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College director accused of scamming students

January 13, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
The director of a Southern California college program is under arrest and facing charges he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from his students.Jerry Dewayne Austin, 56, of Norco, is accused of using a bogus bank account to steal $500,000 from students and at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut.

The college is conducting its own investigation.

College administrators are reaching out to former students in the Fire Technology Program, trying to assess student losses in order to reimburse them. Austin is in custody facing four felony charges, including identity theft and forgery.

For more than three decades Jerry Austin distinguished himself. He saved lives as an Anaheim firefighter, then captain, then battalion chief.

For the last six years he trained others as head of the top-rated Fire Technology Program at Mount San Antonio College. Then administrators got a tip that accused Austin of stealing.

L.A. County Sheriff's detectives say Austin sent letters to students instructing them how to pay for equipment they would need for fire training.

"Telling the students that because of problems with checks, credit cards, that the fire academy class would only accept cash, and that he would take care of the cash," said Det. Stephen French.

Austin allegedly set up a fraudulent bank account to handle the funds. The estimated amount he allegedly stole over the years was a half-million dollars.

French says Austin would purchase equipment for students, then overcharge them.

"For instance, if the fees were $1,300, then he would charge about $2,800. He'd buy the equipment for $1,300, which actually belonged to the students -- he gave that to the students -- but then he would keep the rest of the money for himself," said French.

"They act like we are the black Madoffs or something. We don't have it, it's not us," said Jeriann Price, Austin's daughter.

Austin's family, who attended Thursday's hearing, said he would never steal.

"Honest man. He would always help you, would go out of his way to do things for you," said Joe Birto, Austin's brother.

Mt. San Antonio College notes the quality of education provided by Austin is not questioned. Now they are contacting his former students.

"We are committed to making things right and making our students whole and to help them to continue to fulfill their goals, academically," said Clarence Brown, Mt. San Antonio College director of marketing and communications department.

The pledge from Austin's family: "This is the Rotary Club guy, this is the Lions Club guy, this is the community guy. I'm hoping that like we know him, the rest of the world will get to know him too after this," said Jeriann Price.

Austin remained in jail Thursday. His bail was reduced from $3 million to $1.1 million.

If you have information related to the case, you're asked to call the L.A. County Sheriff's Dept. Walnut Station (909) 595-2264.