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Appeals court upholds conviction, sentence in St. Croix fuel fraud case

In a decision released Tuesday, Wisconsin's Third District Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of a former St. Croix County fuel distributor on 14 counts of theft by fraud.

John Rassbach, 57, who had done business as Rassbach Oil, was convicted in April 2010 of five counts of felony theft, six counts of misdemeanor theft and three counts of attempted misdemeanor theft for intentionally deceiving customers or attempting to deceive customers. Online court records now list his address as McNaughton Correctional Center, Lake Tomahawk.

Five of the 14 counts were charged as felonies because the victims' losses were alleged to exceed threshold amounts. In his appeal, Rassbach argued that he shouldn't have been charged with felonies because there was not enough evidence of the amounts of loss. He also argued that St. Croix County Judge Edward Vlack erred in sentencing by not adequately setting forth his reasoning.

Three years ago, Rassbach, formerly of Glenwood City, pled no contest to the five felony charges, guilty to eight of the misdemeanor charges and no contest to the ninth misdemeanor. The alleged victims were mostly farmers from the Baldwin, Woodville, Emerald and Glenwood City areas.

Rassbach was accused of defrauding his LP gas, gasoline and diesel/fuel oil customers in three ways. First, he shorted customers by pumping some fuel back into his delivery truck. Second, he overcharged when a third party delivered propane by having the other distributor send the bill to him and then writing invoices for more propane than was delivered. Third, he printed duplicate tickets for fuel deliveries and sent the bills to multiple customers.

The 14 counts involved 13 different customers. Some of the counts, including the five felonies, wrote the appeals court, alleged multiple transactions. The criminal complaint set the value of the thefts on the five felony counts at amounts ranging from $2,612 to $5,161.

During a preliminary hearing, each of the victims testified that they would not have paid their fuel tickets if they had known that another customer had received the same ticket. Two testified they would have paid for fuel they received, but most said they would have questioned the ticket and they had no way of knowing if they actually received the fuel.

After the hearing, Judge Vlack accepted Rassbach's pleas and determined there were enough facts to find him guilty.

Rassbach subsequently asked to withdraw his plea, arguing that there wasn't enough evidence that he had committed a felony-level offense and suggesting that in the case of multiple tickets, one customer must actually have received the fuel.

That, said the appeals court, could have been a defense to some of the charges, and Rassbach could have demanded a trial, but he pled no contest, thus giving up his right to challenge the charges.

Out of a maximum sentence of just over 29 years, Rassbach was ordered to serve four years in prison, 10 years of extended supervision and two more years on probation. In his appeal, he argued that the judge didn't give adequate reasons for ordering near-maximum and consecutive sentences.

The appeals court disagreed, finding that Vlack "sufficiently set forth (his) rationale for the global sentence imposed."

It quoted Vlack saying that he based his decision "on the fact that Mr. Rassbach's actions were premeditated and calculated, that he did not consider alternatives to theft when his business was struggling, the number of victims involved, and Mr. Rassbach's direct misstatements to victims."

Vlack emphasized that the crimes involved a loss of trust: "Just because this isn't a crime in which somebody is physically struck does not mean it's not a serious offense. In many cases the loss of trust is just as serious."

The judge went on to say many of the victims had known and trusted Rassbach their whole lives, had felt a sense of community and had that sense "gravely impacted."

Vlack concluded that because of the extent of the crimes and the number of victims, "to grant probation to me would seriously depreciate the seriousness of the events."

The appeals court said it was satisfied that Vlack's comments and the record as a whole support the sentence imposed, "which was far short of the maximum penalty Rassbach faced."