Seventeen Baltimore police officers were charged Wednesday — and more than a dozen others suspended — in an extortion scheme in which officers are accused of receiving thousands of dollars in kickbacks for steering accident victims to a towing company that was not authorized to do business with the city.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III helped make the arrests, summoning the officers to the department's training academy under the guise of an equipment inspection. There, he and the special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore field office, Richard A. McFeely, lined them up and took their badges.
"I'm here to reclaim our badge," Bealefeld said he told them.
In a 41-page criminal complaint and afternoon news conference, federal authorities outlined a broad scheme in which the officers are accused of conspiring for two years with brothers Hernan Alexis Moreno Mejia and Edwin Javier Mejia, owners of Majestic Auto Repair Shop in Rosedale.
In all, more than 30 officers are accused of being involved in one of the department's largest scandals in recent memory. The arrests and suspensions will also effectively take a large number of officers off the streets at a time when the department is struggling to replenish its ranks after a rash of departures.
At least 14 officers who were not charged have been implicated in the investigation and will have suspension hearings Thursday afternoon, police said. The officers charged in the case could receive prison sentences of up to 20 years and up to $250,000 fines if convicted.
"I expect all City employees to serve the public with the highest level of integrity, and I will not tolerate criminal or unethical activity by any city employee," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in a statement.
After a community meeting at Patterson High School in Southeast Baltimore, she told a group of reporters that she was "certainly disappointed" by the charges but was "gratified" that the such practices would not be tolerated.
A network of 13 towing companies, referred to as the "medallion towers," have contracts with the city, some for as long as three decades, to haul away cars involved in accidents or illegally parked on public right-of-ways. Majestic is not one of those companies.
Authorities allege that the officers involved, upon being dispatched to an accident, would contact one of the Majestic tow company owners by cell phone rather than allow drivers to use a company of their choice or calling one of the city's authorized companies.
If the Majestic owner wanted the car, the officer would then tell the driver that he knew a tow operator who could help save him money, provide a rental car and waive the insurance deductible. The complaint says the officer would persuade car owners to "not call their insurance company until after speaking" with the tow company.
The complaint alleges that the officer would then either falsify a police report, noting that the owner had requested his own tow company, or leave that box unchecked. For each car delivered, the court documents say, an officer received $300. One officer pocketed more than $14,000 over two years, according to Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland.
"Police officers are supposed to work for the Police Department, not the highest bidder," Rosenstein said.
The Baltimore case began with an internal investigation, which was handed off to the FBI, officials said.
Bealefeld told reporters at a news conference at the Maryland U.S. attorney's office that he thought for months about how he would explain the arrests to the residents of Baltimore. He said he wanted the arrests done in a "very deliberate way" that was "meaningful and respectful," but that also sent a stern message to the 3,000-member department.
Some have said they had long suspected and voiced concerns about towing companies not playing by the rules.
Paula Protani, who heads an association of the 13 medallion towing companies, said she had lodged numerous complaints about Majestic over the past three years — and at one point was arrested after confronting an officer at a crash scene, spending eight hours in Central Booking before being released without charges.
Protani provided to The Baltimore Sun a copy of the police report, which lists an arresting officer not named in the criminal complaint. Police said they were looking into the claim.
The medallion tow companies have contracts with the city that, in many cases, stretch back for decades. The companies pay a small annual licensing fee — Protani said it was around $500 — and have exclusive rights to tow cars that have been in accidents or are illegally parked in the city. The companies charge $130 to tow vehicles east of Charles Street and $140 to tow on the west side. The city does not receive a portion of the fee for the tows but collects money through tickets and storage fees.
Protani said she believes many other "gypsy" tow companies circumvent the city's tow rules, but that Majestic was the most egregious example.
"This gives all the good, honest tow companies out there a black eye," said Protani. "We're like lawyers — nobody likes a tow company until they need [one]."
No one was at Majestic on Wednesday afternoon, and a voice mail recording for the business confirmed it was closed. "There is a business emergency," the recording said, adding, "we promise to give everyone a call back."
Robert F. Cherry, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police Lodge, could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.
Sgt. Carlos Vila, a member of the FOP's executive board and the head of the Latino officers' group, said that union was planning to support the officers.
"They're dues paying members and it's our obligation to support our members," Vila said. "At this point, these are just allegations. We'll be meeting very soon to discuss with our attorneys how we're going to proceed."
In court Wednesday afternoon, the officers were brought in no more than four at a time. The first four — Michael Lee Cross, Rafael Conception Feliciano Jr., Samuel Ocasio and Henry Yambo — were led into the courtroom in handcuffs by federal agents, and sat behind their attorneys, with whom they conferred as they flipped through the criminal complaint.
The officers were each released without having to post bail and without pre-trial supervision. Those with personal handguns and passports were ordered by U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Paul Grimm to hand them over.
Defense attorneys said it was too early to discuss the case.
"Obviously, nothing is known at this point, and we have to find out what this case is supposed to be about," said defense attorney Thomas Saunders, who was appointed to represent Officer Jhonn S. Corona.
Some of the officers charged have received the department's highest honors in recent years. Officer Rodney Cintron received a Bronze Star in 2009 for helping arrest a man with a .22-caliber long-barrel revolver, while Corona received a Silver Star the same year after returning fire at a man who shot at a fellow officer.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said commanders plan to move officers from the Community Stabilization Unit to the Northeast District to make up for the disproportionate number of officers there who were suspended or charged. The commander retired this year, and the district has experienced the most homicides in the city so far this year.
The investigation dates to at least January 2009, records show. The investigation included wiretaps and surveillance of the tow truck company owners and their Rosedale lot.
In one exchange included in documents, Officer Rafael Concepcion Feliciano Jr. sent a text message to Moreno, one of Majestic's owners, that said: "Hey bro, did everything go through with both cars cause I need some cash today? Im tight with money and want to get some things before work later."
On Tuesday, police officials issued a bulletin asking the officers in question to report to the training academy. Upon being confronted by Bealefeld and McFeely, they were asked to hand over their badges, which were then turned over to an academy recruit who was allowed to witness the arrests.
The recruit lined them up on the floor as a demonstration to his classmates.
Bealefeld, a 30-year veteran of the city force, told reporters, "I know what service means."
Of the way the arrests were handled, the commissioner said, "You can consider the ramifications of that to infinity."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.
Who was charged
The following people were charged:
•Hernan Alexis Moreno Mejia (Moreno), 30, of Rosedale.
•Moreno's brother, Edwin Javier Mejia, 27, of Middle River.
The following officers were charged:
•Eddy Arias, 39, of Catonsville.
•Eric Ivan Ayala Olivera, 35, of Edgewood.
•Rodney Cintron, 31, of Middle River.
•Jhonn S. Corona, 32, of Rosedale.
•Michael Lee Cross, 28, of Reisterstown.
•Jerry Edward Diggs, Jr., 24, of Baltimore.
•Rafael Concepcion Feliciano Jr., 30, of Baltimore.
•Jaime Luis Lugo Rivera, 35, of Aberdeen.
•Kelvin Quade Manrich, 41, of Gwynn Oak.
•Luis Nunez, 33, of Baltimore.
•Samuel Ocasio, 35, of Edgewood.
•David Reeping, 41, of Baltimore.
•Jermaine Rice, 28, of Owings Mills.
•Leonel Rodriguez Torres, 31, of Edgewood.
•Marcos Fernando Urena, 33, of Baltimore.
•Osvaldo Valentine, 38, of Edgewood.
•Henry Yambo, 28, of Reisterstown.
Source: Office of the U.S. Attorney for MarylandCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun