KING CITY, Calif. (AP) — The acting police chief and two officers in a rural California town were removed from duty after being arrested on suspicion of selling or giving away the impounded cars of poor residents, authorities said.
The former police chief also was taken into custody Tuesday in the scheme in King City, an agricultural town of 13,000 people about 150 miles southeast of San Francisco.
Prosecutors said an undetermined number of vehicles were sold or given away for free when the owners couldn't pay fees to reclaim them.
"There has been a significant breakdown in the internal leadership of the King City Police Department," Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo said. "It also appears to me that some officers have dishonored their badge."
All the officers have been placed on paid administrative leave, KSBW-TV reported.
Two other officers on the 17-member force have been arrested on unrelated charges, and several others are on stress or medical leave, reducing the force by about half, the Monterey Herald reported.
Flippo said the investigation of the car thefts began six months ago, but his office had been hearing allegations of wrongdoing in the department since 2010.
Investigators heard people, many poor and unable to speak good English, complain at a community meeting that police were taking their cars and money, and there was nothing they could do about it, Flippo said.
Investigators said the scheme focused on poor Hispanic residents in the city that is more than 87 percent Hispanic, according to U.S. Census data.
In some cases, authorities said, officers simply kept the cars for their own use.
The four suspects tied to the thefts have been charged with bribery, accepting a bribe or embezzlement.
They were identified as Acting Chief Bruce Edward Miller, former Chief Dominic David Baldiviez, Sgt. Bobby Javier Carrillo and Officer Mario Alonso Mottu Sr.
Brian Albert Miller, the operator of the towing company and brother of the acting chief, has also been arrested.
Investigators said Carrillo was the ringleader of the scheme, and he would receive one free vehicle to keep or sell for every 10 to 15 he impounded.
Authorities said Carrillo gave one of those vehicles to Bruce Miller, then a police captain, the Salinas Californian reported.
Authorities also say Baldiviez gave Mottu a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria patrol car belonging to King City or the King City Police Explorers, the newspaper said.
Those arrested were bailed out of jail within hours, KSBW reported.
"I'm completely surprised by the arrest this morning," Bruce Miller told a KSBW reporter on his way out of jail after posting bail.
He said he had known his department was being investigated but had no idea that he was a suspect. He denied accepting any bribes.
"My reputation is soiled," he said. "There's no coming back from this, even if I'm found innocent. People are always going to look poorly upon me."
King City was typically quiet on Tuesday evening, with the bakeries, markets and taquerias along its historic main street mostly empty.
The windows were steamy at Bailey's Gym, where a handful of people were exercising.
Owner Greg Bailey, who also works as a correctional officer at a nearby prison, said he has known Miller for a long time and is skeptical about the charges.
Bailey said it's not uncommon for immigrants to drive without insurance, and if they are caught, their vehicles are impounded. He said his own car was hit by someone driving without insurance.
Bailey also said he was concerned about the sudden, sharp reduction in the police force.
"There was a safety issue prior to this happening," he said, noting gangs are active in the town.
Hector and Laura Vasquez set down a heavy sofa they were carrying in the showroom of their Dor's Furniture store to chat about the arrests.
Speaking in Spanish, Laura Vasquez said it didn't seem right that the officers were bailed out so quickly after her husband described what had happened.
"They're supposed to be keeping us safe, but they're the ones who are breaking the law," she said.
The front office of the King City police station was closed Tuesday afternoon.
King City Manager Michael Powers told The Associated Press that Monterey County sheriff's deputies and officers from nearby Gonzales and Soledad have volunteered to help the depleted force in King City.
"Obviously, people are in shock, and so is the city staff," Powers said. "But at the same time, we can't tolerate corruption in the police department."
The two officers facing unrelated charges were identified as Officer Jaime Andrade, who was accused of possession of an assault weapon and illegal storage of a firearm, and Officer Mark Allen Baker, who was arrested on suspicion of criminal threats.
Joseph reported from San Francisco. AP writers Paul Elias and Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco also contributed to this story.