Small-town Fillmore feels big-time dismay

Residents of Fillmore followed their usual rhythms this week, gathering at the local Starbucks to hash out recent events as giant farm tractors and motorists rolled by on nearby California 126.

Talk turned to Pete Egedi, the town’s former fire chief, who has been under a cloud since he was accused two years ago of embezzling tens of thousands of city dollars. The latest news about Egedi is like a black eye on City Hall that won’t go away, residents say.

During a recent court hearing in Ventura, prosecutors alleged that Egedi tapped a city account to write at least $27,000 in checks to himself and his wife, buying a flat-screen TV among other things. Prosecutors also alleged that Egedi used city dollars to pay for two abortions for a city employee.

Egedi has since lost his job and left town.

“People are already mad about development, they’re mad about traffic and they’re mad about rising sewer rates,” said retired teacher John Romero, one of the regulars drinking coffee in a lounge at Starbucks. “This is just one more stink on City Hall.”

In a small town like Fillmore it’s hard to escape the chatter about Egedi. An agricultural city of 16,000, it has on its main drag a one-screen movie theater, a vintage train depot and a classic white-columned City Hall. Its small-town look makes it a favored location for television and movie shoots

The town’s biggest battles in recent years have been over development. Longtime residents want to keep the city small, but town leaders insist that the city needs the revenue that growth generates. Land that used to be planted in oranges and lemons along California 126 now is dotted with strip malls, food marts, fast-food outlets and tracts of new homes.

Egedi, 40, grew up in Fillmore and attended its schools and was a low-profile firefighter until he won appointment to the chief’s post in 2005. As chief he oversaw a staff of five and about 60 volunteers who receive a stipend.

Last week, he was ordered to stand trial on four counts of embezzlement and grand theft, charges that could send him to prison for four years. He has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney, Mark Pachowicz, vows a vigorous fight at trial.

“My client didn’t do anything wrong, and we will prove that,” he said.

In a court document filed last week, prosecutors laid out a trail of checks they say proves Egedi used a Fire Department account as a personal slush fund. Soon after his appointment, prosecutors say, he began funneling checks to his wife and himself, leaving no evidence he intended to pay back the city. The checks were countersigned by one of the department’s three captains. The captains told investigators they often signed blank checks at Egedi’s request, trusting him because “he was the chief,” according to court filings.

Egedi wrote a $500 check to a city employee in 2007, and an $800 check to the same person the next year, according to court records. Detectives questioned the employee during the investigation and she told them the money went to pay for two abortions, according to a court filling by prosecutor Kevin Drescher of the Ventura County district attorney’s office.

Patrick Maynard, a Fire Department employee, told investigators Egedi asked him to take off work one day in 2008 to drive the woman to an abortion clinic. During the drive, the woman told Maynard that her abortion would cost just under $800.

Maynard told investigators that he became suspicious a few weeks later when he saw an $800 check written to the same city employee.

Prosecutors said Egedi also used department funds to buy two flat-screen TVs, installing one at the firehouse and one at his home. There was no evidence that the chief reimbursed the city and no clear accounting of how he spent the rest of the money, prosecutors said. Acting on a tip, the city began looking into the Fire Department account and Egedi was fired from his $80,000-a-year job in October 2008. He was arrested nearly a year later.

Pachowicz said his client has an explanation for each of the disputed checks. He declined to provide details, saying they would be presented at trial. Egedi and the city employee were “platonic friends and co-workers,” Pachowicz said.

Egedi and his family lived in Fillmore for years, locals say. His mother and brother run an online newspaper called the Sespe Sun that reported some details of this week’s preliminary hearing.

But the Egedis don’t have the stature of the descendants of the city’s founding families, who built Fillmore from a dusty depot stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad into today’s city of farmers, mine workers, merchants and office workers.

“He hasn’t really made an impression,” said Romero. Another city native, who didn’t want to give her name, said she wouldn’t recognize Egedi “if he walked right past me.”

The allegations have shocked some who knew the former chief. Neighbors of Egedi and his wife, Karol, described the couple as quiet and pleasant. Neighbor Carol Zuniga said she noticed new trucks as well as a boat and a BMW that they kept in the garage.

Last summer, Egedi, his wife and their two young children moved to Ventura. Zuniga said she was troubled by the charges facing her former neighbor.

“It’s just wrong,” she said, gazing at the former chief’s house. “He’s someone people in Fillmore looked up to.”