US & Canada

California city police 'sold impounded vehicles'

King City residents gather at Veronica Villa's restaurant to discuss an alleged police car theft ring 26 February 2014 Image copyright AP
Image caption King City residents had complained about vehicles being improperly impounded since 2010

The acting police chief and two officers in a rural California town have been removed from duty after being arrested and accused of selling vehicles seized from poor residents.

After a six-month inquiry, Monterey County officials also arrested an ex-King City police chief in the scheme.

The officers sold or gave away vehicles seized after alleged traffic violations, authorities said.

At least one of those charged has denied any involvement.

On Wednesday, King City Manager Michael Powers said people in the agricultural town of 13,000 about 150 miles (241km) south-east of San Francisco were "in shock" after the arrests.

Two other King City police officers were arrested on unrelated charges.

"We can't tolerate corruption in the police department," Mr Powers told the Associated Press news agency.

'Dishonoured the badge'

In a news conference on Wednesday, Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo said an investigation had begun after "ongoing complaints of corruption and other criminal acts within the King City Police Department".

Image copyright AP
Image caption Authorities said Miller's Towing, owned by the brother of the acting police chief, received and stored most of the improperly impounded vehicles

"There has been a significant breakdown in the internal leadership of the King City Police Department," Mr Flippo said. "It also appears to me that some officers have dishonoured their badge."

Acting Chief Bruce Edward Miller was charged with accepting a bribe, and former Chief Dominic David Baldiviez and Officer Mario Alonso Mottu were charged with embezzlement by a public officer.

The alleged ringleader of the vehicle-selling scheme was Sgt Bobby Carrillo, who impounded more than 200 vehicles.

The district attorney also alleged the conspirators awarded Sgt Carillo one vehicle to keep or sell for every 10-15 he impounded.

He was charged with conspiracy, accepting a bribe, and bribing an executive officer.

Many of the alleged victims were poor Hispanic residents - some who did not speak English well - who were unable to pay the fees to reclaim their vehicles.

The tow lot at the centre of the alleged scheme was owned by Acting Chief Miller's brother Brian Miller, who was charged with bribery and conspiracy.

Depleted ranks

Those arrested were bailed out of jail within hours, local broadcaster KSBW reported.

"I'm completely surprised by the arrest this morning," Bruce Miller told the broadcaster on his way out of jail.

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."

The arrested officers are now on paid leave.

Mr Powers said Montgomery County sheriff's deputies and officers from nearby Gonzales and Soledad had volunteered to assist the depleted police force in King City, which is now operating at half its usual level.

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