Executive pleads in local theft case
N.Y. man worked for one of the nation’s most successful suppliers of first-responder equipment
WEST CHESTER >> A former executive for one of the nation’s most successful suppliers of first-responder equipment pleaded guilty Monday to engaging in a “continuous and systematic” plundering of his employer’s products and selling the items on eBay.
Thomas Wessells, 56, of Waterford, N.Y., appeared before Common Pleas President Judge Jacqueline Carroll Cody to enter his plea to a single county of theft by unlawful taking, a third-degree felony.
He did so without any agreement as to what his sentence would be, leaving that decision up to Cody, who ordered a presentence investigation in advance of a formal hearing.
Wessells was accompanied at the brief proceeding by his attor-
ney, Joel Benecke of West Chester. The former executive at the Witmer Public Safety Group did not offer any comment, but Benecke said he would present a full account of his behavior at sentencing.
The thefts were discovered by officials at the Witmer Public Safety Group when Wessells was fired from his position as director
of order fulfillment due to violating company policy on computer use, Assistant District Attorney Brian Burack, who is prosecuting the case, told Cody, reading form a three-page supplement to the guilty plea document that outlined his criminal behavior.
He had apparently been viewing pornography on a company computer.
Dressed in a dark gray business suit, a white shirt and tie and wearing glasses, Wessells has been free on $25,000 bond.
According to the guilty plea and other court documents, WPSG is a company that supplies public safety items to police officers, firefighters, and other first responders, divided up according to individual services, such as the “Officer Store” selling items to police officers and the “Fire Store” selling items to firefighters.
Wessells was director of order fulfillment for the company from 2005 until his termination in 2014. During the course of his termination, the company reviewed
Wessells’ computer traffic, and during that review, company staff discovered suspicious activity on his computer and alerted the police.
In the arrest affidavit filed last November, county Detective Thomas Goggin, the lead investigator in the case, said that an Information Technology (IT) employee at the company had checked Wessells’ Dell computer on Jan. 9, a day after Wessells was fired, and found a Yahoo.com shortcut that auto-logged into an email account that Wessells had set up. It showed an item for sale by a user named “Power2ol,” the type that WPSG generally sold and which Wessells had access to.
A search by the company’s IT staff showed a number of such sales, the affidavit stated. They included patrol rifle optics, lumen tactical lights, and weapon lights sold by the company. An eBay page showed that 108 items had been sold on the website between Sept. 13, 2013 and Jan. 9, 2014.
Burack said that an accounting showed that Wessells had sold $284,697.71 in stolen products from the “officers store.”
For instance, Wessells stole nine Aimpoint patrol rifle scopes from WPSG, identified by serial number. He then sold these rifle scopes via the “Power2ol” eBay account to nine different individuals, who confirmed purchasing the scopes from the defendant and identified the scopes via matching serial numbers.
In an interview with
county investigators, Wissells acknowledged selling the items, but said that he had received informal permission from the company’s founder, James Witmer Sr., to do so. However, company executives later told police that the senior Witmer suffered from dementia at the time.
Company president James Witmer Jr. was seated in Cody’s courtroom for the guilty plea. He did not address the court, and declined comment as he left the courtroom.
Burack told Cody that because of Wissells’ lack of a prior criminal history the state sentencing guidelines called for standard prison term of a minimum of nine months, or up to 25 months if there were aggravating circumstances. The mitigated range would call for probation only.
The story of the Witmer company is one that is notable for its foresight and success, as well as its devotion to the county’s first responders.
The Witmer company is a “rags-to-riches” success story in the county. The company was formed by brothers James Sr. and Greg Witmer, who had been manufacturers’ representatives for commercial restaurant equipment. James Witmer Sr. was also an officer at the East Brandywine Fire Company outside Downingtown.
According to the company website, in 1994 James Witmer Sr. and his wife were at the Harrisburg Fire Expo looking for equipment for the fire company when he spotted a worker using restaurant
equipment shelving to hang up fire station turnout gear. “A light went off in his head and he said, “I can do that ... but I can do it better!” the company states.
The Witmers soon began designing their own turnout gear racks. Using only a bread tie, Jim Witmer Sr. designed the prototype for a special coat hanger that would keep the coat puffed open so the air would flow into the coat allowing it to dry more efficiently, the website states. The pair called their new shelving system, ”Gearmasters,” installed it in the East Brandywine fire station, and began advertising in trade publications.
The company also pioneered the concept of selling individual helmet parts to firefighters, who had been cannibalizing old helmets to replace broken parts. Selling just helmet parts turned into selling previously owned helmets, then new helmets and gloves and eventually became the company’s TheFireStore.com website.
The company soon branched out into police and EMS services, and in 2008 built a new 35,000 square-foot facility in Valley, housing a large showroom, warehouse and distribution facilities, and corporate headquarters. In 2010, the firm added another 29,000 square feet of warehouse and distribution space in Valley. It now has five locations in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.