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Brian Burkeen sentencing for tire thefts set for April 30

Photo: Brian Burkeen enters a plea of no contest before Judge Dan Vaughn.

Judge Dan Vaughn is set to sentence former County Fire-Rescue Assistant Chief Brian Burkeen to prison on April 30 after Burkeen pleaded no contest Monday to stealing more than a quarter million dollars’ worth of tires paid for by local taxpayers.

Burkeen, a Fellsmere resident, was scheduled to go to trial on March 9 and Assistant State Attorney Lev Evans said after the plea hearing, “We were locked and loaded, ready to try this case.”

Vaughn instructed Burkeen about all the rights he was giving up by pleading no contest – the right to a trial by jury, the right to remain silent, the right to face his accusers and cross-examine witnesses, and most of all his presumption of innocence. The lightest sentence Vaughn can impose for the charge of first-degree felony theft by a scheme to defraud is 48 months in prison.

Since this is a first offense for Burkeen, it’s not expected that he will get the full 30-year maximum sentence.

Evans told County Attorney Dylan Reingold after the hearing that the county may send a representative to speak about the loss of $288,000 in county property and the impact of that damage to taxpayers. At press time, Reingold said he did not know who would speak on behalf of the county.

Some of the county’s nearly 300 firefighters and paramedics may also want to chime in, as the charges against Burkeen have been a major embarrassment to the fire-rescue department. Also, his thefts siphoned funds from cash-strapped accounts earmarked for equipping and maintaining the county’s fleet of vehicles.

Longtime firefighter and medic John O’Connor, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2201, said “it’s unfortunate what happened but we are glad he took responsibility for his actions. Currently our firefighters and paramedics are focused on providing the highest level of service to our community and preparing for our response to the coronavirus.”

Burkeen also has the right to put forth witnesses that present him in a sympathetic light. That might include medical experts, as Burkeen claims to suffer from pain after a recent vehicle crash.

Charging documents say Burkeen, over nearly five years’ time, fraudulently ordered and picked up more than 1,400 tires that the county did not need, and charged them to the Indian River Emergency Services District account. He then sold the tires to people he knew through social media postings and kept the proceeds.

Just weeks after Burkeen retired in February 2018, suspicious invoices were turned over to the Indian River Sheriff’s Office which led to the unraveling of the scheme to steal from the taxpayers. Burkeen worked under the direct supervision of Fire Chief John King, who also retired in 2018.