KING CITY, Calif. — Angel Pineda tucked his white cowboy hat under a folding chair in the packed church hall and listened.
First came the civil rights presentation — on what to do if pulled over by police. "I want a lawyer," American Civil Liberties Union staffer Daisy Vieyra, who had come from San Francisco, enunciated in English. "I want a lawyer," the crowd repeated.
Then came the indignation, as local residents and advocates from outside this southern Salinas Valley agricultural community made it clear that tomorrow's King City will not be the same as yesterday's. The crowd was at a "know your rights" event convened on a recent evening in response to a local scandal.
"They thought in this little town they could do what they did inside the Police Department and no one would know?" Mickie Solorio Luna, western regional vice president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, bellowed in Spanish. "Well, now we know.... Together we will fight for this cause."
Late last month, prosecutors filed charges against a King City police sergeant, the acting police chief and his brother — who runs a local towing company — in connection with an alleged scheme to confiscate and sell vehicles belonging largely to low-income immigrants.
For every 10 to 15 cars that Sgt. Bobby Carrillo sent to Miller's Towing, prosecutors allege, he got one free in return, once giving one to acting Chief Bruce Miller.
For many here, it was hardly news. They say they'd been pulled over by the police for minor — or no — offenses for years, their cars hauled off to Brian Miller's tow yard, where fees from mandatory 30-day impounds climbed so high they could not afford to pay.
They didn't complain. A number were undocumented and driving without a license. (A new California law will allow people in the country illegally to apply for driver's licenses, beginning in January.) Others said in interviews they feared retaliation and felt they had nowhere to turn.
Pineda said in an interview after the church hall meeting that his son was stopped last year for a reason Pineda cannot recall, and his Chevy Lumina minivan was towed to Miller's. The father of seven, who arrived here more than three decades ago to work the fields, said he couldn't scrape together $1,500 to retrieve it.
"It has to change," Pineda, 71, said quietly. "Like they said here tonight, there's power in unity."
Lawyers for the accused, who plan to enter not-guilty pleas this week, asked the public to withhold judgment until the facts are in. "My client is of Mexican heritage," said Carrillo's attorney, Michael Schwartz, "and any allegation that this is some form of singling out of a certain ethnic group is offensive."
Brian Miller's attorney, Allan Kleinkopf, called his client "a good family guy … not the kind of guy who would initiate this kind of thing." An attorney for Bruce Miller did not respond to a request for comment.
As part of the ongoing investigation, the Monterey County district attorney also charged two other officers, a sergeant and the former longtime police chief with crimes unconnected to the alleged towing scheme, diminishing the sworn force by nearly a third. Allegations include the improper gift of a city patrol car to an officer, illegal weapons possession and criminal threats. All have pleaded not guilty.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, the charges have already triggered a fierce response.
Attorneys filed a federal civil lawsuit seeking compensation — and class-action status — for those victimized by the alleged towing scam. Among them is Blanca E. Zarazua, honorary Mexican consul for Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, who planted herself at a table after the recent church meeting and gathered complaints.
And at El Sinaloense, a downtown restaurant, owner Veronica Villa and others huddled with regional League of United Latin American Citizens leaders during a recent lunch hour and pledged to start a local chapter.
"People are asking me, 'Why are you speaking out?'" said Villa, who arrived from Mazatlan more than a quarter of a century ago. "But I am against injustice. We want a King City that has a future."
Incorporated in 1911 as the "City of King," the town boasts a connection to novelist John Steinbeck: His father, an agent for a milling company, was among its settlers.
After wheat came spinach, lettuce, onions and grapes. Mexican workers who initially flocked here were men, but that soon changed. So did migratory routes, as job seekers — some of them indigenous — from Michoacan and Jalisco were followed by those from the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca.
By 2010, according to the U.S. census, more than 87% of the town's population of 13,000 was Latino.
Shifts in political leadership have not kept pace. Just two of the five volunteer City Council members, chosen in at-large elections, are Latino, prompting state Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville) to call recently for a shift to district elections.
Yet divisions are more complex than ethnicity alone, at times breaking down along lines of old-timers vs. new.
"My mother worked in the fields picking lettuce and she took night classes to learn English," wrote one Internet poster angered at community demands for a bilingual police chief. "If there is a will there is a way."
When it comes to law enforcement here, however, the rift has split the powerful from the vulnerable.
Complaints date back years. Seven homicides tied to gang activity between April 2009 and May 2010 triggered anger among many in the Latino community, who said police were doing little to investigate. A city-commissioned audit in late 2010 found deep-rooted problems.
"One important finding indicated the Hispanic community did not trust the police and would not file any misconduct complaints for fear of retaliation from the police," it said.
That year, the county implemented Secure Communities, a federal program under which fingerprints of those booked into local jails are automatically shared with immigration authorities. Launched with the goal of prioritizing deportations of convicted felons, it has come under fire for increasing fear of police while ensnaring minor violators.
In Monterey County, 81% of deportations under the program through last November were of those without convictions or with lower-level convictions, compared with 66% statewide. A new state law now compels counties to cooperate with immigration detainers only when more serious crimes are alleged.
"The common thread is a vulnerable undocumented population," Zarazua said.
City leaders have pledged inclusiveness and reform.
An interim police chief, Dennis Hegwood, hired to conduct an internal investigation has hosted community meetings. The City Council began discussions last week on a formal change in the towing policy and has promised Spanish-speaking residents a voice in the search for a permanent chief.
"The good thing that's coming out of this is it's forcing our community to have a difficult dialogue" about race relations, said Mayor Robert Cullen. "I hope we can use this as an opportunity to unite our community and not divide it."
For some, it is too little, too late.
"They have to go," Ana Vargas, a Michoacan native elected to the board of the King City Union School District last fall, said of the council and city manager. Vargas has vowed to arrange voter registration drives and, along with Villa and former Councilwoman Margarita Lopez, is gathering members for the League of United Latin American Citizens chapter:
Said Lopez: "It's always been the way of life here in King City. The Latino community, we're the majority 'minority'.... We have to wake up and step up to the plate."