JAMES CITY -- On New Year's Day, former James City Fire Chief Richard Miller must turn himself in at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail, don prison garb and start serving a one-year sentence for stealing county money.
At a sentencing hearing Thursday, Miller, 54, tried to explain how his excessive debts led him to steal $62,000 over a six-year period from the James City County Fire Department Flower Fund.
Miller pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges Oct. 17 and paid back the $62,000 that same day.
But Thursday, Miller's tearful apologies and his lawyer's request that he be sentenced to community service wasn't enough to keep him out of prison.
Judge Samuel T. Powell III said that while he didn't think Miller would steal money again, a prison sentence would send a message that people get punished for embezzling money.
"We want the public to know that if you do things like this there's a penalty," said Powell in Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court.
The judge told Miller that if he didn't show up at the regional jail at 6 p.m. Jan. 1, the police would be out looking for him.
Before Miller was sentenced, Powell rattled off some of the amounts on checks Miller made out to cash or to credit card companies from the flower fund bank account.
"Five hundred dollars to Bank Card Services. One thousand dollars to cash. Another $1,000 to cash," he said. "Two thousand dollars to cash. Another $2,000 to cash."
In 1994, Miller set up the flower fund bank account ostensibly to buy flowers when deaths occurred in firefighters' families. The money in the fund came primarily from donations made by county residents who wanted to support the fire department. Although the county requires the fire department to receive approval before spending donated money, Miller bypassed the process, making deposits and withdrawals from the account without approval.
At the end of April then-acting Fire Chief Tal Luton, who's now the county's fire chief, brought a bank statement to the county treasurer after learning of the account and that led to an investigation. Miller was fired in May and arrested in July, just weeks after his planned retirement date.
Before Powell sentenced Miller, Miller said he became overwhelmed with debt and personal problems in recent years, which led him to take money from the account. The former chief testified that he also had to cope with the deaths of his mother in 2000 and his father in 2002.
When he remarried in 2002, Miller said he had a large amount of debt and legal expenses, and needed to financially help his adult children from his first marriage. Furthermore, he had to pay $2,000 a month in spousal support, Miller said.
When his attorney B. Elliot Bondurant asked Miller how he felt about the embezzlement investigation and conviction, he expressed remorse.
"I'm very, very ashamed - humiliated," he testified.
Miller's voice cracked when he talked about his feelings. "There are a lot of people I used to work with who should not have had to be exposed to this."
Miller said he felt that he "disgraced" his firefighter's uniform after a solid 35-year career as a firefighter. He apologized for taking the money.
Miller also said he had planned to pay the embezzled money back upon his retirement.
Bondurant said Miller served the public most of his life. He'd been an Eagle Scout, a volunteer firefighter at 16, a paid firefighter at 18. He was a recognized adjunct instructor in a state firefighters' training program and served on various boards and committees. Miller, he said, received numerous commendations from social and community organizations over the years.
Bondurant said Miller would be better off at home, performing community service and taking care of his two young children.
After Miller was sentenced, one firefighter, John Porter, said what Miller did has left him sick to his stomach.
"It hurts us," he said. "We busted our butts for him."
Porter said firefighters worked to build a good rapport with the community, and the embezzlement case harmed their image.
Porter also said that for years after Miller started the account, firefighters were expected to contribute $5 each week to the flower fund. That money hasn't been accounted for, he said.