement for crimes committed between 2003 and 2005, and three years prison with one-year confinement for misconduct in public office to be served concurrently.

Gotelaere was also ordered to pay $239,676 in restitution.

The nature and the gravity of the crime make it outrageous, Lucci said in reaching his conclusion. While Gotelaere had no criminal history, the judge said, the crime continued so long and so often that it spoke to his character.

An investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice revealed Gotelaere and Roger Lynn Otto, 56, a fire equipment vendor from Chetek, conspired to submit false invoices and legitimate invoices with falsified charges.

Gotelaere would sign the false invoices and submit them to the city finance department for payment. The two then split the proceeds with Gotelaere taking the lion's share, said Paul Barnett, the assistant attorney general prosecuting the cases. Between 1999 and 2005, the pair submitted about 60 phony invoices.

Gotelaere -- a 30-year member of the fire department and 13-year chief -- came under scrutiny in 2005 when city officials discovered he had falsified travel records, including the creation of a flyer for the training he planned to attend.

The hotel conference center in Wausau, where the training was to occur, was closed for remodeling at the time.

After the former chief stepped down, the city's current fire chief, Tad Matheson, while preparing for a grant audit, discovered other discrepancies in Gotelaere's handling of fire department money.

City officials approached the Wisconsin Department of Justice in June 2005 to request a criminal investigation, which resulted in the charges filed last December. Gotelaere pleaded guilty to two counts of theft and one count of misconduct in public office during his initial appearance in Douglas County Circuit Court.

Under Gotelaere's watch, the fire department took on responsibility for leading an eight-county regional hazardous materials response team, gearing up a dive team, taking on medical first-response duties and reducing fires.

Some grants that helped support those programs funded Gotelaere's scheme, according to Assistant Attorney General Paul Barnett said.

Otto was sentenced last week in Barron County Circuit Court to five years probation and 10 months in the Barron County Jail.

Otto got about 10 percent of the swindled money, but under terms of the restitution judgment issued by Barron County Judge Timothy Doyle last week, Otto shares responsibility with Gotelaere for repaying Superior the full amount stolen with Gotelaere.