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Baltimore cops behaving badly on display at kickbacks trial

VehiclesJustice SystemBlackmail and ExtortionUnemployment Benefits

Though just two Baltimore officers accused of taking kickbacks from Majestic Auto Repair are on trial this week in federal court, witnesses, prosecutors and attorneys have broadly described police behaving badly.

One of the defendants falsified police reports to curry favor with a woman, and he let a drunken driver who had just crashed his car stumble into a liquor store, according to witnesses.

Another officer, who previously pleaded guilty, falsely reported his personal vehicle stolen because he couldn't make the payments, according to one witness, while another officer used the Rosedale body shop for on-duty rendezvous with women, a defense attorney alleged.

Other officers had drivers' cars towed when they didn't need to be, and looked the other way as damage was added to pad a crooked body shop's insurance payouts.

Seventeen officers were charged with accepting kickbacks, most of whom have pleaded guilty to various charges. Testimony in the trial of Officers Kelvin Manrich and Samuel Ocasio has not only brought to light new details but indicated that more than 60 officers were involved over the course of about two years, making the scandal probably the largest in the department's history.

"This was something concocted by a police officer, and it got too big and out of control," said Paula Protani, the owner of a licensed city towing company who helped sparked the investigation by tipping off investigators. She has sat in on parts of the trial. "The corruption and insurance fraud was just one leg of what they were doing. That's a frightening thought."

Lt. Gene Ryan, vice president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said the officers on trial are innocent until proved guilty, but the accusations unearthed during the investigation and prosecution have been jarring to the department's honest officers.

"Let's not lose sight — we've got close to 3,000 sworn officers," Ryan said. Those implicated represent "a small percentage, and they're giving the rest of us a black eye. ... It's up to every individual officer to not sell his pride or ethics. These guys sold their soul for a couple dollars."

The scheme worked like this, prosecutors say: Officers on the take would recommend that drivers have their vehicles towed to Majestic, which would "take care of them" by waiving deductibles. Many times, the body shop owner Alex Moreno testified last week, damage was added to the cars to inflate the insurance payments. And for their referrals, officers typically received $300 payments.

Caught in the middle were scores of unwitting drivers, such as Olivia Williams. The counselor for a nonprofit organization testified that she was involved in a fender-bender on Loch Raven Boulevard in May 2010 while driving her new Chrysler convertible to a music video shoot.

She said the officer who responded to the scene, Manrich, told her that her axle appeared to be damaged and the car should be towed for repairs. It didn't seem damaged, but, she said, "men know more about cars than women."

Williams said she later learned she had been dropped from her insurance coverage just before the accident. She asked Manrich, who she said had made sexual advances and asked for her phone number, if he would revise the accident report to reflect that the incident occurred while she was covered. No problem, she said Manrich told her. He came to her house while on duty and gave her a new copy of the report, balling up and throwing away the old one, she said.

The insurance company wasn't buying it, Williams testified. Not only that, an investigator had looked at her car and said it had no axle damage. Meanwhile, Majestic had added dents to Williams' vehicle, which was now uninsured and not eligible for the promised repairs. So Williams drove off in a damaged car.

"I'm still waiting for my date," Williams said on the witness stand.

Manrich is fighting the charges, including conspiracy and extortion under color of official right. His lawyer, Michael E. Marr, hasn't yet made any statements in his defense.

FBI Agent Rob Guinn testified that Manrich admitted to his involvement in a post-arrest interview with law enforcement, and prosecutors produced a damning "fact-finding" report performed when Manrich applied for unemployment benefits from the state.

"I was friends with the owner of Majestic, and I accepted money and gifts from them in exchange for sending them business," Manrich told an unemployment claims processor, according to the document. "I was involved in the conspiracy and accepted kickbacks as a result. It is grounds for immediate termination for a police officer to be involved in a conspiracy."

Manrich, who has been suspended without pay, later said at a claims appeal hearing that he should have used the word "accused" when describing the circumstances.

The other officer on trial, Ocasio, said he only made recommendations to drivers and did not get paid. His attorney, Thomas Crowe, said officers aren't prohibited from making such recommendations.

Rene Ramirez, who towed cars for Majestic, testified that in January 2011 he was called by Moreno to handle a disabled vehicle at Belair Road and Parkside Drive. Ramirez said there was a strong odor of alcohol coming from one of the drivers, who was not paying attention to Manrich and later got out of the car and walked into a nearby liquor store.

Moreno has pleaded guilty and testified over the course of three days about the scope of the scheme. Eventually, police referrals made up 95 percent to 100 percent of his business.

He said officers were aware that he was adding damage to vehicles, and some filled out false reports — for accidents they had never been to the scene of — based on information provided by Moreno. "I talked to most of them about adding damage," he said. "The officers sending a lot of cars, they knew."

Crowe at one point questioned Moreno's brother, Majestic co-owner Edwin Mejia, about statements he gave to investigators that another officer who has pleaded guilty would "pull over women later at night, women who were drinking or had committed a traffic infraction … and extract sexual favors in order to avoid being arrested."

Prosecutors objected, and after a bench conference, Crowe asked Mejia whether the officer had a key to their offices and brought women there. Moreno "told me stories about him having a key for the shop, and coming in later at night and doing things with girls," Mejia said.

Steven Levin, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who is not associated with the case, said it's typical that not everyone implicated in an investigation is charged. "Federal prosecutors will often charge those people they feel are most culpable," Levin said. "Just because they could bring a case against 30 people doesn't mean they will or should."

Prosecutors wrapped up their case Wednesday, after showing jurors police reports, cellphone logs, surveillance footage, and ATM withdrawal receipts to show a conspiracy with Majestic.

Defense attorneys are expected to call character witnesses Thursday.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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