Soldiers Cleared of Stealing Donations

(Guardian) - Members of a California National Guard military police company accused of stealing donations intended for Southern California wildfire victims were cleared Wednesday of criminal wrongdoing.

A military investigator's report confirmed that soldiers from the 330th Military Police Co. took items last week from a fire station used by relief workers near the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a copy of the findings obtained by The Associated Press.

However, the report indicates volunteers told the soldiers to ``help themselves to any supplies.'' Volunteers then called and reported a theft as the soldiers carried the goods away.

Guard officials previously told the AP the soldiers took more than the volunteers believed were acceptable, including cartons of snacks and diapers.

The report said that all the items have been returned, and that San Diego County deputies who responded to the call found no wrongdoing.

``This is nothing more than a misunderstanding that was aggravated by poor judgment and a lack of communication,'' Guard spokesman Lt. Col. John Siepmann said.

The noncommissioned officer in charge when the incident occurred was relieved of his leadership post ``as a result of actions he took that inflamed the situation,'' Siepmann said. Guard investigators were still determining whether any other soldiers should face disciplinary action.

Thirty-six soldiers from the 330th were sequestered after the incident and deposed by military investigators. They were bused back to their base in Ontario, east of Los Angeles, on Monday, a day after most other Guardsmen deployed to the wildfires were allowed to return home.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger deployed 1,500 members of the California National Guard on Oct. 21.

In all, 2,500 Guardsmen assisted in disaster relief for the series of wildfires that destroyed about 2,100 homes and charred more than 800 square miles from Los Angeles County to the Mexican border.

More than 700 households are waiting to learn whether they will qualify for federal aid to begin restoring their homes and lives, according to figures released Wednesday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has received 15,694 requests for emergency assistance, and hundreds continue to come in each day.

The government will consider requests to pay for temporary housing, repairs or costs tied to replacing a home not covered by insurance. The maximum is $28,800 for lost homes and property.

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