The former volunteer fire chief in Buena Vista is out on bond after an arrest Friday as part of a 77 count indictment.
Butch Lawhorn taught swift water rescue courses but investigators say he was never certified to teach those courses. Lawhorn is accused of faking certificates issued to volunteers from all over southwest Virginia and of taking thousands of dollars for the classes. Swift water rescue teams in Rockbridge County and beyond are in limbo, waiting to find out if they'll have to train all over again.
Last fall, WDBJ7 first reported Lawhorn was the focus of a State Police investigation. He lost his chief position around the same time. Troopers searched the fire station and his house. Wednesday, the day a grand jury indicted him, we went to his home to ask for comment. Lawhorn opened the door but didn't want to talk about the allegations.
"Some of the facts that have been alleged, are they inaccurate that would have been damaging to your reputation?" I asked.
"Some of it, some of it, yeah," he replied.
Lawhorn has told investigators he is properly certified to teach swiftwater rescue by Rescue 3 International, one of the largest organizations that trains instructors and students in proper swift water safety procedures.
Sources with knowledge of the State Police investigation say since as early as 2010, Lawhorn has taught rescue squad members and firefighters in the county using teaching materials he wasn't authorized to use and gave out fake certificates of completion. The paperwork looks like it's from Rescue 3. In a search warrant, state police investigators said though Lawhorn did take steps to become a technician, he never completed necessary course work and is not authorized by any organization to teach life-saving techniques.
The stack of charging documents accuse him of forgery and obtaining money by false pretenses. Some of the pages include the names of people he improperly certified.
It was back in August, investigators say Lawhorn's scheme began to unravel. It was then volunteers from the Glasgow fire department took one of Lawhorn's swift water rescue courses. Three volunteers had to be taken to the emergency room that day; it was then Rockbridge County officials began to question Lawhorn's credentials.
Despite questionable training, Glasgow fire chief John Hill is confident his team, which gets called out frequently for calls, can do the job.
"We'll take every situation that comes to us," he said. "As the fire chief, I feel confident that our department can handle any call that's assigned to us. As far as the field we were trained by Mr. Lawhorn, with previous training in that field, I feel confident in our department."
Rescue 3 has pledged to work with localities to make sure teams are certified, but can't progress until the criminal case is resolved. So far State Police have identified 50 first responders it says Lawhorn defrauded. Lawhorn charged more than two hundred dollars per student per course and investigators are trying to find more swift water members out there with forged certificates.