A top-ranking Los Angeles County sheriff's official bought a stolen luxury sedan last year from the owner of a towing company that contracts with his agency, a Times investigation has found.
Assistant Sheriff Michael Rothans purchased the 2012 Audi A4 after it had been seized by sheriff's deputies from a suspected gang member at a drunk-driving checkpoint. The vehicle was originally stolen from an Orange County car dealership.
The Sheriff's Department launched an internal investigation last week after questions from The Times.
Rothans, the department's third-ranking official, said he had no idea he was driving a stolen car until more than a year after buying it from Lisa Vernola, a friend who owns Vernola's Towing in Norwalk.
Sheriff's officials are prohibited from purchasing property that has been seized by the department. The prohibition applies both to direct purchases and purchases made through a third party. Employees also are prohibited from personally profiting from their positions.
Rothans said he considered the sale a private transaction between friends and thought it was permitted.
Vernola had registered the car in her name about three weeks before she sold it to Rothans for $3,000, according to Department of Motor Vehicles records. She said she took ownership of the vehicle because no one claimed it from her impound lot or purchased it during a public sale. At the time, the car contained fake identification numbers. Under the law, unclaimed vehicles become the property of the towing yard.
Vernola said she did not cut Rothans a special deal and would have sold the car to anyone who made an offer.
When Rothans registered the Audi with the DMV, it was listed as a 2010 model with about 24,000 miles on it. At the time, the Kelley Blue Book value for a 2010 Audi A4 in good condition with similar mileage was about $17,800.
Rothans said the car needed significant work when he bought it, including a new radio and repairs to the rear body. Vernola added that the car needed a new engine and sometimes wouldn't start. "I wanted to get rid of it," Vernola said, adding that she was unaware the car was stolen. "It wasn't worth crap."
Rothans was unable to produce receipts for repairs to the vehicle. He said he may have saved one receipt but he has not been able to find it.
The car, which was recently returned to the dealership from which it was stolen, appears to be in good condition with no dings or dents, according to Luke Muncy, manager of Mission Viejo Audi.
Since 2006, Rothans has overseen the Pico Rivera sheriff's station — first as the station captain, then as a commander and now as assistant sheriff over patrol operations — where Vernola's Towing has held a contract with the Sheriff's Department to tow and impound cars.
Because Vernola was a friend, Rothans said, he did not ask about the history of the car and did not know that it was one step removed from the impound lot.
"I don't think that buying a car from a private party is unethical," Rothans said in an interview. "I didn't think I was manipulating the policy or that a car was changing hands so I could get a special deal. I bought the car from someone I've been friends with for 20 years. Looking at the policy, I still don't think I did anything wrong."
Steve Rothlein, a law enforcement consultant who has written about police ethics, said that simply the appearance of receiving a special deal from the owner of a towing company that does business with the Sheriff's Department should have been enough to stop him.
"The average law enforcement officer, even more likely a supervisor, would realize that maybe they're getting a really good deal," said Rothlein, who retired as the No. 2-ranking official in the Miami-Dade Police Department. "Could this be looked at as, 'I'm receiving something just because of my position that an average person wouldn't get?' In a professional sense, he should have known better. It doesn't look right — it doesn't pass the smell test."
Rothans said his ethics have never before been questioned in 32 years with the Sheriff's Department. He has waived his right to keep the internal investigation private, allowing the department's independent watchdog, Inspector General Max Huntsman, to monitor it.
"Any investigation into a department executive should be transparent," Rothans said in an email. Giving Huntsman access will ensure full transparency, he added.
Huntsman said that outside oversight is particularly important for investigations involving high-ranking officials. "In any organization, it's always a challenge to monitor and properly assess the behavior of the people whose job it is to do that monitoring and assessing," he said. Huntsman said the result of the investigation would not be made public.
A department spokesman said Sheriff Jim McDonnell holds employees of all ranks to the same standards. McDonnell "will take appropriate action based on where the facts lead us," said Cmdr. Keith Swensson.
The Audi was stolen from the dealership in Mission Viejo on Dec. 26, 2011.
Nearly two years later, sheriff's deputies stopped the car at a DUI checkpoint in Pico Rivera. The driver, Robert Steven Orozco, was arrested on suspicion of firearms violations, including carrying a loaded firearm in public and possession of a concealed firearm by a gang member, according to a police report reviewed by The Times.
Orozco, who was jailed following his July 28, 2013, arrest, did not claim the car through a representative, and no one bought it when Vernola advertised it in a lien sale, according to both Vernola and the Orange County Auto Theft Task Force.
Orozco could not be reached for comment.
According to Vernola, Rothans spotted the Audi after arriving at the tow yard to have lunch with her father, Norwalk City Councilman Luigi Vernola, who is a prominent supporter of the Sheriff's Department and founder of the nonprofit Friends of Norwalk Sheriff's Station. The friendship between Rothans and the Vernola family goes back decades, according to both Rothans and Lisa Vernola.
When Rothans took an interest in the car, Vernola said, she was eager to get it off her hands.
Around Aug. 21, after driving the Audi on his off-duty hours for more than a year, Rothans received a notice from the DMV to take the car in for a VIN verification.
At the California Highway Patrol's East L.A. station, an officer discovered that the VIN on the dashboard was fake. Rothans' car was not a 2010 model but in fact was a 2012 Audi. To cover up the theft, someone had replaced the VIN with a VIN from a different car, said CHP Lt. Michael Stefanoff, who heads the O.C. Auto Theft Task Force.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post said that CHP officers determined that a VIN on the car's dashboard belonged to a 2012 Audi. In fact, it was another VIN elsewhere on the car that showed the vehicle was a 2012 Audi.
Task force investigators are focusing on the people who were in the Audi when it was stopped by sheriff's deputies at the Pico Rivera DUI checkpoint, Stefanoff said.
The car was returned to the dealership, and Rothans is hoping his insurance will reimburse him for the loss.
"What are you going to do? You're a victim," Rothans said. "First of all, you're shocked. You can't believe it. In the end, this stuff happens to everyone. Cops can be victims of crime, too."
Times staff writer Anh Do contributed to this report.