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Fire company president convicted in 2020 of issuing threat

WVFC bylaws: Criminal record is disqualifying for membership

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Brandon Phelps at an awards ceremony in February of 2020

According to the Warrenton Volunteer Fire Company bylaws, no one who has been found guilty of “any crime, offense or regulatory violation” may be a member of the company. Last year, the organization’s vice president, Brandon Phelps, was criminally convicted of threatening two other fire company volunteers. Phelps is now the organization’s president, according to the company’s staff directory.

Phelps was also convicted in 2015 of driving while intoxicated, when he was serving as the fire company’s vice president. The organization’s bylaws state that fire company members who are charged with felonies or class I or II misdemeanors should be placed on administrative leave while their charges are pending. Both of Phelps’ criminal convictions were on class I misdemeanor charges.

The fire company’s directors have not addressed questions from the Fauquier Times asking whether Phelps was placed on administrative leave or if he was disciplined in any way following his convictions.

Phelps’ more recent conviction stemmed from an incident on March 8, 2020. Phelps sent a text message to two fellow fire company members, according to Warrenton Police Department investigative records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. “Once these cops lave I’m going to kill you,” the message read, according to the report filed after his arrest; Phelps apparently misspelled the word “leave.”

According to the police documents, Phelps indicated to two company volunteers via text message that police had been called to his residence. “Mr. Phelps … was accusing [the two volunteers] of calling the police again,” according to a police document, a claim that both volunteers denied. Police records do not indicate whether police officers had in fact been called to Phelps’ residence previously.

When Phelps was arrested and questioned in the early morning hours of March 9, 2020, he allegedly denied sending any threatening messages. “[Phelps] again stated that he had no knowledge of what I was referring to,” said the arresting Warrenton police officer in their report.

Police charged Phelps with two felony counts of threatening bodily harm, but he was eventually found guilty of a lesser charge: one class I misdemeanor count of using threatening language using a phone. He was convicted on May 27, 2020 and sentenced to 60 days in prison – all suspended – and to 12 months of supervised probation, according to public court records.

Phelps did not respond to a request for comment.

A 2015 conviction

In 2015, Phelps was found guilty of driving while intoxicated in Fauquier County, a class I misdemeanor, and sentenced to 90 days – all suspended – along with 12 months of supervised probation and a $500 fine, according to public court records. His driver’s license was also restricted for a year. He was arrested on Dec. 26, 2014 and found guilty on March 9, 2015.

The fire company’s bylaws state: “Any member who is charged with a felony or class I or II misdemeanor while on or off duty will be placed on administrative leave pending resolution of the charges.”

Another section of the bylaws, titled “Criminal Record,” reads: “The following items disqualify all applicants or members. You may not have been convicted of or found guilty of any crime, offense or regulatory violation, or participated in any other prohibited conduct identified in the Code of Virginia and state EMS regulations 12VAC5-31-910.”

The bylaws were submitted by the fire company’s attorneys this month as an exhibit to a court filing in an unrelated civil case. The document is dated May 14, 2018.

In response to a list of questions from the Fauquier Times, the current WVFC board of directors issued a broad statement Monday that did not address whether the organization took any action when Phelps was arrested and convicted in 2015 and 2020. Additionally, the statement did not address whether Phelps was disciplined in any way or whether other fire company members have criminal records.

“Personnel matters are handled swiftly within the organization and, when needed, deferred to local law enforcement,” the statement said in part.

“Like any organization, there will be times when we have internal issues arise that do not align with our mission statement, core values and possibly the general expectations of the public,” the statement said at another point. “We take this very seriously and work diligently to resolve the potential problems quickly so that the good work of the majority of the membership can continue.”

Brett Hamby, a career firefighter in Prince William County who currently represents Ward 3 on the Warrenton Town Council, was the fire company’s president from 2012 to 2015 – including when Phelps was arrested and convicted for driving while intoxicated. Hamby did not respond to a request for comment.

Jim Farkas, who succeeded Hamby as the organization’s president and held that position until at least last year, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Annual reports from 2014 through 2020 list Phelps as the vice president, and the fire company’s online staff directory listed him in that position through at least June 9 of this year, according to website archives compiled by the Fauquier Times.

By June 30, however, the staff directory had been updated to list Phelps as the organization’s president, and the website still listed Phelps as the president as of Tuesday morning. A 2021 annual report has not yet been filed with the state corporation commission.

Additional legal dispute involving WVFC

The Warrenton volunteer company last year found itself embroiled in a legal battle over another, now-former volunteer firefighter convicted of a criminal offense.

In 2018, an adult volunteer – Erick Lemus, then 22 years old -- had a sexual encounter with a 16-year-old girl enrolled in the organization’s “junior first responder program.”

Last October, the victim sued the organization and several of its members for $2 million, alleging that the company’s leaders had not taken any steps to protect her and other underage volunteers and had instead encouraged a “culture of adult men pursuing minor female volunteers.”

Phelps is not named in the lawsuit. A trial date has not yet been set.

Reach Coy Ferrell at cferrell@fauquier.com

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