A man who made a 911 call accusing Costa Mesa Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer of driving drunk is believed to be a former Riverside police officer.
The caller identified himself to a police dispatcher as Chris Lanzillo, according to a tape of the call obtained Friday by the Daily Pilot using a state public records request.
Sources with knowledge of the investigation confirmed that Lanzillo is a former police officer who’s now a private investigator.
Righeimer — who was given a brief sobriety test outside his Mesa Verde home Wednesday night and was found to be sober — tied the incident to comments he made during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. At the meeting, Righeimer criticized police unions for using an Upland law firm, Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir. On the firm’s website is a playbook-style outline of election-year tactics that officers can use against politicians.
Lanzillo’s name appeared on the firm’s website as “staff,” but his name was recently removed, according to cached Internet records.
“Are you kidding me? The playbook guys?” Righeimer said of the firm. “I knew I wasn’t crazy. I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!”
Dieter Dammeier sent the Daily Pilot an email Friday night confirming Lanzillo worked as an investigator with his firm but that the firm had no ties to the phone call about Righeimer.
“As to your question on Lanzillo, he is one of many PIs we have used,” he wrote. “He runs his own PI firm and works for various firms and entities. I assure you, he was not employed or authorized to surveil (or do anything else to) Mr. Righeimer by this firm.”
Costa Mesa Police Assn. President Jason Chamness said in an email before Lanzillo was identified that his association cut ties with Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir late this week because the association was working toward a less-aggressive approach to its negotiations with the city.
“Public trust must be first and foremost between the police and the community we serve,” Chamness said. “We have no intentions of allowing the police association’s relationship with the public to erode.”
Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir represents several police associations, including the Newport Beach Police Management Assn.
Righeimer said he placed blame for the phone call with organized labor as an institution, not with Costa Mesa’s rank-and-file police officers.
“The officer was very professional here,” he said. “He’d just got the call. He went. If it was guys in our department trying to set me up out there, they would’ve done it differently, I think.”
Lanzillo could not be reached for comment, but a Riverside Press-Enterprise article from October 2010 said he was fired from the force and then sued for discrimination before being reinstated and allowed to take a medical retirement.
“In the claims, Lanzillo alleged that because of his union activities and comments he made — including some critical of an assistant chief — he was transferred to an undesirable assignment, passed over for advancement and investigated by internal affairs,” the article stated. It also said the city’s police chief denied the allegations.
On the Costa Mesa 911 tape, the man who identified himself as Lanzillo called to report a possible drunk driver. He said he observed the driver — he doesn’t name Righeimer — stumbling before getting into his SUV.
“I think he’s DUI,” he told the police dispatcher. “He’s swerving all over the road. I don’t know what’s wrong with him.”
In the recording, the dispatcher advised the caller not to tail the driver.
“You don’t have to follow the vehicle if you don’t have to,” the dispatcher said.
“I could be wrong, but why take a chance?” the caller responded. “I don’t want to like, uh, be involved in this.”
The caller then continually updated the dispatcher, ticking off street names near Righeimer’s home in Mesa Verde. “I’ll stay behind him awhile more,” he said.
The caller told the dispatcher he was not from the area.
“I don’t know where I’m at. I’m not really from down here,” he said.
The caller said the driver went 50 mph down a residential street and ran a stop sign.
“It’s just … he’s not staying inside his lanes,” the caller said to the dispatcher. “I saw him, like, stumbling out of the location. Maybe he’s disabled; I don’t know.”
Righeimer denied that he drove erratically or too fast Wednesday night. He said he only drank Diet Cokes.
Righeimer maintains he was set up.
“I mean, it’s an Academy Award-winning performance,” Righeimer said of the 911 call. “It’s a complete performance, which worked and got the officers to come to my house.”
Police have been tight-lipped about the investigation, whether they thought anything illegal took place or whether the caller legitimately thought the councilman was driving poorly.
Police Chief Tom Gazsi told the Pilot that his department is investigating the call.
“I have every confidence in Chief Gazsi,” Righeimer said. “I have full faith in him that they’re going after this person who made this false allegation.”
In a Friday press conference before the 911 tape was released, Righeimer criticized organized labor.
“This has gone way over the line,” Righeimer said outside of City Hall. “I understand that pensions are a tense issue, that pay is a tense issue. I understand that some people may disagree, but when what looks like someone is paid to follow me around town and set me up for a DUI in front of my kids and my house, it’s crossing the line.”
Representatives from the Costa Mesa Police Assn. said they had no knowledge of the call prior to it being made.
Jennifer Muir, spokeswoman for the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents nonpublic safety employees, said Righeimer was unjustified in pointing the finger at unions.
“It’s absolutely not credible,” Muir said. “He has no reason to say this except to make a political point.”
“We’re absolutely not involved, and I think that Mr. Righeimer is making baseless accusations and holding a press conference,” she continued. “It’s embarrassing to the city.”
‘I’d like to know who you are’
The night of the call, the caller apparently stayed in his car and watched the events unfold. At one point he was confronted by Righeimer’s wife, Lene.
She said she stepped in front of his vehicle. The caller, whom she described as a white man in his 40s with blondish hair and a goatee, rolled down his driver’s-side window.
“He says, ‘Are you standing in front of my car for a reason?’” Lene said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to know who you are.’ He gave me a mean frown, and he made a sharp turn to avoid hitting me and proceeded to leave … You know, if you were really a concerned citizen, you would have taken the time to converse with me about your concerns.”
She said the car did not have license plates, only a dealer frame from Riverside.
At the press conference, Righeimer showed his receipt from Skosh Monahan’s: $6 for two Diet Cokes. The bar on Newport Boulevard is owned by Councilman Gary Monahan.
“This was not a coincidence, this was not a mistake,” Righeimer said. “This was a setup beyond all setups to try to do it, to say, ‘We got him on something. We’re going to embarrass him.’”