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Friends doubt guilt of brothers charged in bingo scam

| Saturday, April 14, 2001

On a beautiful Good Friday afternoon, Joe Suly, chairman of the Democratic committee in North Braddock, was in his element.

Suly had a table to himself at North Braddock Volunteer Fire Department No. 1 fish fry on Wolf Avenue, where he was flattening out pieces of aluminum foil for sandwich wrappers and dispensing ''hello's'' to people he's known all his life.

Two of the people Suly had kind words for were Tom Petrovic, chief of the neighboring Braddock Volunteer Fire Department No. 2, and Petrovic's brother Robert, who both were arrested Thursday on charges of stealing more than $23,000 from the department's twice-a-week bingo games at the Talbot Avenue fire hall.

'They're good people,' Suly said. 'They've got a good organization down there.'

The Petrovics face an April 18 preliminary hearing before District Justice Ross Cioppa of Rankin.

Other North Braddock residents at yesterday's fish fry said they have heard the Braddock bingo games have a reputation for being a little rowdy, so they prefer to play their bingo in East Pittsburgh, which is closer anyway.

But they said they know Tom Petrovic as a community-oriented man who gives freely of his time.

'I don't think there's anything wrong, I think it's a case of somebody looking to find something wrong and blaming it on him,' said Smokey George, secretary of the three volunteer fire companies in North Braddock and a candidate for North Braddock mayor in next month's primary election.

Donna Monroe of North Braddock stopped by the Wolf Avenue fire hall to get lunch and talk with neighbors. She said she had read accounts of the Petrovics' arrests and she doubted the rationale that led to Tom Petrovic being charged with theft and his brother being charged with criminal conspiracy.

County detectives say Clyde Wilhelm, secretary of the Braddock fire company in September 2000, said Tom Petrovic told of skimming $200 a night from bingo proceeds to pay bingo workers. Wilhelm said that led him and other department officers to begin investigating the fire company's finances, according to court documents.

Both Petrovics are accused of destroying many of the department's financial records between December 1999 and November 2000. But the court documents provide an estimate of the stolen money.

Monroe said there was no proof that Petrovic had taken any money.

'It doesn't say where the money went,' Monroe said of the allegations.

Jim Heverly, chief of North Braddock No. 1, said he thinks the accusations against the Petrovics are false.

Of Tom Petrovic, he said, 'I've known him for a while, he's not the kind of person who's going to do something like that and take money from the company.'

For Norma Soto of Mill Street in Braddock, however, charges against Braddock officials are not surprising.

'There's always something shady going on down here,' Soto said.

But she said she has faith in the policemen and the firemen who handle the tough calls on the streets in Braddock.

'They all do their jobs, especially for volunteers. They're zealous about their work, they're always on the spot; but this doesn't surprise me.'

Daniel Reynolds can be reached at dreynolds@tribweb.com or (412) 380-8533.

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