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Playing Fireman

What prompted Illinois to pass a law against impersonating emergency personnel? Meet the men of the Lost Creek Fire Company.

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Immediately after a tornado demolished downstate Utica last spring, around 30 ambulances and fire trucks from across the state raced to the aid of the little town. Among them, a red-and-white 1975 Mack fire truck marked lost creek fire company eng. 886 stood out. Its driver stopped for directions at the North Aurora Fire Station, which had already dispatched a crew of emergency workers, then sped toward Utica. State police were manning a roadblock in front of a vehicle staging area set up about a mile north of town.

In situations like this emergency workers are summoned by the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, or MABAS, the statewide emergency response system for large disasters, and a password is given to responding departments when they're dispatched. No one on the Mack knew the password, according to Ottawa Fire Department chief Richard Scott, the incident commander at the scene. So the troopers stationed at the roadblock radioed him and asked him what to do. Scott had rubble to clear--there was no time to do a background check on a company he'd never heard of. He estimates that about 10 to 15 other people without passwords showed up at Utica, some in personal vehicles. He ordered the officers at the staging area to separate them all from the main group and tell them to wait.

"We let them sit there for about five hours," Scott says. "I guess they got a little upset at that point and demanded to be allowed to go down. We refused and asked them to go home or we would have them escorted out by police."

The interlopers hadn't been called to the scene by MABAS. Official personnel had no idea who they were or where they'd come from. But in the days after the tornado an e-mail circulated among Illinois fire departments that offered some clues. Signed by a J.R. Matta, chief of the Lost Creek Fire Company, it thanked those who'd responded to the Utica emergency and boasted of his company's good work: "When the call went out by Division 25 for all available Fire Company's & Rescue personnel. Hundreds of public and private Fire, Rescue and Ambulance services were summoned to the scene. We at Lost Creek Fire Co. were more than happy to respond to their request." It went on to describe a late-night journey from Lake County to Utica and extol the camaraderie among the many firefighters at the scene. And there was a fair bit of cinematic narration: "Debris was everywhere and we took everything into mind and performed our tasks without hesitation. Radios crackling in the air, Emergency vehicles of all types rushing into and out of the town. It was a very eerie site to behold. One that you need to experience to feel what we felt trying to lend assistance to a small town in need. So once again, I thank those people who responded last night in our caravan of Emergency vehicles with Engine 886 leading the way to render aid to a small rural community of about 1000 people of Utica, ILL."

Some firefighters were amused by this work of fiction, but the brass wasn't. Jay Reardon, chief of the Northbrook Fire Department, is president of MABAS. The Utica operation was the system's largest mobilization to date--around 63 fire trucks, engines, ambulances, and heavy-rescue vehicles were put into action before the week was over. Over the past five years on Reardon's watch MABAS has been overhauled, partly in response to the threat of terrorism. A breach of its protocols could put the lives of emergency personnel and civilians at risk.

Reardon wanted the Lost Creek Fire Company busted. He contacted the state police and the Lake County sheriff's office and asked them to investigate. "They both called me back and said, 'We can't find a law on the books,'" he says. "Which amazed all of us, because we all presumed it was illegal to impersonate a firefighter."

Jeffrey R. Matta is a slight, mustachioed 44-year-old bus driver who lives in Deerfield. When I met him at a diner in Wheeling he was dressed in the navy blue utility clothes favored by emergency workers. His ears jutted out from under a stiff baseball cap, and on his jacket were a commemorative "9-11 WTC" lapel pin and an American flag patch. Under his coat he wore a portable radio of the sort police patrol officers carry, its speaker whispering softly. His belt buckle was made from a Lake County sheriff's badge.

In the parking lot his massive midnight blue Chevy pickup had a pair of long yellow stripes running down the side. "Can you tell I used to work for the sheriff?" he asked, explaining that the striping was once used on Lake County sheriff's vehicles.

Matta didn't actually work for the Lake County sheriff, but for 11 years he was a volunteer in the sheriff's reserve deputy unit. That's a group of civilians who provide traffic and crowd control at public events, search for lost children and old folks, help police with evidence searches, and assist them at natural and man-made emergencies.

Matta said he has 27 years of experience working in emergency services. "You talk to anybody who's in their 40s or 50s now, they'll say they're firemen or policemen because of the show Emergency!," he said. "When I saw the show in 1973, I said, 'That's what I want to be.'"

He got his start as a volunteer firefighter in Mundelein from 1979 to '82, then went to Florida and took a job as a paramedic, working his way up to supervisor. He later returned to Illinois and worked for Salata Ambulance, a private ambulance service in Lake County, and for a time he was a dispatcher for the Lincolnshire-Riverwoods Fire and Police Department. Both of these employers praise his performance. He also volunteered with the Lake Zurich Explorer Post 2, a unit that provides police and fire training to Boy Scouts.

"You gotta understand firemen," said Matta. "Once you're a fireman, and once you're a cop, it's always in your system, no matter if you've been out of it for 30 years. It's always in your blood. If you smell smoke, you're like"--he tilted his head up and sniffed the air in the diner--'Somebody's got a fire going.' No one else can smell it, but you can smell it. And you have this tendency of wandering over to go and watch the fire."

Matta told me he'd retired from the reserve deputy unit in 1999 but was now an honorary member occasionally called upon to teach new recruits.

John Crilly is a sergeant in the Lake County sheriff's marine unit, but for four years he supervised the reserve deputy unit, which put him in charge of interviewing potential recruits. Overall, he says, the reserve deputies under him were a solid group. But in a few cases he was forced to discipline or even fire someone.

"I found people falling into three categories," he says. Some were "people that had an interest in police work at one time in their life and life's path took them somewhere else. These were guys that owned their own businesses--I had some attorneys, I had salesmen. Those are great people to have on board. The other group of people I ran into were people who want to be policemen and are using this as a stepping-stone. I loved to have guys like that. It was perfect. And the other group of people that would come out of the woodwork had no business being police. They would never be policemen; they'd never pass any of the testing to become policemen. These were the people we'd discourage from applying, and if some did get in, they became discipline issues. Because they can't help themselves. They would just do strange things."

Reserve deputies aren't issued badges or guns, and they don't have police powers. But a few had badges made up and would flash them around, Crilly recalls. In a couple cases volunteers took it upon themselves to curb carloads of teenagers or motorists they deemed reckless.

Crilly says Matta--who'd achieved the rank of sergeant by the time he arrived--had some discipline issues. Once he mouthed off to a superior officer, and occasionally he chewed out reserve deputies of lower rank. Another time he raced off in a sheriff's towing vehicle, lights and sirens blaring, to respond to a report of a domestic dispute. Often he'd just show up without an assignment, take a car out of the motor pool, and drive around. Crilly says he wrote Matta up for these infractions. Eventually, fed up, he told Matta he could either retire or be kicked out.

"He continued to be very disruptive of the unit, because he still had contacts there," says Crilly. "He still had friends involved, and he would deluge these e-mails--very dramatic flair with goofy grammar and busted-up sentences--he would send those out all the time." Crilly recalls one in which Matta claimed to be receiving firearms training from the Lake Zurich Police Department, infuriating the other reserve deputies. Finally, Crilly says, Matta's standing with the reserve deputy unit was revoked, and he was told to stop coming to county functions and stay off county property.

Crilly occasionally ran into Matta, and though they remained cordial, the sergeant was keeping an eye on him. Matta had an emergency light bar mounted on top of his truck, and the letters LCS were stickered on the truck's body. Once, Crilly says, he spotted Matta in Long Grove "dressed in a full uniform, minus a weapon. He had these fatigue pants on and a duty belt and a uniform shirt of some sort, and he had public safety written on his hat."

Last February an attorney for Long Grove sent Matta a cease and desist letter in response to a document they'd received from him, titled "Long Grove Public Safety Program, General Orders." In it Matta represented himself as head of a public safety unit approved by the village. The letter threatened Matta with prosecution under the state law against impersonating a peace officer.

Crilly himself contacted a Lake County state's attorney to find out if Matta could be charged with anything. "I told anyone who asked me, 'Look, it's not a personal thing with this guy. He's gonna keep doing things until he's told he can't, and he's gotta be told by having handcuffs put on him and taken to jail.' These cease and desist letters and these roundabout tactics and things--I said, 'The guy needs to be arrested and shown that there are repercussions to his actions. And they wouldn't approve charges. They said there's no such thing as an honorary deputy, which is what he said he was, and as such you can't impersonate something that doesn't exist."

Matta blames his problems with the reserve deputy unit on personality conflicts with his commander. "He took it upon himself to rid the unit of people who could think for themselves," Matta says. The letters LCS stood for Lighting Control Systems; at the time, he says, he worked selling emergency lights and sirens, and the light bar on his truck was simply for demonstration. He says he impersonated no one and his intentions were never anything but honorable.

The Long Grove public safety program was just a proposal, he says, and the village blew it out of proportion. In the summer of 2003 he and some friends with similar volunteer backgrounds had the idea of starting a group that would contract with municipalities to assist in the kind of traffic and crowd control Lake County's reserve deputies do. "You look at the 9/11 stuff and the threat level," says Larry Teschner, who worked with Matta in the reserve deputy unit and was one of his recruits. "I mean, when was the last time you saw it below yellow? Our initial thrust was to help out local communities." Matta says they approached some towns in Lake County and a few liked the idea. He gathered a group of 13 or 14 guys, all with volunteer experience, some in fire, some in law enforcement.

In the winter of 2003 Matta got in touch with an acquaintance, Jay M. Katz, a 42-year-old dealer in fire equipment who lives in Lindenhurst. Katz, who sometimes went by the name Mike, owned an old Skokie Fire Department engine and another from Elm Grove, Wisconsin.

Collecting fire trucks isn't such an unusual hobby. Fire buffs, many of them active or former firefighters themselves, restore old emergency vehicles, showing them off at parades and other gatherings for enthusiasts. The Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America has more than 3,000 members in 50 chapters all over the world, who collect, trade, and buy and sell old rescue equipment. Dave Weaver, who organizes the annual Chicagoland Emergency Vehicle Show, says there are about 25 guys in northern Illinois who own out-of-service fire trucks and engines, including House speaker Dennis Hastert, who owns a 1955 Mack ladder truck.

"We used to go to fire musters where everybody comes together and they play with hoses and water and things," says Matta. "And we got down to these southern towns and they're like, 'We need help doing this. We need help doing that.'"

Matta thought Katz's trucks could be put to use in his new outfit. "I said, 'What would happen if I could borrow one of the engines and use it for, like, a parade, and see if we do something with it other than just a parade?'" Matta says Katz demurred, saying the liability insurance would be too expensive. "I said, 'Let me massage some numbers around.'"

Katz, like Matta, has EMS experience. Unlike Matta, he has a criminal record. In 1987, five months after starting as a paramedic with the Chicago Fire Department, he was arrested by Highland Park police for carrying a concealed pistol in his car and pulling it on a man named Lino Trapani. Trapani says he was out driving with his wife when he tried to pass Katz on the road. "I didn't know the guy," says Trapani. "I was trying to pass him, and he would speed up. I slow down, and he would just stay in front of me." He says Katz followed him into his driveway and confronted him. "I said, 'OK, wait a minute,' recalls Trapani. "And I went into the garage and I got a bat. I told him that I'd bust his head, and he pulled the gun on me."

Just over a week later Bannockburn police arrested Katz for flashing a firearms owner identification card at a different man and claiming to be a police officer. Katz's firearms charge was dismissed, but he pleaded guilty to an impersonation charge. He was fined $500 and placed under court supervision for a year, after which the conviction was erased from his record. In 1992 he was dismissed from the Chicago Fire Department (a department spokesman would not say why).

In 1999 Katz was charged with molesting a ten-year-old friend of his daughter's during sleepovers at his house. He pleaded guilty to two charges of aggravated criminal sexual abuse and was sentenced to four years' probation and 30 months' periodic imprisonment, during which he was released only for work and counseling. He did time at Taylorville Correctional Center, which has a counseling program for sex offenders.

Matta says that one day he was hanging out at Katz's house near the Wisconsin border when they heard about a barn fire in Kenosha County. Katz knew some firefighters in that area, so they jumped in his van and headed north to check it out. "They had a good fire going," Matta says. When one of the firefighters complained that they didn't have enough hose, Katz told him he had 5,000 feet of it back at his house. "And he goes, 'Can you go down and get it?'" says Matta. "And I turned to [Katz] and I says, 'Hey, we oughta start a company doing this.'"

"You talk to firemen, you talk to policemen," says Matta. "You find out what their weaknesses are, what they're lacking. And what was lacking was immediate response with something special." Matta says the idea was to stock things like uncommon extinguishing agents or unusually large hoses for fire departments that couldn't budget for them. Part of their plan was to fight grass fires in Wisconsin, and at some point Katz acquired a one-ton Dodge brush truck with a 300-gallon water tank for that purpose. Matta and Teschner say they each spent a few thousand dollars of their own money buying gear.

Katz also bought the 1975 Mack fire engine, which a few Pennsylvania fire companies had owned before him. Lost Creek is a small village outside of Shenandoah, in the eastern part of the state. It bought the truck used from another company for $41,000 and still owed money on it when its volunteer fire company was shut down in 2002. The nearby Altamont Fire Company assumed Lost Creek's debt but never used the truck.

Altamont fire chief Dennis Prosick says his company tried to sell it through a trade magazine but had a hard time finding a buyer. Then in late 2003 Katz flew in from Chicago. He paid $1,500 for the rig, plus around $400 for some spare hose, then drove the pumper back to Chicago. "That had to be some ride," says Prosick. "Probably had hemorrhoids by the time he was done. They ride rough. They're not like Cadillacs."

According to a pamphlet put out by the Illinois Lost Creek Fire Company, the group was incorporated in June 2004 and Matta was named chief. The secretary of state has no records for the company, but Teschner and Matta say they filed as a limited liability corporation.

While they waited for the paperwork to go through, they spent time driving around in Katz's trucks, attending parades and familiarizing themselves with their equipment. Matta says that the company would occasionally get calls from contacts in various departments inviting them to respond to fires, but that until they were officially incorporated he always refused.

Then around 11 PM on April 20, 2004, after the Utica tornado struck, Matta says, he got a call from Katz, who told him he'd gotten a call from someone at MABAS Division 25--which includes Ottawa and Utica--inviting the company to help with the search and rescue operation. "Katz said, 'Do you want to go to Utica?' and I said, 'No, that's too far to go this time of night.' And he's like, "Oh, come on, come on--they're inviting us. When are we going to get another invitation like this again to a major disaster?'"

Matta called the Lost Creek members, but only two, one of them Teschner, were willing to go. They caravanned in Matta's pickup, the fire engine, and an Isuzu Rodeo. Matta says that at North Aurora they were given a map to Utica with a password written on it, and that they were expected there. They made it past two checkpoints at the scene and then were directed into a staging area. In addition to all the fire departments that responded, Matta says, there was a "crackerload" of people--some in fire coats--who showed up but didn't seem to be affiliated with anyone else. Teschner remembers there were exactly seven, some of whom clambered aboard the Lost Creek engine. "They asked if they could go with us if we got called in," he says.

Teschner says the company didn't do anything but check their generator for power, then sit in the truck all night. Eventually they were told to go home. "We went back down to the checkpoint," says Matta. "And they said, 'Thank you, thank you. Good seeing you. So glad you could make it.'"

Matta insists he didn't send the e-mail boasting of his company's work (though the headers on the e-mail show it originating from his account) and says the Lost Creek Fire Company never heard any complaints about their showing up in Utica. "We were there for equipment," he says. "We had pry tools. We had all the extrication stuff. That's all we were basically there for. We weren't there to fight a fire."

"Everybody treated us as if we were expected," Teschner says. "If we weren't on the list then they wouldn't have let us in. If we didn't have the password, why'd they let us past the checkpoints with the state police?"

"Things were happening so fast," says Chief Scott of the Ottawa Fire Department. "We just wanted to isolate them. We figured it was easier to isolate them in the staging area because they can't get out of there unless we direct them out of there. If we'd have had more police officers there'd have been more credentialing. And if there's another statewide disaster, I guarantee there will be. This was all really a learning experience on our statewide disaster plan."

MABAS head Jay Reardon says it's impossible that Lost Creek was summoned to Utica. "If you are not told to respond by a MABAS division dispatch center, you are not to respond," he says. "We do not condone freelancing or self-dispatch, and that's exactly what these guys did. Nobody calls up on the phone and says, 'Hey Billy Bob, grab your fire truck and come out and give us a hand.' That's not how the system works."

Matta regrets that there were no brush fires in Wisconsin that summer, but Lost Creek did try to pitch in where they could. In mid-May they went to Salem, Wisconsin, to help the local volunteer department fill sandbags after heavy spring rains caused flooding in the area. "That was very nice of them," says Salem Fire Department chief Mike Slover. "They also made themselves available for calls and so forth. However, we've got certain liability problems with that. But we were very grateful for the help."

Once, Matta says, they were invited to Franklin Park's fire-training facility and were taught basic firefighting by a state certified fire instructor, whose name he doesn't remember. "He heard through the grapevine that we went to Utica and said, 'We heard you did some great stuff down there,'" says Matta.

"Although we did nothing," Teschner interjects.

"No, we didn't do anything but stand around. And he says, 'Let's get you trained because you could be an asset down here too.'" This same instructor, Matta says, would occasionally call them out to fires (including one in Berwyn), though they never went to any.

Meanwhile, the group produced a brochure. "Lost Creek Fire Co., Volunteering to Fight What Others Fear," it says. "Dedicated to preserving the old school way of firefighting." Inside, the pamphlet touts the group's response to the tornado: "The unit's first official call out was to Utica Illinois. The four-member team responded by personal vehicle and by Fire Engine that night, thus putting the Lost Creek Fire Company on the map."

It's true that fire chiefs across northern Illinois were aware of the company by last summer. Some began compiling Lost Creek sightings and incidents to report to the Lake County state's attorney. John Crilly began conducting an investigation. He'd heard reports that Lost Creek was operating illegally on state police radio channels.

Last Memorial Day firefighters in northern Lake County reported that someone identifying himself as the chief of the Lost Creek Fire Company had radioed in a fatal traffic accident near Route 45 and Sand Lake Road in Lindenhurst. The broadcaster allegedly requested a Flight for Life helicopter to assist. "He's telling them they've got entrapment, they need helicopters," says Crilly. "And he was right--it was a really bad wreck. People got killed. But right away all the little alarm bells were going off on the firemen. Right away they're going, 'Who the hell is this calling in this thing?'" Gary O'Rourke of the Illinois State Police Emergency Radio Network governing board says the matter was investigated, but when the board tried to send a cease and desist order to the company, they couldn't locate an address.

Crilly also heard that Katz had shown up with his truck during the Lake County Fair and again at last year's Chicagoland Emergency Vehicle Show in Aurora. There's nothing illegal about that, but it gave Crilly pause that someone with Katz's criminal record was hanging out at events popular with children.

In late August, Winthrop Harbor police sergeant James Vepley was briefed about Katz's record by that town's fire chief, Michael Stried, who according to police documents had heard reports of his visiting schools with his fire truck "for show-and-tell-type events." (It's illegal for child sex offenders to go within 500 feet of a school unless the offender is a parent, step-parent, or guardian of a child enrolled there.) Asked to keep a lookout for the Lost Creek truck, Vepley began his own investigation.

Last September 6, the neighboring town of Zion held its annual Jubilee Days parade. Vepley got a call from Stried telling him that the Lost Creek Fire Company had two vehicles lined up in the convoy, each bearing the same license plate. Vepley went to the parade grounds and spotted the trucks. He followed them when they left, and as they turned into a gas station within Winthrop Harbor's jurisdiction he hit his lights. According to Vepley, Matta identified himself as a Lake County sheriff's deputy and Katz said he was a retired Chicago firefighter. Two other group members were wearing Lost Creek Fire Company T-shirts.

"At first they were surprised," says Vepley. "They said, 'We're a fire company and you're the police. This is post-9/11. We all work together. Why are you stopping us?'" Vepley pointed out the license plates, and Katz explained he must have grabbed the wrong one by mistake.

"Throughout the conversation they continued stressing that they were doing this to help the community and they wanted to get along with surrounding police and fire departments," Vepley says.

Vepley radioed an investigator for the secretary of state's office for advice on what he could write the trucks up for. He cited Matta, who was driving the Mack, with failure to display a front license plate, possession of red emergency lights, and lack of a valid safety sticker. Katz, driving the brush truck, was cited for possession of emergency lights, lack of proof of insurance, and unlawful use of registration plates. Vepley confiscated handheld radios from Matta and Katz that he discovered were capable of transmitting over state police and fire frequencies. He also impounded the brush truck until Katz could prove he'd had it insured. While the truck was in the pound, he and a Winthrop Harbor assistant fire chief took an inventory of the equipment on board. Among the assorted medical gear they found new supplies like air packs, but also IV bags that had been expired for about ten years.

Vepley says that when he told the group that Katz was a registered sex offender they seemed surprised.

Matta says the group was invited to the Zion parade, and Katz had run his truck in it the year before. But when they arrived they were confronted by a fire official who noted that they weren't a municipal fire department and demanded that they go to the end of the line. Matta says the situation was resolved when a parade official recognized Katz and gave them the OK. But he was still miffed. "It just didn't feel right," he says. "You invite us and then you give us crap? I said, 'I think it's time for us to leave.'"

He says that when the Winthrop Harbor police pulled them over, they kept them for nearly three hours while they looked for something to charge them with. The question of the duplicate plates was moot, he says, since emergency vehicles are exempt from having license plates.

Days later, the lawyer Katz had hired to file the incorporation papers told them that they'd been misfiled and had never gone through. The company decided to disband, and Katz said he'd sell the trucks. "I was really ticked off," says Matta. "I have a reputation in this county--a good reputation--in fire, medical, police. I can walk into any hospital and they know who I am because I've done so much good in the county. I said, 'Something is wrong here. Obviously we've stepped on a lot of toes.'"

Later that month Katz and Matta appeared before a Lake County judge to answer for the tickets. They were each fined $100 for failure to display a front license plate and given six months' court supervision. The rest of the tickets were dismissed.

Strangers show up at disasters all the time, says Jay Reardon. "Any time there's a major incident there's a couple different people that come out of the woodwork," he says. "Those that just want to be involved and are not trained. Some of these folks will say and do anything to get into the site--gawkers that get in the way--but they're pretty benign. The others, especially those at major disasters, are those that have illegal motives to make money and become opportunists." Reardon remembers the DC-10 crash at O'Hare in 1979, when a man dressed as a priest attempted to get onto the disaster site to loot the bodies of the victims.

After Reardon learned there was no law against impersonating a firefighter in Illinois, MABAS and various other fire and police organizations began lobbying Springfield for one. In late May state representative Mike Boland of East Moline got a bill passed making it a felony for anyone to "knowingly and falsely" represent himself as a firefighter or emergency management worker or do so while committing a crime. Impersonation of an emergency worker is now punishable by up to six years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

Jay Katz was determined to lay low after the Lost Creek Fire Company disbanded last fall. But he broke his silence late last month after Boland held a press conference in Lake County announcing the new law and the Waukegan News Sun ran an article calling the Lost Creek group "wannabes."

"We don't feel we did anything wrong," Katz says. "We don't feel we impersonated anybody. There may have been some confusion as to who we were, but it wasn't our purpose to go to Utica after a disaster and to impersonate firemen. We never said we were anybody else but Lost Creek. . . . We're not wannabes. We were trying to be do-a-bes."

Katz calls the first 35 years of his life a "complete disaster." But after his conviction he underwent counseling, and he says he became determined to lead a respectable life. He adamantly denies ever visiting schools with his fire trucks. "That is absolute bullshit," he says. "The law says I cannot. I have not, and I will not." He says the Lost Creek Fire Company was his way of giving back to society. "I looked in the mirror finally and said, 'Hey, you are a real piece of shit. Do you want to live the rest of your life like this?' And I said, 'No.'"

The other members of the company had no knowledge of his record, he says, and he regrets that his past may have tarnished their reputations, because "they were a lot of really good guys." The group practiced every weekend, he says, using manuals from the International Fire Service Training Association, and its members were motivated by nothing more than a desire to "make a difference after September 11." They adopted the Lost Creek name to honor the firefighters who were in the Pennsylvania company.

Katz says Lost Creek reported to Utica after he saw coverage of the disaster on TV. He won't talk about why the group stopped at the North Aurora Fire Station before arriving at Utica, saying he doesn't want to get anyone in trouble. No one at the checkpoint asked the group for passwords, he insists--in fact they were thanked for showing up and offered fuel for their truck. "They never came to us and talked to us about it," he says. "They never said boo to us." He also denies having stocked out-of-date medical supplies.

Last Memorial Day, Katz says, he came upon the fatal traffic accident while on his way back from driving his fire truck in a parade. He says a man who identified himself as a paramedic with a local fire department ordered him to call for help on his radio. Katz says he didn't use the state police frequency, but a different one used by local fire departments. "You see this 14-year-old child dying--what are you supposed to do? Not pick up the radio because they're gonna be angry that you used a radio frequency? Or worry about it later? I told them exactly what they had. I told them how many victims they had and how they were injured. Two people died, and they're gonna harass us because they're worried about their precious radio frequency?"

Katz says the Lake County Fire Department never gave the Lost Creek Fire Company a chance. "They crushed us before we could even tell them who we were," he says. "Maybe the confusion is that we misunderstood the purpose of this relatively new statewide disaster system. We were actually going to approach MABAS and explain to them who we were. And maybe we jumped the gun."

Katz, Matta, and Teschner believe they were harassed out of business. They say municipal fire companies felt threatened by the idea of a private company working on their turf.

"They don't realize that the dedication is there," says Matta. "We're putting our lives on the line to help them out. And they're like, 'Oh, no. You're gonna take my job away.'"

In Illinois about 37,000 of the state's 42,000 firefighters work for MABAS-affiliated departments. Reardon says there's no need for a company like Lost Creek. "Why should we be threatened by them?" he says. "If they were an authentic, condoned fire agency, they'd be part of the Lake County Fire Chiefs Association. They're not."

MABAS needn't worry about the Lost Creek Fire Company anymore. Katz won't say who he sold his trucks to, though the brush truck is somewhere in Michigan. "I am completely out of any type of fire anything," he says. "I don't want to go to shows. I don't want to go to parades. I just want to move on with my life. And I don't want to cause anybody any problems, nor do I want to incur any on myself. This should be the last time any fire department has to make mention of me because I'm gone. I'm out of it." At least until he sues: Katz says he has a "team of lawyers" working on a lawsuit against various Lake County agencies.

The other members of the company have dispersed. A few of the older ones--friends of Matta--are so disillusioned they're no longer speaking to him. As for Matta and Teschner, they say they never would have been involved with Katz if they had known about his record. The way it stands, they say they're finished doing volunteer work. Teschner is near retirement, and Matta just wants to be left alone, though he says he's lawyered up too.

"I'm hanging it up," he says. "I'm so sick of the crap from Lake County, from the police. I don't listen to fire-radio crap anymore. I don't listen to police stuff anymore. If something was to blow up tomorrow, I don't care. I'll sit at home and watch it on TV."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/James Balodimas, Jon Randolph.

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