Ex-firefighter pleads guilty to embezzlement


First Posted: 3/20/2015

LAURINBURG — After 40 months of incarceration in the Scotland County Detention Center, James Rupard came face-to-face with an assembly of his victims for the first time on Thursday as he pleaded guilty to 17 felonies.

Before Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Richard Brown, the 53-year-old Rupard issued a 15-minute statement to the dozen present members of the Stewartsville Volunteer Fire Department and Scotland County Firefighters’ Association.

His words expressed contrition for the seven years he spent — while holding various positions of authority in both organizations — creating secret bank accounts and transferring thousands of dollars between them, his personal accounts, the account for his insurance business, and yet another account under his ex-wife’s name.

“From a biblical standpoint, my actions were absolutely sins,” he said. “From a legal viewpoint, they were criminal. I lived with a false sense of comfort that, because I had no intention of stealing anything permanently, only using it and replacing it, that I was not sinning, that I was not breaking any laws or rules.”

But Rupard’s words rang false with each of his victims who cared to venture an opinion. William Skipper, current president of the firefighters’ association, requested on behalf of the association as a whole that Rupard receive the maximum allowable sentence.

Rupard pleaded guilty to six counts of embezzlement, five counts of obtaining property by false pretense, four counts of malfeasance by a corporate officer, and one count of embezzlement by an insurance agent, all class H felonies carrying a maximum 30 month sentence for each. In addition, he also entered a guilty plea to a forgery charge, a class I felony with a 15 month maximum sentence.

As part of Rupard’s plea bargain, additional charges were dismissed by the state.

Following the day-long proceedings, Rupard was ordered to serve eight to 18 months active sentence, followed by six months of house arrest and an extended probation period that will last as long as it takes him to pay restitutions totalling more than $120,000.

“He broke trust with many, many, many people in this community,” Skipper said. “James had everybody fooled that he could possibly fool. He is a master manipulator.”

The prosecutor, senior assistant District Attorney Joanna Shober, chronicled Rupard’s move to Scotland County in the 1990s and the process by which he ingratiated himself with the community, volunteering with the Stewartsville fire department and the firefighters’ association as well as the American Red Cross and Republican Party.

In 2009, when Rupard was initially charged with insurance fraud, Scotland County learned the shocking past of a man it had welcomed with open arms 10 years earlier.

For 15 years, Rupard served time after conviction for second-degree murder in the 1978 shooting deaths of his grandparents, Ruth and Lester Rupard, who raised him, in Banner Elk.

Rupard was released in 1994. According to the N.C. Department of Corrections, he was last incarcerated at McCain Hospital in Hoke County.

Rupard was also a licensed insurance agent and the owner of American Insurance Marketing, and the pastor of Sandhills Community Church. Ironically, Shober pointed out, Rupard sent about $2,600 of the misused funds to Campbell University for his divinity school tuition.

‘COMPLEX FRAUD’

Rupard began defrauding the Stewartsville Volunteer Fire Department in November 2001, a year after opening a checking account at the Laurinburg branch of First National Bank in the fire department’s name. He then persuaded the department’s board of directors to move a $10,000 Certificate of Deposit that it held at Wachovia to the First National account, claiming that institution had better return rates.

To open the account, to which only he had access, Rupard forged the signatures of the fire department’s treasurer and secretary.

On Nov. 2, 2001, Rupard again forged the signatures to open a new account, to which he moved the CD — valued at $10,647. Between January 2002 and October 2003, Rupard issued eight checks from that account, totalling $5,576.30 to the Coastland Band Fan Club — an organization he created — and $5,013 to American Insurance Marketing.

Rupard transferred the $1,945.05 remaining into yet another account he opened in October 2002, designated as a grant fund account for the Stewartsville fire department.

In August 2003, Rupard accepted $7,500 from the firefighters’ association for an ING annuity, which he never opened. But he persisted in including the account’s existence in board minutes until 2008. In August 2007, he even produced a fabricated statement purporting that the annuity had reached $9,286 in value.

Between October 2003 and January 2004, Rupard, as captain of the fire department, applied for and received $163,670 in FEMA grants, which were to be spent on firefighting equipment and a brush truck.

From those funds, he misappropriated $38,043 between 38 checks to himself, his ex-wife, and his insurance business. Shober noted that throughout Rupard’s elaborate scheme he kept the balance of all accounts in his control near zero.

In August 2006, Rupard became treasurer of Stewartsville Volunteer Fire Department. Over the next two months, he moved the entire $8,174 balance of the department’s savings account into its operating checking account.

From those funds he issued $7,731 among six checks to American Insurance, one to his personal account, and three to the Scotland County Firefighters Association. Overall, Shober said, checks written to the firefighters’ association were not for expenses relevant to Stewartsville.

In August 2007, after he stepped down as treasurer, Rupard transferred $16,471 — sourced from a $50,000 personal loan from Harold Smith — from his business’ account to the Stewartsville account at Wachovia. He then transferred $15,000 from the Wachovia account into a new First Bank account.

With the $1,776 left in the Wachovia account, Rupard paid some legitimate bills and wrote a $471 check to his ex-wife.

“By opening this new account prior to relinquishing the office of the treasurer, the defendant basically precluded the new treasurer from access to the account history for the Wachovia operating account,” Shober said.

In May 2007, Rupard issued two checks from Stewartsville totalling $9,026 and two checks from the firefighters’ association — of which he was, at that time, president — totalling $3,906 to American Insurance and used those funds to repay a personal loan.

“One distinctive note in the Stewartsville account history is that deposits were made by the defendant in the Stewartsville account when it was at a near zero balance or just before legitimate expenditures were required to be made,” Shober said. “This pattern of deposits in the accounts that the defendant had control of, combined with maintaining a near zero balance, allowed the defendant basically to turn those funds in those accounts to his own benefit.”

SUSPICIONS AROUSED

Rupard’s embezzlement came to an end after Stewartsville received a $29,260 FEMA grant in July 2008.

After that grant award, Rupard, along with other Stewartsville officers, purchased fire equipment at Wally’s Fire Safety in Mullins, South Carolina. The next day Rupard approached treasurer Richard Byrd to request reimbursement in the amount of $26,121, claiming to have paid for equipment with his business’ funds.

Byrd issued the check, and Rupard deposited those monies and used them to pay off a $25,045 personal loan.

But the request struck Byrd as strange, as he viewed mixing fire department and business accounts as a careless business practice. Kevin Strickland, the department’s assistant chief, had at the same time become aware that Rupard’s business phone was disconnected and that he was in significant debt.

Strickland went to Wachovia and requested the history for the department’s account there. Noting the fluctuations in the account balance, he requested the checks that had been written from the account.

“When he sees that this defendant had been writing checks to himself, to his business, to his wife, he calls Richard Byrd back and says we need to get that check back,” said Shober.

They, along with firefighters’ association president David Laviner, who had noticed discrepancies in that organization’s accounts as well, notified the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office to initiate an investigation.

During a July 2009 interview by the State Bureau of Investigation, Rupard admitted to diagnoses of ADHD and bipolar disorder, and described his scheme as a “constant state of juggling.”

“The defendant described what happened as a story of misguided loyalty,” Shober said. “He stated, ‘rather than letting go, when nobody else would do it, I would do it. I just did not know how to say no.’”

DESPERATE TIMES

Rupard also defrauded several individuals, among them his former mother-in-law Elizabeth McEwen, who entrusted him with $35,000 to place in an AIG retirement annuity. Instead, he used the money to repay a personal loan.

Rupard also travelled to Winston-Salem to pay a visit to Patsy Ellis, who he had known since 1995 and who he had assisted with various legal matters and her late husband’s life insurance policy. In addition to making himself a beneficiary of her will without her knowledge, he obtained a check for $10,000, which he represented as an investment in his insurance business.

After viewing Ellis’ credit card information, he returned for another $16,000, which the 80-year-old granted.

Using a nonexistent life insurance policy as collateral, Rupard obtained $10,000 from John and Winifred Gay — the couple’s life savings — and promptly deposited $8,000 of that into his business account.

After his September 2009 arrest, Rupard was bonded out by a friend, Randy Blackburn. Blackburn housed and supported Rupard for five months until Rupard stole a check, issued it to himself, and forged Blackburn’s signature.

SENTENCING

In his statement, Rupard said that he most regrets the destruction of the many close personal relationships afforded him by Scotland County’s firefighters and the community at large.

“Many of you trusted me with some of the deepest secrets and troubles of your lives, and I cherished every opportunity I had to minister to you,” he said. “But in the end I failed you, I let you down, I betrayed your trust. I betrayed the trust that you freely gave me that I had not earned.”

While concurring that Rupard’s actions constitute criminal action, Rupard’s attorney, Leonard King, argued that the crimes were not a calculated Ponzi scheme, but a form of chaos that overwhelmed his client.

He argued that Rupard should be released in order to have the opportunity to make restitution to his victims. But the victims lined up in the courtroom were skeptical.

“James’ ability to work: none,” Blackburn intoned. “James’ ability to pay restitution: none. His ability to feel remorse: none. His ability to coexist within Scotland County: none.”

“Even with the stipulations that you can put in to try to see that these monies are repaid,” Skipper said, “there are people in this community that would be in danger of being his next victim.”

Strickland described Rupard as deceptive and narcissistic.

“It is my opinion that upon entering Scotland County, he saw easy pickings,” he said. “He saw some country folks, some Bible-believing folks as Mr. Blackburn said, some good old country boys on the fire department, and so it began.”

Shober also relayed statements from those among Rupard’s victims who could not appear on Thursday, herself requesting that Rupard be sentenced to more active time followed by the maximum possible probational period.

“My concern for this community is that the only means he will have to pay money back is to do what he did to these victims,” she said.

Brown sentenced Rupard to four years to four years and 1o months of active sentence.

With credit for his 40 months of imprisonment so far, Rupard will serve another eight to 18 months active sentence.

“Any of these amounts of money are very significant and, I suspect, depending on individual circumstances of the victims, they go from being very significant to probably crucial in their lives, particularly for someone who’s 80 years old and lost what was described to me as essentially her life savings,” said Brown. “I feel a responsibility to try and get some of that money back.”

Brown suspended a further sentence of 30 months to three years’ incarceration. Once released, Brown said that Rupard shall serve six months of electronic house arrest and 60 months of supervised probation.

Brown established restitutions totalling more than $120,000: $12,419 to the Stewartsville Volunteer Fire Department, $7,500 to the Scotland County Firefighter’s Association, $50,000 to Harold Smith, $26,000 to Patsy Ellis, $10,000 to John and Winifred Gay, $35,000 to Elizabeth McEwen, and $885 to Randy Blackburn.

If Rupard fails to make full restitutions within the five years of his initial probationary term, the probation office is to apply to extend his probation until such time as Rupard’s victims are fully repaid.

Among the terms of Rupard’s probation are prohibition from contact with his victims, from serving with any fire department or emergency services organization, from operating in any fiduciary capacity in any business, from borrowing funds from any party other than a licensed financial institution unless with full disclosure of convictions and approval of his probation officer.

He is also forbidden to apply for or obtain an insurance or financial license.

Reach Laurinburg Exchange reporter Mary Katherine Murphy at 910-506-3169.

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