AVANT — Investigation of a break-in and vandalism at the Avant Fire Station took an unbelievably grim turn last week when it was discovered that the town’s main fire truck was missing from its bay.
A few hours later, the 2008-model four wheel-drive grass rig was found overturned and smoking in a secluded area a few miles northwest of town.
"It must have slid sideways off the road," said Justin Brown, the Avant mayor. "It had been rolled on to its side."
Brown believes the vehicle then was deliberately set on fire.
"It was burned to a crisp," Brown said.
Loss of the Ford F-350 unit is "extremely huge for this town," the mayor said. Although the truck was insured, he there is "a fairly steep deductible," he added. Brown said the fire department has other trucks, but they are bulky, Army surplus-type vehicles. As a result, response times will be slower and the entire area will be left with less protection.
Brown added that, actually, the burned-up vehicle can never be replaced.
"That truck meant so much to the department and the community — it’s almost difficult to put into words," the Avant mayor said. "It was just a wonderful truck."
The break-in which precipitated the unfortunate episode was discovered late Tuesday by a town worker who noticed a fire station door was partially open. Further investigation revealed that forced entry had been made through the ceiling of the building.
Coins were found to be missing from a vending machine at the station. Vandalism inside the building included some damage to filing cabinets and destruction of the department’s computer.
When the truck was found missing, town officials initially hoped it might have been out for servicing. Even after its theft became apparent, they hoped the truck would be found abandoned and unharmed. Brown estimated losses at $100,000 to $140,000.
"We’re still sort of in shock," Brown said. "This really mattered to me and, I think, for the whole town."
Five years ago, local officials went to great lengths to acquire the new fire truck through the U.S. Forestry Department. Considerable time and work then was spent converting its stock chassis into what became the pride of the all-volunteer department. Much of that effort was provided by Avant’s fire chief at the time, Dale Soule.
"Chief Soule campaigned hard to get the truck," said Brown, who was serving as an AFD fire captain at the time. "It represented such a success for him and the community.
"Everybody would refer to it as ‘Dale’s truck’," the mayor said. "In fact, a lot of them still called it that."
Shortly after the vehicle was put in service, Soule died on Sept. 11, 2008. He was 41 at the time of his unexpected passing.
The break-in, truck theft and arson are being investigated by the Osage County Sheriff’s Office.
Brown expressed confidence the perpetrator(s) of the crime will be found. He said it is important for the entire Avant community that justice be done.
"Being such a small town, we don’t have that much," the mayor said. "It was such a senseless act."