Politics & Government

King City police accused of targeting undocumented workers in towing scandal

Amid the sprawling fields and cavernous produce warehouses of this Salinas Valley town, residents spoke in whispered Spanish about police lights in the rearview mirror. They shared anxious stories along Broadway, the town’s hub. Word spread amid the styling chairs at Delia’s Beauty Salon, and inside the terra-cotta-hued Restaurante El Sinaloense, over steaming plates dripping with mole.

In King City, a community of 13,000 rimmed by an agricultural region touted as the “Salad Bowl of the World,” farmworkers told of being pulled over as they headed home after exhausting days harvesting lettuce, peppers and onions. Working with a local towing company, police were regularly seizing cars, often from undocumented laborers who could not produce the driver’s licenses necessary to retrieve the vehicles from the storage yard.

Officers also were aggressively targeting parked cars, ordering vehicles towed from residential streets for infractions as slight as an expired license plate tag. Often the owners were low-income residents who ultimately lost the cars to the tow yard because they could not pay the impound fees.

Now a scandal is enveloping King City, a town that is 87 percent Latino and centered on 4 square miles in the shadow of the Santa Lucia Range. A veteran police sergeant, Bobby Carrillo, and Brian Miller, owner of the local tow yard, are charged with conspiracy and bribery stemming from what prosecutors say was a kickback scheme to impound and sell the cars of hundreds of low-income residents. Many of the victims, authorities say, were agricultural workers who were afraid to come forward because they were undocumented.

After an investigation that brought in the FBI, Salinas police and the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department, the town’s acting police chief, Bruce Miller – the tow operator’s brother – is charged with accepting one of the seized cars as a bribe. Police also arrested a former King City police chief, Dominic “Nick” Baldiviez, and three other officers on unrelated charges including embezzlement involving a city car allegedly given to an officer for personal use, illegal weapons possession and threatening a resident.

All seven men have been freed on bail. Two have been arraigned and pleaded not guilty; the others are awaiting arraignment but have denied wrongdoing.

The probe has resulted in suspension of five members of the King City Police Department – out of 17 officers and command staff. And it has shone a piercing spotlight on King City.

Prosecutors outline a corruption saga that they say was rooted in routine police duties – monitoring for traffic violations and unlicensed motorists – and grew into an aggressive moneymaking scheme, with Sgt. Carrillo getting gifts of free cars after impounding vehicles for Miller’s Towing company. Under state law, the tow company could keep the vehicles for 30 days and sell them off when owners couldn’t afford the mounting storage fees or if no licensed drivers turned up to claim them.

Monterey County Deputy District Attorney Steve Somers said Carrillo alone impounded more than 200 cars between March 2010 and November 2013 and that nearly 90 percent of them went to Miller’s Towing. For every 10 to 15 cars, Somers said, Miller’s Towing would give one to Carrillo for free.

Carrillo’s attorney, Michael Schwartz, said the sergeant is a law-abiding public servant with “great standing in the community” who has been unfairly and wrongly accused. Brian Miller’s lawyer, Allan Kleinkopf, said his client is “mortified by the case and the charges and publicity,” adding: “I don’t think he is the kind of person that would ever initiate something like that.”

Last Tuesday night, angry residents packed City Hall, a modest building next door to the Police Department. Some demanded the resignation of the city manager, Michael Powers, who didn’t offer it. Instead, council members promised to formalize a less aggressive towing policy, already being put into practice by police, to get unlicensed drivers off the road but limit vehicle seizures.

Earlier in the week, Powers said in an interview that he was aware of complaints about towing going back years, but never suspected it was a systematic effort to target undocumented workers in a town dependent on the agriculture economy.

“It’s sad and pathetic that this happened,” Powers said. “To be honest, it was a crime of opportunity. I hope it was nothing more than that.”

‘They just took it’

The district attorney’s office said investigators were alerted to the unusual towing practice while investigating four gang-related killings that rocked King City in 2010.

The Salinas Valley is home to two state prisons – Salinas Valley Prison and the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad – that have fueled gangs in the region that peddle drugs and guns. After police sweeps in Salinas, to the north, gang members had shifted operations into King City and other southern Monterey County towns, authorities said.

But when district attorney’s investigators came to town to develop information on the killings, Somers said, they found few people trusting enough to talk. At a town-hall meeting called to discuss the gang crime, some residents came forward to say police “are taking our money and our cars and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Somers said. Last September, the DA’s office opened an investigation.

Efrain Chavez, 30, said he thinks he was among those targeted for towing. Chavez, who earns $350 a week cutting lettuce, said he was driving home from work in 2009 when a King City police officer driving in the facing lane took notice. Chavez said he had paused at a stop sign and was continuing on when the officer did a swooping U-turn and pulled him over.

“He asked me if I was a gang member,” Chavez said. “I said, ‘No, I’m here to work.’ ”

He said the Spanish-speaking sergeant, whose name he didn’t recall, ordered him out of the car, frisked him and asked for identification. Chavez presented a Mexican driver’s license. He said the sergeant impounded the car, a 1998 Ford Explorer on which Chavez was making payments of $215 a month. Chavez said he begged to call a friend, a licensed California driver, to retrieve the car, but the sergeant said no.

“He said, ‘It’s my job to set an example for other officers,’ ” Chavez said.

Chavez said he paid $1,500 to get his vehicle back from Miller’s Towing after the local car dealer that held the loan on the vehicle agreed to retrieve it on his behalf.

Rufina Recendiz, a King City resident who harvests grapes in the area, said she has had two cars taken. Last year, she said, her 18-year-old son was pulled over while driving her 2002 Honda Accord. Recendiz is a naturalized U.S. citizen with a California driver’s license, but her son was an unlicensed driver. She said she later pleaded with officers to just ticket her son and let her keep the car, but to no avail. She said she paid $450 – her tax return money – to get it back from Miller’s Towing.

Later, she said, another tow company impounded a second family car that was parked on the street with an expired registration sticker. “They didn’t give us any warning. They just took it,” Recendiz said. “This time, I had to decide between whether to eat or whether to pick up the car. I decided to eat. We lost the car.”

In town, there were similar stories. “People knew something was happening,” said Veronica Villa, proprietor of Restaurante El Sinaloense on Broadway, “because, day in and day out, they (police) kept taking cars, the majority from people who were Hispanic, the majority without papers.”

Across the street, at Delia’s Beauty Salon, Delia Higuera said her family said nothing after an officer noticed an expired tag while her son-in-law was working on her granddaughter’s $4,000 Camaro, and the car was seized and sold off. People didn’t protest, she said, because “they feared repercussions, that someone will take actions against them.”

‘Do your job’

While many residents feel the criminal charges affirm their suspicions, others are angry, contending the officers have been unfairly tainted.

“This has been blown completely out of proportion,” said Russ “Moon” Nichols, 58, a former farm produce supervisor and volunteer firefighter who runs Moon’s Meat and Deli on Broadway. “I think they are going to find that Bruce (Miller) is about the cleanest, squeaky-clean guy you’ll ever meet in your life. And his brother (Brian) runs an honest business.”

Nichols, who said he knows Carrillo as a respected officer and “happy-go-lucky guy,” said, “I don’t think this is the corruption ring that they are making this out to be.”

King City police Sgt. Alejandrina Tirado said she was stopped in town recently by a woman who told her that officers have a responsibility to seize the cars of undocumented residents who don’t have driver’s licenses. “She was adamant: ‘Alex, do your job,’ ” Tirado said.

But Tirado, 50, said she also understands the other side of the issue. She was brought to town illegally, at age 3, by parents who were undocumented farmworkers. She labored in the fields, from age 10 through high school, picking garlic, tomatoes and peppers. “Chili peppers still give me nightmares,” she said. “It was cold, and those buckets were heavy.”

At 19, after gaining U.S. citizenship, she became a meter maid and later a police officer, one of nine Latino officers in the department. When her colleagues were arrested, Tirado called her mother, who began to cry. “She said, ‘God bless you, mija. I know you’re not involved,’ ” Tirado said.

“I have to be positive. I have to. I live here. I grew up here,” she added. “But throw me some positive vibes. This has tainted the entire department.”

King City has hired a new acting chief, Dennis Hegwood, a former Atascadero police chief and criminal-justice instructor at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo County.

Hegwood said police now will impound cars in cases such as reckless or drunken driving, if the owner has been given multiple warnings for driving without a license, or if the vehicle is otherwise connected to a crime. But he said unlicensed drivers will be allowed to park their cars and have someone with a license retrieve them. To avoid appearances of collusion, he said, the department will contract with multiple tow companies – with Miller’s Towing excluded for the immediate future.

“We need to reach out to the community and rebuild that trust,” Hegwood said.

Trust was hard to come by as about 150 farmworkers and other laborers gathered earlier this month in the sanctuary of the Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist in King City. There, a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union and other immigrant advocates held a workshop on a new state law that will allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses beginning Jan. 1. For much of the hourlong session, the speakers offered guidance to the crowd on what to do if they were pulled over by police.

“I’m afraid all the time,” said Jesus Leyna, a mechanic who said his car was seized and sold off several years ago. “People were stopped because this was a business and they were enriching themselves. A lot of people are still afraid to say they have lost their cars.”