By Mark Gutglueck
Events are on the brink of overtaking San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos, as an examination of his move to shut down several grand jury investigations has resulted in revelations pertaining to his motives for doing so, including trying to prevent his own participation in graft and the spoils of corruption from lurching into public view.
As the county’s top prosecutor for more than thirteen years, he was heretofore gone beyond the limits of his actual authority, thereby influencing the direction and intensity of law enforcement and prosecutorial actions by local investigative agencies he did not have the constitutional or legal right to control, such as in cases where he dissuaded past civil grand jurors from delving into issues problematic to himself and various institutions, departments and individuals with whom he is aligned. His status as district attorney is now in jeopardy and his remaining authority is now eroding because of his too careless and arrogant push to prevent the current grand jury, a few of its members in particular, from completing investigations they had opened.
As a consequence, attention has now turned to a set of circumstances involving bribes provided to Ramos himself – money given to him in return for his changing the course of both investigations and prosecutions.
At the center of these depredations are two entities, one being the dominant organized crime configuration in California and the other a company that in recent years has muscled in and established itself as the predominant purveyor of bail bonds.
The first of these – the Mexican Mafia, has benefited from its largesse to Ramos through decisions by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office’s not to pursue criminal charges relating to criminal activity members of that organization have engaged in within San Bernardino County, or by mishandling, downplaying or undercharging in those cases it does pursue.
The second of these is Bail Hotline Bail Bonds, a company that has experienced explosive growth over the last eight years, in large measure based upon its aggressive tactics in marketing itself, including within San Bernardino County’s jail system. As complaints with regard to these tactics have cropped up, including allegations that Bail Hotline Bail Bonds has engaged in an illegal tactic known as bail capping, Ramos moved to quell the complaints and the investigations never gained any traction. Further information has surfaced regarding irregularities occurring when the court makes a determination as to whether bail is to be granted, what the amount of that bond is to be and under what terms. That information suggests that certain defendants, particularly ones who are Bail Hotline clients, have received more favorable bail recommendations from the district attorney’s office than other defendants charged with the same crimes who exhibit no more and in some cases less flight risk.
Ramos’s arrangements for receiving the payoffs have ranged from the relatively straightforward and crude to more sophisticated methods in which the money is laundered.
It is likely Ramos would have been able to continue with the pattern he has adopted of enriching himself by means of bribes or kickbacks from those he would otherwise target for prosecution had it not been for a series of miscalculations he made with regard to a single individual – a retired police officer named James Wiebeld.
Wiebeld, who retired after more than 30 years in law enforcement with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department where he had served as a detective, goes by the nickname “Buddy.”
Perhaps bored, perhaps genuinely concerned about the state of the county, perhaps on just a whim, Buddy Wiebeld signed up to serve on the grand jury in 2014 and was among those selected to serve as a grand juror when that investigative task force was impaneled. Owing in some measure to his law enforcement background, Wiebeld was selected to serve as the 2014-15 Grand Jury’s sergeant-at-arms. The grand jury term runs with the governmental fiscal year, from July 1 to June 30. The 2014-15 Grand Jury took up a number of issues that term, including the Bloomington sewer contract, the phenomenon of bullying in the county’s schools, management and financial record-keeping practices in the City of Colton, code enforcement policies and procedures in the City of San Bernardino, conditions in the detention centers/jails run by the sheriff’s department, policies at the county’s Devore Animal Shelter and whether the county was adhering to state law intended to emphasize the adoption of sheltered animals rather than slaughtering them, conditions and operations at the City of San Bernardino’s animal shelter, the sheriff’s department’s policies and procedures with regard to the impounding and towing of vehicles and reports that department personnel eventually took title to some of those impounded vehicles, misuse or improper use of the sheriff’s department’s helicopters, and an examination as to how well the Newberry Community Services District had complied with recommendations with regard to its operations made by the 2012-13 Grand Jury.
Wiebeld, as a one-time member of the sheriff’s department, took a special interest in the investigations into the conditions at the jails, the department’s vehicle towing policy and the use/abuse of the helicopter. As it would turn out, all three of those investigations were short-circuited, failing to plumb to the true depths of the issues taken up.
Even as the grand jury was looking into the conditions in the county jails, four separate lawsuits were filed in roughly the same time frame alleging a pattern of guard-on-prisoner brutality that included beatings, the use of electric shock and sadistic sexual abuse, triggering an FBI investigation. In April 2014, the FBI sent several agents into the West Valley Detention Center in response to reports of widespread abuse there and “walked off,” i.e., escorted from the premises, four deputies who worked there. The four jailers were subsequently, along with three other deputies, fired by the department. Nevertheless, the 2014-15 Grand Jury Report made no mention of the abuse of prisoners.
The investigation of the department’s towing procedures came about after complaints were made that vehicles impounded by tow companies with towing service arrangements with the sheriff’s department’s various substations were subsequently purchased by department personnel at lien sales conducted by those towing companies. While the grand jury report acknowledged reports of “employees purchasing vehicles at lien sales after a vehicle has been impounded by a tow company or after a vehicle had been seized during an investigation,” the report made no specific references to the sheriff’s department personnel who had actually made those purchases. Rather, the report provided a rather languid recommendation that “In order to avoid any appearance that a seizure was for personal gain, employees shall not possess property that has been seized by the department. This includes the purchase of seized property by a third party for an employee’s use.”
The grand jury’s review of the sheriff’s aviation division resulted in similarly bland conclusions. “Not all flights are recorded in the Aviation Flight Logs,” the report stated, while further noting, “Staff personnel are not adhering to division standard operating procedures.”
In the same rough time frame that the grand jury was looking into these matters, a recently retired sheriff’s department sergeant, Tim Jordan, and current deputies Brian Moler and Jeff Wetmore, represented by attorney Christopher L. Gaspard filed a lawsuit against San Bernardino County and the sheriff’s department alleging they experienced retaliation from their immediate superiors and other higher ranking department members for resisting their superiors’ imposition of a “a 200 traffic ticket per month quota and … a traffic citation tracking system in an effort to ensure they met that quota.” Contained in the suit was the assertion that “In early 2011 Sgt Jordan discovered that sheriff’s personnel assigned to the department’s narcotics unit would routinely tow vehicles and flip them by purchasing the vehicles at lien sales and selling them for profit. The sheriff’s personnel who were flipping towed cars would call a particular tow company owned by the father of a deputy sheriff. This would occur regardless of the location from which the car was towed. When the vehicle came up for lien sale the owner of the tow company would contact the deputies and offer them the first chance of purchasing the vehicle. The owner of the tow company would discount the vehicles, often selling them for thousands of dollars below bluebook value.”
Wiebeld, who was held over with six others from the 2014-15 Grand Jury to serve on the panel in 2015-16, was unsatisfied with the fashion in which the previous grand jury had soft-pedaled the jail brutality, purchase of impounded vehicles by sheriff’s personnel and helicopter misuse issues. Recognizing that the FBI was already aggressively probing the abuse of prisoners in the sheriff’s department-run detention center, Wiebeld laid off that issue, not wanting to step on the FBI investigation. But with regard to the issue of department members’ acquisitions of impounded vehicles, which he recognized to be far more widespread than the previous grand jury had acknowledged, and the sheriff’s department’s misuse of its aviation fleet, which involved ferrying department higher-ups, politicians, their wives and mistresses to distant locations beyond the county on highly inappropriate pleasure flights and junkets with no conceivable relationship to law enforcement, public safety or search and rescue operations, Wiebeld began pushing his grand jury colleagues to again take up those matters.
Ramos, who had learned of Wiebeld’s agitating along these lines, was already alarmed at the situation, concerned that he might be faced with a rogue grand jury he could not control. His fears and alarm, as well as that of other high-ranking county officials, were confirmed when on August 27, 2015, Fox 11 News in Los Angeles reported that “children who were under the supervision of the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services … were being abused, tortured, and killed.” According to that report, in certain cases, children had been entrusted to foster parents who had previously been caught abusing children living in their homes. In one of those cases, according to Fox 11, a child had died at the hand of an abusive foster parent after the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services was made aware of the sadistic nature of that foster parent. The Fox 11 News report made reference to an ongoing grand jury investigation. The following day, Friday August 28, a special meeting was convened at the county administrative building which was attended by County Executive Officer Greg Devereaux, District Attorney Mike Ramos, Children and Family Services Director Marlene Hagen and a handful of other high level county officials. The primary topic discussed, the Sentinel was told by a reliable source, was the formulation of a cover story and talking points calculated to defuse the issue of negligence in the San Bernardino County Children and Family Services Department which led to the deaths of children in the foster parent system it oversaw. This week, David Wert, the county’s official spokesman, told the Sentinel, “Greg [Devereaux] did not speak to the DA on August 28, and he has never spoken to the DA about Children and Family Services or grand jury matters. Greg does occasionally meet with the DA on county budget issues.”
Forthwith, county officials in August and September moved to identify those responsible for the leaks that resulted in the foster child deaths becoming public and sought to squelch any further release of information. Grand jurors, whose investigations and proceedings are considered to be confidential and are informed of such and sworn to secrecy when a grand jury is impaneled, were threatened with arrest and prosecution if they violated that oath.
Wiebeld was suspected of being Fox 11’s source for its August 27 report and subsequent follow-ups. Ramos accompanied his office’s grand jury advisor, deputy district attorney Michael Dauber, and a single member of the grand jury to the office of Marsha Slough, who was then the presiding judge of the San Bernardino County Superior Court. Wiebeld, Slough was told, was proving disruptive. Slough subsequently summoned Wiebeld to her office. She informed him that he was an at-will volunteer and that his services were no longer needed. After Wiebeld was bounced from the panel, Dauber, with some prevarication, told the remaining members of the grand jury that Wiebeld had voluntarily resigned his commission as a grand juror for personal reasons.
That move appears to have had a fateful, and perhaps what yet may even prove a fatal, consequence on Mike Ramos’s career as district attorney.
If by shedding Wiebeld Ramos believed the issues lurking below the surface in San Bernardino County would remain on the down low, he both underestimated the former sheriff’s detective’s resolve, determination, investigative prowess and networking capability and overestimated his own ability to use the power of his office to obfuscate, intimidate and prosecute his way out from underneath a situation in which his own action and that of his closest associates implicate him in criminal activity and a long running conspiracy to keep it under wraps.
Wiebeld, like all detectives, lives by the mantra of “motive, means and opportunity” in seeking to determine the perpetrator of a criminal act and prove his culpability.
Though grand juries do not typically deal with criminal matters, per se, and are chartered to focus primarily on oversight of government institutions at the county level or lower, if in the course of such an investigation the grand jury comes upon indications or evidence of real or potential criminal activity, it is at liberty to gather that information and both pass it along to the appropriate law enforcement agency and document it in a report, in either ad hoc form or in the annual grand jury report put out toward the end of its term in June.
Grand juries have the authority to charge public officials with “willful or corrupt misconduct in office.” Such accusations under the California Constitution and state law are to be tried in the same manner as a criminal indictment, and may not be dismissed for political or extra-legal motives. The definition of “willful misconduct in office” specifies serious misconduct that constitutes criminal behavior or “purposeful failure to carry out mandatory duties of office.”
It thus appears that Ramos, in shutting down the grand jury’s several investigations, violated the law. So, what was Ramos’s motive in doing so? It appears that he was concerned that an aggressive inquiry into misfeasance or malfeasance by other county officials would lead, ineluctably, to an examination of his own malfeasance, one that grew out of greed.
At this point, Ramos, as district attorney receives $374,027 in total annual compensation, including both his salary and benefits. Nine years ago, however, he was being paid somewhat less, somewhere in the $305,000 per year range. That, he stated repeatedly to those in his orbit, was simply not enough money. He deserved more, he insisted. In 2007, he called a meeting with several of the county’s other at-large elected officials – then- assessor Bill Postmus, auditor controller Larry Walker and then-sheriff Gary Penrod – to discuss what he said was the county’s inadequate pay situation. He broached the idea of having the board of supervisors sponsor a countywide ballot measure aimed at increasing the pay of those elected officials serving in countywide office. Then-county counsel Ruth Stringer was brought in to determine if such an initiative could be put before county residents. Postmus used money in his electioneering fund to conduct a poll to determine if county voters would support such a measure. The effort died quietly, however, when Postmus was implicated in a political corruption scandal involving politicking from the assessor’s office.
In 2008, Ramos’s desperation for money was again given demonstration when his electioneering committee, The Friends of Mike Ramos, in the period between January 1 and June 30 of that year paid Gretchen Ramos $10,000 for “campaign services.” Gretchen Ramos was at that point Mike Ramos’s wife of 27 years
Ramos’s payment of $10,000 to his wife for “campaign services” that year was highly irregular. 2008 was not an election year for the district attorney’s post in San Bernardino County. Furthermore, Ramos failed to disclose the $10,000 payment to his wife on his California Form 700 income disclosure documents. Form 700s are intended to provide disclosure of the full range of elected and appointed governmental officials’ economic interests. Since California is a community property state, Ramos should have declared the payment to his wife as income to his household.
The conversion of that money, intended for electioneering purposes by its donors, into cash that went into Ramos’s pocket raised the specter of money laundering and potential bribery.
Notably, Ramos prosecuted other politicians, charging them with felonies, for similar action.
In 2009, the degree to which Ramos was hungry for cash was again demonstrated when then-supervisor Neil Derry floated the concept of creating an ethics commission. Ramos swung his support behind the idea, volunteering to take on the position of the county’s chief ethics officer on the proviso that he be provided with a $20,000 per year stipend for doing so. That too fell through.
In the intervening years, Ramos appears to have abandoned the efforts to boost his income through augmentations to his salary, and instead crossed the line once more, as he did with the ploy of transferring money out of his political fund to his wife, into the realm of illegality and graft, trading upon his authority and ability to suspend that authority in return for money.
Recently surfacing as a result of Wiebeld’s forced departure from the grand jury is the account of a witness that served as a courier between the Mexican Mafia and members of the San Manuel Indian Tribe in Highland involved in a drug distribution network. That witness, known by the code name “Rico Doe” has said that Mike Ramos was handed a package containing a substantial amount of cash that originated from Mexican Mafia-related illicit narcotic activity during a designated rendezvous at the Pechanga Casino in Temecula. According to Rico Doe, the money was provided to Ramos as part of an arrangement to insulate members of the Mexican Mafia and San Manuel tribal members from prosecution. The witness hinted at other occasions when money was provided to the district attorney.
What has been suggested is that one of the examples of Ramos showing favoritism toward members of the San Manuel Tribe is a matter involving two tribal members, Stacy Cheyenne Barajas-Nunez, and her brother Erik Barajas, who contracted with members of the Mexican Mafia to kill Leonard Epps, a one-time bartender at the Brass Key nightclub/restaurant in Highland they believed had too much knowledge about illegal activity they were involved in. That planned execution was botched, but was discovered as a consequence of a massive drug bust led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration during which evidence of the attempted hit turned up during the serving of search warrants on several San Manuel Reservation homes, including those of Barajas-Nunez and Barajas.
Because the basis of the case had been laid by federal agents, Ramos did not have the luxury of dispensing with the case without a prosecution. Ultimately, Ramos accepted a plea agreement from both. Barajas-Nunez pleaded guilty to participating in the murder-for-hire scheme and to two drug charges. Her brother pleaded guilty to an assault with a deadly weapon charge in connection with the murder-for-hire scheme. The deal Ramos approved allowed them to avoid any jail time and remain at home and be monitored electronically. Barajas-Nunez agreed to a 365-day home detention sentence and her brother agreed to 180 days of home sentencing.
As a result of the attempt on his life and the injuries he sustained, Epps, represented by attorney Frank Peterson, filed a civil suit against Barajas Nunez and Barajas. Epps and Peterson prevailed in that suit and a jury has already awarded Epps $6.577 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Epps is still a target for Mexican Mafia executioners and has had to assume a new identity and relocate himself and his family to a secure location.
Petersen said there are “deep” levels of drug distribution activity emanating from the San Manuel Reservation, involving massive infusions of monetary investments from tribe members sustaining that illicit operation.
Ramos’s willingness to look the other way with regard to the criminal activity involving the Mexican Mafia that is ongoing at the reservation is complicated by the consideration that the tribe has made an arrangement, approved by the board of supervisors, to pay the district attorney’s office $1,048,909 yearly to prosecute criminal cases originating on the reservation and at the San Manuel Casino located on reservation grounds and operated by the tribe.
Another allegation relating to the district attorney engaging in a quid pro quo arrangement whereby he has pulled his prosecutorial punches in exchange for money is that relating to irregularities with the bail bond operations at, around and in the county’s detention facilities and jails.
While bail bondsmen are permitted to market their services, utilizing inmates to do so, an activity known as bail bond capping, is illegal under California law. Early in Ramos’s tenure as district attorney, in 2004, he prosecuted, with much fanfare, employees of a bail bond company owned and operated by members of former sheriff Floyd Tidwell’s family.
In recent years, however, Ramos has failed to investigate let alone pursue a case against another company alleged to have engaged in bail bond capping on an even grander scale than the company owned by the Tidwells.
Bail Hotline Bail Bonds, a company founded by the McGuire Brothers eleven years ago, began operating in San Bernardino County in earnest in late 2007. In March of 2008, according to numerous other local bail bond operators, Bail Hotline took command of the lion’s share of business out of San Bernardino County’s jails. Beginning in April of 2007, complaints were made with regard to Bail Hotline’s activity.
Communication by several bail bond business owners with a member of the sheriff’s department’s command echelon, Deputy Chief Greg Garland, resulted, at least temporarily, in preventing Bail Hotline’s representatives from maintaining an overwhelming presence at the jails and monopolizing bail bond business in San Bernardino County. In time, however, Bail Hotline reasserted itself. That was followed by numerous complaints of bail bond capping related to the company, including ones made to the sheriff’s department, the district attorney’s office and the grand jury. No grand jury ever took the matter up as an official investigation. No prosecutions ever ensued.
Moreover, reports began to trickle in and then flood in with regard to favorable treatment accorded to Bail Hotline’s clients during bail hearings, with little or no resistance to most bail requests by the district attorney’s office being registered, peppered with very few token oppositions in some exceptional cases.
According to one attorney who requested anonymity, a check from Bail Hotline Bail Bonds made out to Ramos was spotted on his desk at the district attorney’s office.
According to numerous individuals, the McGuire Brothers paid for Ramos’s travel and accommodations on a holiday to Park City, Utah.
Efforts to reach the McGuire Brothers to get their explanation for the provision of money and vacation accommodations to Ramos were unsuccessful. They have publicly maintained that they get ahead by offering ethical and quality service to their customers.
Marco McGuire told ESPN 1700, “Today’s times is a tough economic time, so we have to work with our clients. Usually, back in the day, the client would put a credit card and pay off in one shot. But nowadays it’s tough. We work with our clients with payment plans. There’s no collateral. Their signature for Bail Hot Line is pretty much their freedom. That’s pretty much the way the company is ran. We go by whoever is signing for the individual. It’s an insurance bond and its usually charged between eight and ten points.”The company’s website states, “Bail Hotline Bail Bonds, is a family business. We have flourished by providing families like yours services that are honest.”
On his statements of economic interest, known as California Form 700s, going back to 2007, Ramos makes no mention of receiving any income or gifts from Bail Hotline or its principals. Nor does he make any reference to money received from those associated with the San Manuel tribe, though he did list the receipt of a $75 concert ticket as a gift from James Ramos, the one-time chairman of the San Manuel tribe, who is now the chairman of the board of supervisors.
In recent weeks, the examination of Mike Ramos’s penchant for shutting down investigations has accelerated, following an effort by the grand jury to look into a report of county jail inmates being provided with alcohol. Reports abound that the grand juror who was pressing to look into the matter, Rebecca Fults, was threatened with prosecution if she did not desist.
Efforts to elicit a response from Ramos with regard to the bribery accusations that have surfaced in the aftermath of the sacking of Wiebeld from the grand jury were unsuccessful.
Similarly, deputy district attorney Dauber, the grand jury advisor, spurned multiple offers to him to let him give his input for this article.
By Mark Gutglueck