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Oklahoma man's widow wins unusual workers' compensation case appeal

by Randy Ellis Modified: August 31, 2014 at 7:00 pm •  Published: August 31, 2014

The widow and son of a Bartlesville man who died during firefighting training have been awarded more than $503,000 in federal and state death benefits despite testimony he never was really with any fire department.

Thomas Russell “Rusty” Topping died tragically in 2008 after registering at a state training facility as a volunteer for the Barnsdall fire department.

The Barnsdall fire chief, Pete O’Dell, testified in workers’ comp court that Topping wasn’t actually a volunteer.

“Don’t even know him,” the fire chief said.

That didn’t stop the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals from recently upholding the award of more than $200,000 in workers’ compensation benefits to Topping’s widow and son. They previously had received a $303,000 federal death benefit through the Justice Department’s Public Safety Officers’ Benefits program. Both awards were linked to paperwork listing the Barnsdall volunteer fire department as his employer.

Topping, a 28-year-old Bartlesville water department employee, died on May 31, 2008, following participation in live burn training exercises at the OSU Fire Training School.

So what prompted the court to conclude the Barnsdall fire department was Topping’s employer?

A bizarre letter of recommendation is at the heart of the issue.

The fire chief and his wife told a workers’ compensation court judge it all started several years ago when Bartlesville firefighter Johnny Kelley, a friend of both Topping and O’Dell, came to the fire chief and asked if he would write a letter to help Topping get a job with the Bartlesville Fire Department.

O’Dell said he agreed to do it.

“Rusty Topping is a volunteer fireman on our fire dept. for approx. 8 years & 3 months,” the wife of the fire chief wrote in an undated letter she crafted with the aid of her husband. “He has attended all required classes, meetings & work shops. He has the skills to operate 5 ton, 21/2 ton, 3/4 ton & pumper fire trucks. He has completed drivers course & does maintenance on all fire trucks. He works well with other firemen & does more than his share. — Pete O’Dell, President”

Although it sounded impressive, none of that was true, O’Dell told the court.

A couple years or so later, the O’Dells said they were surprised when they read in a newspaper article that Topping had died following live burn training exercises at the OSU Fire Training School.

They said they also were surprised to learn that Topping had listed the Barnsdall volunteer fire department as his sponsoring agency.

Events quickly snowballed.

“We were bombarded with grief cards and everything,” said Jean O’Dell, the fire chief’s wife.

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by Randy Ellis
Investigative Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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