LAKE ANN — A fire chief in a rural Benzie County community defended his volunteer department after a former firefighter was accused of possessing child pornography and another firefighter — a convicted sex offender — recently resigned.
Shawn Gatzke, 31, was arrested July 19 and charged with 20 felony counts after authorities found child sexually abusive material on his smartphone, the second time in a year that he’s faced charges of possessing child pornography. Gatzke resigned from Almira’s fire department in 2012, shortly before his first arrest on charges of possessing and distributing child sexually abusive material.
In June, Almira Township firefighter Eric Pettigrove resigned after he failed to maintain required fire and EMS training. In 1999 Pettigrove was convicted on two counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct with a 15-year-old girl. He is a registered sex offender.
“I don’t think either one of these cases reflects on the department,” said Almira Township Fire & EMS Department Chief Jay Morse. Morse said he was aware of Pettigrove’s criminal history and praised him as a strong performer.
“Eric Pettigrove saved a man’s life by going into a burning building,” he said. “If that isn’t enough to excuse a man’s past, I don’t know what does.”
Pettigrove, 46, of Lake Ann, served with the department from July 1994 until his June resignation. He served 14 days in jail after his 1999 conviction and will be a Tier 2 registered sex offender until October 2024. He could not be reached for comment.
All five members of the Almira Township board were elected to first terms in November 2012. Treasurer Mandy Rineer said they weren’t told of Pettigrove’s status and she would have liked to have known about it when she took office.
“We’re dealing with this,” she said.
Another township official said he wasn’t aware of Pettigrove’s background, but would have took action if members of the public raised concerns.
“If something was brought to our attention we would address it,” township Supervisor Mark Roper said.
Morse said Pettigrove’s past wasn’t revisited through several township administrations because no one, including the fire department’s membership, “ever made an issue of it.”
“We were aware that he had a conviction that was borderline and he was placed on that (sex offenders) list probably because of that,” he said. “However, he had done his time. It was actually a misdemeanor and he’s actually trying to get his record expunged. He was very fit for a firefighter. He served 20 years and most of it was after his conviction. He did his job and that was all we were worried about.”
Morse said Pettigrove wasn’t placed into situations that put him in contact with children, but it was a self-enforced policy rather than one made by the department.
“We stuck with that,” he said. “He kept himself out of those situations.”
Benzie County Prosecutor Sara Swanson said Pettgrove’s sex offender status didn’t legally bar him from the fire department. She said sex offenders typically are restricted from loitering in school safety zones and other places with children, but can “sporadically” enter such areas as part of their employment.
“There was nothing illegal about it,” she said. “It doesn’t violate the sex offender registration act in any way.”
Brooke Nettz, executive director of Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center, said some sex offenders are better candidates for treatment and recovery than others, but must “prove their case” when in public service positions. She said the safety of children should be the most important consideration.
“I think you have to take a deep look into why you would keep that individual employed,” she said.
Traverse City Fire Department Chief Jim Tuller said city firefighters go through an extensive background check process before their employment. He said a “united effort” between city staff and the fire department begins when criminal matters arise.
“Speaking in a broad sense, if there were any criminal charges brought against current city personnel they would be reviewed through the city manager’s office and the human resources office and dealt with on an individual basis,” he said.
Morse serves as part-time fire and EMS department chief. Roper said the township plans to make the position full-time and Morse is one of “three or four” candidates in the running. He said he did not know how the Pettigrove case would affect Morse’s chances.
“I would say we would go through all the applicants, look at their qualifications and see if there’s issues we want to address,” he said. “At this point he’s in the running.”
Roper said the Pettigrove case will spur changes in the township. He said the township clerk’s office will conduct additional background checks on employees and volunteers, including at the fire department.
“I guess if there were issues I would have liked to know,” he said. “It would be nice to know some of the details.”