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Hempfield volunteer firefighter charged with stealing shoots self

Wednesday, July 28, 1999

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A Westmoreland County volunteer firefighter, who had been accused of stealing thousands of dollars from a firefighters association, killed himself Sunday.

John Katonka, 23, killed himself Sunday night with a 9 mm pistol in the living room of his Greensburg home, Greensburg Police Chief Richard Baric said yesterday. The Westmoreland County coroner's office ruled the death a suicide.

"There was some indication that his pending criminal charges played some role in this incident," Baric said.

He said Katonka also was distressed over personal problems not related to his pending trial on charges of theft and conspiracy, but he would not elaborate.

Investigators did not find a suicide note. Baric said he based his statement on information from Katonka's wife, Cathy, 21, who was in the room at the time. She said Katonka had threatened to hurt himself shortly before he pulled out the gun, which Baric said usually was kept loaded near the couple's bed.

Members of Katonka's family said suicide was out of character for Katonka, who had married just about a month ago and who had a job as a mechanic at Muffler Medic in Greensburg. Katonka had continually proclaimed his innocence of the charges, they said.

Katonka's aunt, Stephanie Barkefelt, 37, of Las Vegas, said she was considering legal action against the Westmoreland County district attorney's office in the death of her nephew.

Barkefelt said the district attorney's office frightened Katonka so much that, after a few drinks Sunday night, he put the gun to his head as a "cry for help." Barkefelt said she was told by Katonka's wife that he had removed the clip from the gun but had forgotten that one bullet remained in the chamber. That bullet ended his life.

"His way of crying out for help to his wife was a gesture of putting a gun to his head," Barkefelt said. "He would not have done this otherwise."

In January, the state auditor general's office accused Katonka, then a vice president of the High Park Volunteer Firefighters' Relief Association in Hempfield, of stealing $11,500 from the group's bank account and using it for his own purposes.

John VanDyke, who was the group's president, also was accused of taking $11,300 without proper authorization. A police affidavit said the two men conspired to steal the money.

VanDyke, 29, of Hempfield, was charged with theft, forgery and conspiracy. Both men were free on bond.

Firefighters' relief associations are nonprofit groups linked to, but completely distinct from, volunteer fire departments. Their main purpose is to pay for accident and health insurance for firefighters, safety equipment and training. Usually, there is one association per department.

While the fire departments rely on donations and fund-raising, the relief associations count almost exclusively on state money. In the case of High Park, the money is disbursed from the state to Hempfield, which in turn hands the money out to a dozen relief associations.

The state money comes with strict guidelines on spending and accounting. The auditor general's office monitors the associations, auditing each of them every two years.

It was during a routine audit that investigators uncovered the problems that led to charges being filed against Katonka and VanDyke. The audit said both men had made illegal withdrawals and unauthorized equipment purchases.

In interviews with an investigator from the auditor general's office, the men implicated one another.

Katonka's attorney, Larry Burns of Greensburg, could not be reached for comment.

J. David Caruthers of Greensburg, a public defender who is representing VanDyke, said his client had struck a plea bargain with the Westmoreland County district attorney's office. A court date is expected next month.

Michael Brajdich, chief Westmoreland County detective, said Katonka's death is not expected to affect the case against VanDyke.

Karen Walsh, a spokeswoman for the auditor general's office, offered condolences to Katonka's relatives and said the state's investigation should not be blamed for his death.

"Obviously, it's a tragedy for his family and our sympathies certainly go out to them," Walsh said. "I certainly think to blame the investigation is speculation."

Thomas Gordon, audit manager of the auditor general's office, said,, , "Certainly, we don't want fingers pointing to the auditor general as the cause. We're not the cause. That's just stretching it, I think."

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