The first of 17 Baltimore police officers charged with extortion in what prosecutors describe as a scheme involving kickbacks to send drivers to a towing company not licensed by the city pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday.
Officer David Reeping, 41, of Arbutus, could receive up to 20 years in prison for directing unsuspecting motorists to use Majestic Towing in Rosedale to tow vehicles from accident scenes and make repairs, according to the Maryland U.S. attorney's office.
Reeping's lawyer, Jonathan Van Hoven, did not return calls seeking comment. The officer is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 14.
Wednesday's announcement is the latest indication that the sweeping police corruption case is moving forward. The officers were arrested in February under the orders of the city police commissioner, who lured them to a training academy, stripped off their badges and ordered them cuffed.
Ten of the officers — along with the owners of the towing company, Herman Alexis Moreno Mejia of Rosedale and his brother, Edwin Javier Mejia of Middle River — were also indicted by a federal grand jury.
Seven other officers, including Reeping, were charged in what is called a criminal information, an indication that they planned on pleading guilty. An additional 14 officers were implicated but were not criminally charged, and were suspended.
On Wednesday, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said Reeping's admission represents the partnership between city police and federal prosecutors. "We're going to continue to follow up on those types of leads, any allegation of fraud, waste or corruption," he said. "It's not going to be tolerated on the police force."
The scandal prompted several City Council hearings to re-evaluate the city's towing medallion system, in which 13 designated towers have contracts to tow cars from accidents or vehicles illegally parked. Majestic was not one of those companies.
When an accident occurs in the city, a police officer is called to the scene and is authorized to call communications, which will call a medallion tower. In nonemergency situations; drivers may call towing companies of their choice, unless their cars are blocking traffic or the tow company they choose does not respond in 20 minutes or less.
According to Reeping's plea agreement, between 2009 and February 2011, Moreno paid him four to seven times a total $1,000 to contact Majestic rather than an authorized tow company with the city.
Prosecutors say the officers told the car owners that it would faster and cheaper to work outside the medallion system and that the owners at Majestic would work with their insurance companies to get them a good deal. Prosecutors also said the officers told people that the towing fee would be waived if they used Majestic.
Court documents say that Reeping met Moreno, of Majestic, through Officer Rodney Cintron of Middle River, in 2009. Moreno reportedly told Reeping to tell drivers that Majestic would pay their deductibles to encourage them to have their car towed by Majestic.
Reeping said in court that Moreno would pay him up to $300 for each vehicle towed to the unauthorized shop.
The officer admitted that one time on Dec. 21 of last year, he called Moreno to have a car towed from the 300 block of S. Charles St., where a woman struck a column in front of the Sheraton Hotel with her 2003 Mazda.
After Reeping called Moreno to ask him to tow the Mazda, he then called dispatch to say that the driver would make her own arrangements to have the car towed and that it did not need to call a medallion company.
Majestic towed the car, and the accident report, which was written up by another officer, said the car had been removed by the driver, according to the plea agreement.
The next day, the driver called police asking where her car was. Reeping admitted in court that he lied when questioned by his supervisor, saying the driver had been drunk and didn't recall calling Majestic on her own.
The same day, according to Reeping's plea agreement, Moreno sent a text message him asking to take half of the money for the Mazda, explaining, "Cus it's a total loss also I got to take care the towin." Reeping received $145 instead of $300 for the Mazda.
Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus contributed to this article.