SAN FRANCISCO — In a predawn sweep that stunned the Salinas Valley town of King City, the acting police chief, a former chief, other police employees and a towing company owner were arrested Tuesday, some on charges connected to a scheme to steal impounded cars belonging mostly to Latino immigrants, authorities said.
A police sergeant was allowed to keep one impounded vehicle for every 10 to 15 he steered to a towing company owned by the brother of the acting police chief, according to the criminal complaint.
Among the vehicles he allegedly kept: a Pontiac LeMans, a Ford Expedition and a Ford Explorer.
The synchronized 5:59 a.m. sweep by multiple agencies came six months into an investigation led by the Monterey County district attorney's office and spurred by "ongoing complaints of corruption and other criminal acts within the King City Police Department," Dist. Atty. Dean Flippo said in a statement.
Flippo told reporters at an afternoon news conference in Salinas that King City residents, many of whom are poor and cannot speak English, told him, "The police are taking our property. They are taking our cars. They take our money. And we can do nothing about that."
Authorities said that while investigating those allegations, they stumbled across other alleged crimes. The probe is ongoing, Flippo said.
Those arrested in connection with the alleged vehicle scheme were: Acting Police Chief Bruce Miller; his brother Brian Miller, owner of Miller Tow; Sgt. Bobby Javier Carrillo; former Chief Dominic "Nick" Baldiviez, who retired in September; and Officer Mario Alonso Mottu Sr.
The charges include bribery, embezzlement and conspiracy.
According to the complaint, Carrillo sent 87% of 200 vehicles impounded from March 2010 to November 2013 to Miller Tow, even though the city had towing arrangements with four companies, and received cars in return. The complaint says Bruce Miller received a vehicle as a bribe from Carrillo in an influence-buying arrangement.
Baldiviez and Mottu were charged with embezzlement by a public officer for an incident in which Baldiviez transferred ownership of a marked patrol car — complete with Department of Motor Vehicles documents — to Mottu, said Chief Assistant Dist. Atty. Terry Spitz.
Also arrested were Officer Jaime Andrade, who was charged with possession of an assault weapon and illegal storage of a firearm, and Sgt. Mark Allen Baker, charged with making criminal threats.
Criminal complaints accuse Andrade of possessing a semiautomatic Colt AR-15 and storing it in a manner in which "a child was likely to gain access to it." Baker is accused of threatening a man named Leon Rosalio Infante.
Bruce Miller told a KSBW-TV reporter after posting bail that he was "completely surprised" and "blown away" by his arrest.
"The charges they are looking at is receiving or requesting a bribe, and I've never done that," the acting police chief said. "I was aware of the investigations, but I didn't know that I would become a suspect.... My reputation is soiled. There's no coming back from this, even if I'm found innocent."
Spitz said his office had not yet been contacted by attorneys for any of those arrested. A woman who answered the phone at Miller Tow declined to comment.
King City, an agricultural community of fewer than 13,000 residents along California 101, is more than 80% Latino.
Antonio Rivas, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens' Council of Salinas, said his organization was "very upset" about the allegations and will press the City Council to "take the matter very seriously and … hopefully restore the trust of the community."
Elected leaders pledged to do so.
City Manager Michael Powers said for "any police officer to commit a crime is wrong and doubly wrong because they enjoy a public trust that is hugely important. Then to prey on people who are unable to really defend themselves is just wrong on so many different levels."
Mayor Robert Cullen, who works as an insurance agent, said he was stunned both as a public official and a resident.
"I'm the mayor, but I'm also a citizen. I've got my family here, I've got my friends here," said Cullen, who has served with Carrillo on the Chamber of Commerce board.
"I know all of them," he said of the men arrested.
Cullen and Powers said the Sheriff's Department was already lending deputies to the small force, which before Tuesday had just 17 sworn officers. Neighboring departments in Soledad, Greenfield and Gonzales had also agreed to help.
"The dust is still settling from the events of the day, and we're trying to cut through all that dust," Powers said. "We are meeting with [police] staff to bring them up to speed and reassure them and proceed forward from here."