By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun
7:24 PM EDT, July 1, 2011
Michael Lee Cross pleaded guilty Friday to taking kickbacks from a Rosedale auto repair company, making him the third Baltimore police officer to be convicted in an extortion scheme that could involve more than 50 city officers, according to new documents filed in federal court.
So far, 17 officers have been arrested and suspended without pay, and 14 others have been put on desk duty while the investigation continues. But new charges filed this week against the owners of Majestic Auto Repair allege that many more officers were part of the scheme, in which officers are accused of steering motorists involved in accidents to the tow company in exchange for cash.
The purpose of the conspiracy was "to enrich over 50 [Baltimore Police Department] officers," reads a criminal information filed Wednesday against brothers Hernan Alexis Moreno and Edwin Mejia, charging them with conspiracy and extortion.
Such criminal informations are filed with the defendants' approval, according to former federal attorneys not affiliated with the case, signaling that a plea deal with the Majestic brothers is likely in the works. Their attorney did not return a message seeking comment Friday.
Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi confirmed Friday that the scheme — first uncovered by the Police Department, which brought it to the attention of the FBI — is likely wider reaching than has been reported and that more arrests or suspensions could result.
"All is on the table right now as individuals are cooperating with the prosecutors and U.S. attorney's office," Guglielmi said. "Anything's possible."
At least three plea deals have been struck with Baltimore officers, who have agreed to be charged via criminal information. A fourth is expected to be made public next week, when Officer Luis Nunez is arraigned on a criminal information filed secretly June 10.
The charges and arraignment dates for Nunez and Cross were made public after The Baltimore Sun complained to U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake about two prior private proceedings.
Cross, 28, declined to comment after his half-hour plea hearing. Nunez's attorney did not return messages seeking comment Friday.
Cross and Nunez were charged with conspiracy in a criminal complaint filed in February, and Cross was indicted in the same conspiracy by a grand jury in March, along with nine other officers and the owners of Majestic.
Cross pleaded guilty Friday to a separate criminal information filed this month that charged him with one count of "extortion under color of official right," meaning that he abused his official position for financial gain. Consequently, the conspiracy charges will be dropped at his sentencing, scheduled for Sept. 29.
Cross could be sentenced to 20 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000, though he is likely to receive a lesser punishment. He retained his right to appeal any sentence above two years, while prosecutors made provisions to appeal a sentence of under 18 months.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Kelly Kowitz, who is prosecuting the case, declined to comment Friday.
The felony conviction means that Cross' police career is over, Guglielmi said.
Police who respond to the scene of an accident or a disabled car are supposed to call a city-approved towing company or allow car owners to make arrangements. Officers implicated in the alleged extortion scheme are accused of steering motorists to Majestic in exchange for a typical fee of $300.
Prosecutors say some officers inflated vehicle damage in their accident reports so Majestic could bill insurance providers for more work.
According to Cross' plea agreement, which was signed last month and made public Friday, he worked in the city's Northeast District and was introduced to Moreno of Majestic Auto last year by another officer — a pattern, according to the plea agreements.
Those agreements describe officers attending the police training academy together and later inducting one another into Moreno's group. Cross, for example, brought Officer Jermaine Rice into the scam, according to Rice's plea agreement, which was signed June 21. And Officer David Reeping's plea agreement, signed in April, says that indicted Officer Rodney Cintron told him about the "extra money" he could make.
Cross received a total of about $2,400 from Moreno in eight separate instances according to a statement of facts included in his plea agreement.
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