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.