Sentinel Letter To Sheriff’s Department Spokeswoman Mara K. Rodriguez

Ms. Rodriguez…
     This is Mark Gutglueck with the San Bernardino County Sentinel.
     I am writing about the department’s towing of Robert Schlesinger’s 2003 Acura from in front of his home in Hamilton Ranch on December 22.
     It is alleged that this represents the tip of an iceberg in which deputies in your department are caught up in what is tantamount to a vehicle theft ring. That illicit activity is said to involve nice vehicles ending up in the possession of deputies or deputies’ family members after they are towed, in some cases legally, in some cases illegally and in other cases on spurious grounds. What is alleged, essentially, is that deputies see cars they covet for themselves or family members, they use some element of city code or traffic code or ordinances available to them to have the car impounded, such that in a percentage of the cases the owners do not have the wherewithal to recover the cars because of the combined fines and impound fees, whereupon the deputies in question obtain the cars by paying the impound fees and tow charges.
     In Mr. Schlesinger’s case, his car was towed for allegedly not having been moved for 72 hours. He was able to marshal evidence, in the form of his home’s own security video footage and a neighbor’s security video footage that the space from which the car had been towed was occupied in the proceeding 72 hours by both the car in question and another vehicle, rendering the version of events signed off on by the deputy who authorized the tow inoperative once the department was confronted with the evidence. Prior to that, the department insisted that the impounding of the car was legitimate.
     It is said that while the theft of vehicles in this fashion is general throughout your department, it is particularly ingrained at the Rancho Cucamonga Station, where deputies routinely patrol the parking lot at the West Valley Courthouse for cars with expired licenses or missing tags and have them towed, to the enrichment of the companies on the Rancho Cucamonga towing rotation. The grateful tow company owners are thus rendered amenable to assisting in the shakedown of car owners whose cars are targeted by the deputies working there for eventual acquisition. It is said that this situation has existed for a generation, stretching back to the time Sheriff Tidwell was in office and running through the tenures of sheriffs Williams, Penrod, Hoops, McMahon and now Sheriff Dicus. It is stated that both the department’s command echelon and the sheriffs themselves have been aware of the acute problem in Rancho Cucamonga in this regard.
     An apparent calculation by the department and the deputies is that few, if any, of those car owners victimized in this way have the sophistication or temerity to stand up to the department and its mendacious deputies. They generally go along with paying the fine and impound fees and do so as quickly as possible to recover their vehicles, as the impound fees compound with each passing day. Your department makes no effort, at least immediately, to inform those whose cars have been impounded that they have been taken by the department or where they are. This can result – and has resulted – in car owners going days or weeks without knowing where their vehicles are, such that when they do find out that they have been impounded rather than stolen they have accumulated with the tow company considerable impound storage costs which accrue by the day. In this way, some individuals or households do not have the financial means to recover the vehicles, at which point the tow company is at liberty to dispose of the vehicle in whatever way it deems fit. In some cases, the Sentinel is informed, the very deputies who authorized the towing of those vehicles have acquired the cars. In at least some of those cases, the cars turn up as the transportation means for members of those deputies’ families, the Sentinel has been told.
      What can you say of these reports? What was your department doing in Hamilton Ranch, which is a private community with its own security service, on December 22? Is it true that deputies with the department, particularly ones in Rancho Cucamonga, are shaking down vehicle owners to get their cars? How aware of this circumstance is the department’s command structure, to your knowledge? Has the department made any effort to get to the bottom of this? Is the department concerned with the damage exposure of this might do to the department’s reputation? Have any deputies been disciplined over this sort of activity?
Does the department grant tow franchises or otherwise put tow companies on its tow rotation because the ownership of those companies facilitates the eventual acquisition of vehicles towed at the request of the department’s personnel by members of the department and/or their family members? What standards/protocol goes into the selection of companies to be put on the department’s tow rotation? Earlier this year, the City of Rancho Cucamonga’s management insisted on excusing itself from participating in the selection of the companies to be on the city’s tow rotation, leaving that up to the department. Did this reflect city officials’ lack of ease with the larcenous relationship the department’s deputies have developed with some of those tow companies?
     In the case involving Mr. Schlesinger, why did the department tow his car? Why did the department seek, initially to justify that action by falsely claiming the car had not been moved for 72 hours? Why did the department engage in misrepresentations about the grounds for seizing Mr. Schlesinger’s vehicle? Why did the department at first insist on Mr. Schlesinger having to sign a waiver absolving the deputy, the department and the county from any responsibility for its action, in order for Mr. Schlesinger to get his car returned to him? Why, ultimately, did the department determine that Mr. Schlesinger’s vehicle should be returned to him?  Why, ultimately, did the department determine that Mr. Schlesinger’s vehicle should be returned to him without his having to sign the waiver? Why, ultimately, did the department determine that Mr. Schlesinger’s vehicle should be returned to him without his having to pay the impound fees and fine? At what point did the department recognize that the stated grounds for seizing Mr. Schlesinger’s vehicle was spurious? At what point did the department recognize that Mr. Schlesinger – as an attorney and former college professor – possessed a degree of gravitas and wielded sufficient credibility to be able to controvert the misrepresentations at least one of your department’s deputies had engaged in? Now that Mr. Schlesinger has marshaled proof to controvert the statements and contentions of at least one of your department’s deputies, what is to be done with regard to that deputy or deputies? Is he or are they to be disciplined? If so, how? Is he or are they to be terminated? Is no action to correct or address or redress what occurred going to be taken? If not, why not?
       Would Sheriff Dicus care to comment on this matter and the potential it has to sully the reputation of his department, in particular the Rancho Cucamonga Station, and what action he deems appropriate to redress this circumstance?
       As is usual, Ms. Rodriguez, I am fighting a deadline, and I appreciate any response you can provide me before I set pen to paper.
                                            …Mark Gutglueck  (951) 567 1936

Pre-Christmas Car Impound Exposes Shakedowns Being Run Out Of The Sheriff’s Department

By Mark Gutglueck
A shakedown operation being run out of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department within its largest and most prestigious station loomed briefly into focus last week before department higher-ups acted to prevent the exposure of a scandal that has been lingering just below the surface for decades.
One of the more recent flimflam attempts pointedly failed when the deputies involved substantially underestimated the sophistication, wherewithal and reach of the individual they were seeking to exploit.
The matter has come to the attention of the department’s command echelon, right up to and including Sheriff Shannon Dicus, as a question attends to whether the victim will launch a lawsuit aimed at a full airing of the circumstances in which he became unwillingly involved and create as wide of an exposure as possible of the string of abuses that have grown out of the department’s power of citation and confiscation which have been ongoing in Rancho Cucamonga for decades. Indeed, glimpses into the problems that city has been steeped in with its contract law enforcement agency and the franchise it has with private companies for impounding vehicles have become more frequent in recent years as other individuals of means have become aware of the situation or been in some fashion harmed by the department’s untoward arrangements and relationships and taken a stand in resisting the highly questionable ethos that attends it.
Rancho Cucamonga incorporated in 1977 when the three communities of Alta Loma, Etiwanda and Cucamonga merged to form a 39.85-square mile city. Rather than charter as a full-service municipality, Rancho Cucamonga did not take on responsibility for electrical, gas or water utilities in the community, which fell primarily to Southern California Edison, the Southern California Gas Company and the Cucamonga County Water District, nor fire safety service, which remained under the authority of the then-independent Foothill Fire District. Law enforcement in the city was provided through a contract with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. In the years since, the city has annexed another 6.53 square miles to cover 46.38 square miles and has grown to a population of 175, 478, making it the county’s sixth largest city land-wise and fourth largest city in terms of population. In 1989, the city subsumed the Foothill Fire District, converting it into the Rancho Cucamonga Municipal Fire District/Department. The city’s water and power are yet provided by the same entities, with the Cucamonga County Water District, now known as the Cucamonga Valley Water District, and Southern California Edison and the Southern California Gas Company yet providing service to the city’s roughly 57,365 households and 8,194 businesses.
At the time of its founding, Rancho Cucamonga was the eighth largest of the county’s then-fifteen cities, behind San Bernardino, Ontario, Victorville, Fontana, Rialto, Chino and Redlands. Despite the city’s tremendous growth since its incorporation, during which time its population surpassed Victorville, Rialto, Chino and Redlands, city officials in Rancho Cucamonga, despite having considered forming a municipal police department on a handful of occasions, have maintained the city’s contract with the sheriff’s department for law enforcement service. As such, Rancho Cucamonga has the largest, most expensive and most comprehensive law enforcement service contract with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department of all of the county’s 14 contract cities. The three cities in the county which have populations exceeding that of Rancho Cucamonga – San Bernardino, Fontana and Ontario – and seven cities in the county with lesser populations than Rancho Cucamonga – Rialto, Chino, Upland, Redlands, Montclair, Colton and Barstow – have municipal police departments. Fourteen of the county’s current cities and incorporated towns employ the sheriff’s department as their police departments.
To the department, that several of the county’s larger population municipalities – Rancho Cucamonga, Victorville, Hesperia, Chino Hills, Apple Valley and Yucaipa – have elected to maintain their arrangements with the sheriff rather than form their own police departments and that two of the county’s cities that formerly had municipal police departments – Needles and Adelanto – dissolved them in favor or contracting with the sheriff’s department is a source of pride.
With the arguable possible exception of Chino Hills, San Bernardino County’s most affluent city when measured by the per capita income of its residents, Rancho Cucamonga represents the most prestigious of the sheriff’s contractual assignments, based on the size of its operation, the city’s population and the city’s consistent status as the county’s second-or-third most financially successful municipality. For that reason, successive sheriffs in the county – from Frank Bland when the city was founded to each of his successors – Floyd Tidwell, Dick Williams, Gary Penrod, Rod Hoops, John McMahon and current Sheriff Shannon Dicus – had and have an especial interest in maintaining their department’s contract with Rancho Cucamonga. The comportment of the deputies in Rancho Cucamonga over the years and on occasion that of some of the sheriffs themselves, has put that relationship in jeopardy.
Less than a year after Rancho Cucamonga’s incorporation, Sheriff Frank Bland’s entanglement with the prostitution industry and the protection racket that accompanied it was put on public display when a raid at Sweeten Hall revealed Bland, several of his departmental higher-ups and his political supporters were cavorting with several ladies of the evening during a campaign fundraiser. Despite the adverse publicity the incident generated for Bland and both his department and the city, he and the sheriff’s office were able to ride out the storm without city officials following through on their contemplated ditching of the sheriff’s department in favor of forming a city police force.
An intrinsic part of any modern law enforcement agency’s function is its patrol cars. In Rancho Cucamonga, the department had a patrol fleet dedicated to the city that was separate from other sheriff’s department vehicles which were employed elsewhere, such as with other contract cities or in the various unincorporated county areas that comprise 94 percent of the county’s 20,105 square miles.
Not too long after he became Rancho Cucamonga’s first directly elected mayor in 1986, Dennis Stout requested and then insisted upon the sheriff’s patrol cars dedicated to Rancho Cucamonga have their standard insignia augmented with a separate phrase: “Rancho Cucamonga Police Department.” This did not sit well with the county sheriff at that time, Floyd Tidwell, who preferred that law enforcement function in the county’s contract cities be associated in the public mind with him and his department rather than what he considered to be a nonexistent entity. Begrudgingly, Tidwell made the requested change, but it strained his relationship with Stout.
Under Rancho Cucamonga’s contractual arrangement with the department, the fuel provided to those vehicles, i.e., gasoline, was made available at the Rancho Cucamonga City Yard, where there were fuel pumps for the city’s vehicles. Those fuel pumps were accessible by means of a card with an encoded magnetic strip. A card was issued for each of the city’s vehicles as well as for each of department’s patrol cars based in Rancho Cucamonga. On a regular basis, each day or each shift, the deputy assigned to those vehicles would use the card issued for that particular car by swiping it at the electronic reader attached to the city yard’s gasoline pumps to fill that vehicle’s tank.
By 1989, employees at the Rancho Cucamonga City Yard, including the city’s fleet supervisor, Pat Price, were alarmed to note that computerized readouts of the city’s gasoline usage monitoring system indicated the sheriff’s department vehicles were getting extremely poor gas mileage, in some cases as little as two miles to the gallon and on average reflecting fuel efficiency of less than one-fourth that of the city’s vehicles that were most comparable to the department’s patrol vehicles. When this was brought to the attention of the department, it provoked a response which held that because the patrol vehicles were outfitted with radio communications gear and early generation computer systems, shutting the cars’ engines down and restarting them would sometimes result in an electrical power surge that would damage the very expensive and delicate in-vehicle cyber and communications equipment and for that reason, the patrol cars were seldom shut off and kept constantly idling throughout all three shifts, accounting for their continuous burning of gasoline and consequent low gas mileage.
That explanation sufficed for a while, but Price, whose job entailed servicing the vehicles, tuning them, changing their oil at periodic intervals, monitoring and changing their fluids, filters, belts, connections, mounts and fasteners eventually realized that the engines were not running constantly nor were their ignitions consistently engaged. Somewhat boldly, he surreptitiously installed a pair of video cameras at the city yard with their field of perspective vectored toward the fuel pumps. In short order he had evidence that sheriff’s department personnel, including deputies and higher-ranking officers, were using the city-issued cards to fuel their own vehicles. Collecting the data relating to fuel consumption and calculated fuel mileage for each of the department vehicles and augmenting it with the computerized read-outs from comparable city vehicles, he approached city management and the sheriff’s captain overseeing the Rancho Cucamonga Sheriff’s Station.
Price’s action provoked a series of reactions, ones which he anticipated and others which he did not. Fuel mileage on the sheriff’s department vehicles in relatively short order improved rather precipitously. The video cameras he had installed were located and removed. There was no discernible disciplinary action taken toward the deputies and no reimbursements made to the city for the fuel that had been diverted to illicit personal use. Some weeks later, sheriff’s department investigators and deputies served a search warrant at Price’s home on Malachite Avenue. There, in the garage, they found city tools and equipment, including an electronic diagnostic set, and other automotive-related items purchased by the city. Despite Price’s protestation that he had relocated the city’s equipage to his personal premises because he regularly serviced city vehicles in his garage after hours and on weekends, he was arrested and thereafter suspended, then prosecuted. In making his defense, his attorney sought to have introduced before the court the evidence Price had accumulated showing the pilfering of the gasoline, the rate of fuel consumption of department vehicles in comparison to city vehicles, the mileage of department vehicles assigned to the Rancho Cucamonga Sheriff’s Station vis-à-vis department vehicles driven by deputies stationed at the sheriff’s department headquarters and other department facilities and the video evidence that was no longer in his possession, all of which was deemed irrelevant to questions of his guilt in having appropriated for his own use city-owned equipment, and therefore ruled inadmissible.
After a short trial, Price was convicted and fired from his position with the city.
He had not been without some support, including that of other city workers, friends and acquaintances with whom he had engaged well prior to his arrest, telling them of the sheriff’s employees’ gasoline thefts. The swift and decisive action of the sheriff’s department in carrying out the raid at his home, his arrest, the city’s action in suspending him and the support that District Attorney Dennis Kottmeier had lent the sheriff’s department by prosecuting him gave virtually anyone who was inclined to stand with him publicly pause.
After his conviction, Price seemed to vacillate between periods of rage during which he lashed out at the sheriff’s department, the city and district attorney’s office while vowing to expose the department as a den of thieves and then periods of docility in which the shame of his conviction overwhelmed him. With his sentencing approaching, he went missing. Shortly after his disappearance was noted, he was found by sheriff’s deputies in his vehicle up Cucamonga Canyon, a half-consumed six-pack of beer beside him, with a hose leading from his car’s exhaust pipe and fed into the interior of the car and held in place by a nearly closed window. His death was ruled a suicide.
In the meantime, for a variety of reasons which included the explosive growth that Rancho Cucamonga was experiencing to render it into what became, for a time, the county’s second most populous city before equally aggressive expansion in Fontana and Ontario resulted in those cities seeing the number of their residents edge past it as well as the perception on the part of many influential people that the sheriff’s department’s professionalism and integrity as a law enforcement agency was somewhat suspect, there was recurrent and increasingly serious discussion of ending the contract with the sheriff’s department in favor of the creation of a municipal police department.
One of the initiatives Stout had successfully pursued upon being sworn in as mayor was the city’s chartering of a public safety committee. That had led to a recommendation, followed by a decision of the mayor and city council to actuate, the conversion of the once independent Foothill Fire District into a city-run fire department. Paralleling this was contemplation of closing out the contract with the sheriff and forming a city police department, a discussion which began in earnest with the successful advent of the Rancho Cucamonga Fire Department in 1989. Throughout 1990, the seven members of the Rancho Cucamonga Public Safety Commission discussed the formation of a city police department in all of its implication, including the short-term, medium and long-term financial impact of doing so, the control, management and command issues involved, the manpower contrasts between an in-house department versus what the sheriff’s department offered, the commitments that would be required in terms of equipment and facility acquisition and the full range of qualitative considerations. In 1991, those discussions had pretty much played out. Whispers about what had really taken place during the Price episode had risen to a hum that was almost deafening. At that point, the public safety commission voted 6-to-1 to recommend that the city form its own police department. Mayor Stout and City Councilwoman Pam Wright were leaning in favor of a city police department, while Councilman Bill Alexander and Councilwoman Diane Williams were amenable to the idea. Only Councilman Chuck Buquet, a reserve deputy with the sheriff’s department, was solidly opposed to making the change. It thus appeared, at that point, that within a year or two, Rancho Cucamonga would take its next significant step toward becoming a full-service municipality, bring under the direct authority of the city its own police department, which would be housed in the public safety headquarters, which hosted the sheriff’s station and fire department administration, next to the equally new City Hall at the just-completed Rancho Cucamonga Civic Center, designed by architect John Paul Warnke, whose design credits include Lafayette Square, the Hart Senate Office Building, the Hawaii State Capital, the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame Gravesite, the Logan International Airport South Terminal, the Soviet Embassy and Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library. The sheriff, his supporters and his deputies, however, recognized the prestige serving as Rancho Cucamonga’s law enforcement provider lent the department, and were determined to prevent that from occurring.
They pressured Alexander and Williams, who ultimately, at that time, signaled their reluctance to make the change, and the sheriff’s department contract with the City of Rancho Cucamonga remained intact.
The intensity of the determination in having the sheriff’s department remain in Rancho Cucamonga is demonstrated by the vituperation the department and its employees have shown over the yeas toward those Rancho Cucamonga officials who advocated for closing out the relationship.
The department would reserve a particular degree of enmity toward Stout, the first Rancho Cucamonga politician to suggest that the city’s sheriff’s contract should be dispensed with. In 1994, after eight years as mayor and nearly seventeen years as a deputy prosecutor, Stout ran successfully for San Bernardino County district attorney. He was retained as DA in 1998. Subsequently, however, he was tripped up and defeated for reelection as a direct consequence of an operation run out of the sheriff’s department’s executive office that involved detectives attached to the sheriff’s command and its intelligence unit coordinating with Rialto City Councilman Ed Scott, who in 2000 was vying for Fifth District County Supervisor against then-Supervisor Jerry Eaves, who was being prosecuted by the district attorney’s office on political corruption charges. Prompted by the sheriff’s department investigators, Scott made phone calls to Stout, Assistant District Attorney Dan Lough and DA Chief of Investigations Barry Bruins, inquiring about the progress of the investigation and prosecution of Eaves. The sheriff’s department detectives recorded those conversations and then leaked them to the media, creating a spectacle in which Stout and his office were roundly criticized for the politicization of the county prosecutor’s office. The negative publicity redounded to Stout’s political detriment, and he lost his 2002 bid for reelection as district attorney.
Succeeding Stout as mayor in 1994 was Alexander, whose hesitancy in supporting Stout and Wright in discontinuing the sheriff’s department contract a few years earlier was key to the sheriff’s department remaining in place in Rancho Cucamonga. By the early 2000s, for a variety of reasons, Alexander, like his predecessor as mayor, had become convinced that it was time for Rancho Cucamonga to have its own police department. After he was reelected mayor without opposition in 2002, he began trying to assemble a consensus on the city council to form a police department, but was not able to nudge things to the point where undertaking such a move could proceed with any guarantee of success, given the department’s pull with the other members of the council. Accordingly, Alexander was looking toward the 2004 election, at which point it seemed possible two members of the council willing to supply the two further votes needed to close out the sheriff’s contract and create a municipal police department could be elected.
By that point, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies had come to recognize that Alexander was purposed to end their department’s contract with the city he led and were equally conscious that he had thrown his support behind two outsider candidates in the 2004 race, Sam Spagnola and David Grossberg. Sensing that the trio, if entrusted with three of the five votes on the city council, together would effectuate Alexander’s plan to oust the sheriff’s department from Rancho Cucamonga, sheriff’s deputies, under the guise of their union and in conjunction with the law firm of Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir, which represented the deputies’ union, began shadowing and surveilling the three. That operation was exposed after Alexander, Grossberg and Spagnola had arranged to meet beyond the Rancho Cucamonga City Limits and across the county line in the downtown Village District in Claremont at a sidewalk café. The union members and Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir investigators were spotted using a parabolic listening device to record Alexander’s, Grossberg’s and Spagnola’s conversation. When the union was queried about what had occurred, union officials maintained, somewhat improbably because at that point neither Grossberg nor Spagnola were elected officials, the political surveillance was part of a legitimate investigation into violations of the Brown Act, California open public meeting law which prohibits a quorum of an elected body from meeting in secret or outside the forum of an announced public hearing with a publicly accessible agenda.
While Spagnola was successful in the 2004 race, Grossberg was not.
In 2006, when Alexander had to run for reelection to remain as mayor, the deputies, their union and their union’s political action committee, along with higher-ranking members of the sheriff’s command structure, campaigned heavily in support of Alexander’s strongest opponent, Donald Kurth. As a direct consequence of that hefty political support from the sheriff’s department and those associated with it, Kurth defeated Alexander.
At least a small cross section of the San Bernardino County community has detected something untoward in the vice grip the sheriff’s department has held on the Rancho Cucamonga law enforcement services contract.
As the result of decisions made at the county level in the 1980s, two major county public works projects were sited in Rancho Cucamonga, one being the West Valley Detention Center located near the extreme southeast end of the city, which serves as the sheriff’s department primary holding facility for arrestees, inmates awaiting trial and those who have been sentenced to less than a year in custody. In recent years, in conjunction with the State of California’s so-called prison realignment, the county’s jails, including West Valley, have served as repositories for lower risk state prisoners, particularly ones convicted of mostly nonviolent crimes, some of whom have sentences exceeding one year. The other primary county public works project located in Rancho Cucamonga is the West Valley Courthouse, which was built on property adjacent to the Civic Center/City Hall/Public Safety Headquarters, just south of the southeast corner of the city’s central major intersection of Haven Avenue and Foothill Boulevard.
Beginning a generation ago, deputies with the sheriff’s department in Rancho Cucamonga embarked on what scores, indeed hundreds, of public officials, civic leaders, community leaders, leading lights, attorneys, judges and even other law enforcement officers considered to be a poorly-conceived and counterproductive policy of scouting the parking lot at the West Valley Courthouse for vehicles with expired license plates, missing license tags or which appeared to be in some technical violation or other of some minor regulation such as parking duration limitations and then arranging to have them towed by one or other of the companies on the department’s towing rotation for Rancho Cucamonga. Individuals who were obliged to make an appearance at the West Valley Courthouse – from criminal defendants, to witnesses, to prospective jurors, to jurors, to plaintiffs or defendants in civil cases, to attorneys – faced the prospect, as did those who had come to the courthouse for other purposes, such as observing the proceedings there or obtaining documentation or filing for court orders, of returning to the parking lot to find his or her car gone. Beyond the sheer inconvenience and interruption this represented to the flow of people’s lives, the cost, in fees and fines for immediately getting one’s car out of impound ran into the hundreds of dollars. Given the tow companies tacked on a per day storage fee, those who were delayed in making recovery of their vehicles could encounter a cost in excess of a thousand dollars. In those cases where the car owner did not have adequate cash on hand or sufficient credit, the tow companies would, after a requisite statutory period, take possession of the cars, taking whatever money they might realize from the sale of those vehicles to satisfy the outstanding fines, fees, charges and liens against them.
When the department was confronted, not only by the owners of the vehicles involved but by residents in general and individuals of stature in the community to include other government officials, with regard to the practice and assertions that such a systematic seizure of property, in particular at the courthouse, amounted to poor public policy, it rejected such assertions out of hand. The department, deputies and higher-ranking officers at the Rancho Cucamonga Sheriff’s Station insisted, was acting lawfully and within its rights by towing unlicensed vehicles, ones without tags or those that were in some fashion illegally parked or had some technical shortcoming. Deputies scoffed at the claim that it was not uncommon for license tags to be stolen and that by towing a vehicle with missing tags the department was compounding, in such cases, an innocent person’s victimization. Similarly, members of the department simply disregarded pleas that they consider that the courts were intended as a civilizing influence upon society and that the department’s action was discouraging members of the community at large from making use of that forum to engage in a civil resolution of disputes or abiding by and/or respecting the authority of the justice system, such that they were running the risk of provoking a greater degree of incivility, indeed were acting as a decivilizing influence. When those entreaties failed at the Rancho Cucamonga Sheriff’s Station, appeals were made to the sheriff’s department headquarters. A succession of sheriffs beginning with Penrod, followed by Hoops, McMahon and now Dicus, however, failed to respond beyond deferring to the Rancho Cucamonga Station to deal with those issues directly impacting its operations.
The policy raised questions in the minds of many as to why the deputies in Rancho Cucamonga were conducting themselves in that fashion and exactly what it was they were achieving in doing so. The San Bernardino County Grand Jury in its report published on June 30, 2015 reported on its review of the sheriff’s department’s policy relating to tow service agreements and various towing companies around the county and “the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department agency’s policies and procedures related to 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.”
According to that report, “The grand jury reviewed the tow service agreements between the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department sub-stations and tow companies.”
According to the grand jury, an effort had been undertaken to reform the previously wide-open policies of the sheriff’s department with regard to the towing, impounding and confiscation of vehicles, one which was aimed at putting into place a prohibition against sheriff’s department employees having a conflict of interest in the towing or impounding of vehicles. That reform came down to an addendum that was proposed for insertion into the tow service agreements between each of the department’s stations and the tow companies on those station’s certified towing rotations. That additional addendum stated: “All companies participating in the towing service agreement will no longer be allowed or permitted to sell and or give vehicles, motorcycles, motorized vehicles and/or any other property directly related to the towing businesses that are currently enrolled in the towing service agreement to a sheriff’s department employee and or their immediate family.”
As it turned out, however, the additional addendum was included in only one of the department’s 20 patrol stations’ tow service agreements. Ultimately, however, that addendum was deleted in favor of an addition made to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Manual within its Section 1.636, entitled “Rewards and Gratuities.” That passage states, “In the performance of his (sic) duty, deputy sheriffs frequently seize the personal property of citizens. The act of seizing another’s property is one of the most invasive and litigated activities by law enforcement. 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.”
Thus, there is a continuing loophole in the department’s regulations that allows deputies to involve themselves in the towing and impounding of vehicles which, through the indirect action of the company doing the towing and impounding, can result in the vehicle passing into the possession of a family member of the deputy who authorized the towing and impounding of the vehicle in the first place.
Sergeant Tim Jordan, who is now retired, Deputy Brian Moler and Deputy Jeff Wetmore filed a lawsuit against San Bernardino County, alleging they experienced retaliation from their immediate superiors and other higher ranking department members after they reported a number of abuses or refused to participate in such at the Adelanto/Victor Valley sheriff’s station and the Victorville sheriff’s station. This included, according to the lawsuit, an “unlawful practice of impounding citizens’ cars for personal profit.” In November 2010, Sergeant Jordan was the administrative detective sergeant at the Adelanto Victor Valley Station. He was assigned to serve a detective with a previously prepared letter of reprimand for impounding a car during the service of a search warrant and later purchasing the car from the tow yard during a lien sale and giving the car to his daughter for her personal use. In early 2011, Sergeant 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. According to Jordan, 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, according to the suit filed by Jordan, Moler and Wetmore.
The lawsuit stated, “Jordan reported this unlawful activity to a lieutenant on the department. Jordan was initially told that he would be interviewed as a witness as part of an internal affairs investigation into the criminal activity. When there was no follow up done or interview of Jordan scheduled, Jordan contacted his lieutenant, who said, ‘I was told in no uncertain terms that it’s been handled and not to worry about it.’ Shortly after reporting the illegal practice of towing citizens cars and purchasing them at lien sale to sell them for profit, Sgt Jordan was transferred from the Adelanto Victor Valley Station to the Victorville City Station.”
In 2013, Wetmore and Moler were drummed out of the motorized patrol division.
Two years later, with its June 30, 2017 report, the San Bernardino County Grand Jury highlighted the fashion in which law enforcement towing arrangements around the county were being abused. While the 2017 report essentially confined itself to specific incidents not in the county as a whole but in the High Desert in particular involving complaints pertaining to the Apple Valley Unified School District Police Department, it laid out what was immediately clearly recognizable as the impetus for aggressive towing policies. According to the grand jury, from January 2014 through December 2016, the AVUSD-PD had ordered over 727 vehicles towed from public roadways but that the district and the tow company it utilized were able, after the fact, to account for the disposition of only 217 of those cars or trucks. While CHP 180 forms given to vehicle owners are intended to facilitate a uniform method of notification to all relevant parties with regard to towed or impounded vehicles, examination of the school district police department’s records showed the forms were never sent to the registered owners and the legal owners as mandated by Section 22852(a) of the California Vehicle Code. School district police officers were overstepping their authority as laid out in the Education Code and the Penal Code to stop, cite, and tow vehicles, according to the grand jury, which said a significant majority of the citations in conjunction with the towing of vehicles were for non-hazardous moving vehicle code violations such as expired registration, equipment violations, expired driver’s license, no driver’s license in possession or not wearing a seat belt, virtually all of which had no bearing on the school district’s educational mission.
Many of the unaccounted for 510 vehicles that were towed were never recovered by their owners, as many were acquired in lien sales. The registered owners and legal owners were not notified of their right to a tow hearing or post storage hearing to determine the validity of the towing, impounding and storage of the involved vehicles, as mandated by California Vehicle Code section 22852(a), according to the grand jury, which further determined that the school district police department did not have authority to stop, cite, and tow vehicles.
According to the grand jury, the Apple Valley Unified School District Police Department was authorizing the towing of vehicles using only one tow service for a number of years, with no written contract, no signed memorandum of understanding, and without the involvement of the school district’s administrative services division.
Though the grand jury report did not disclose the name of the single tow service used by the school district police department, the Sentinel identified that company as Big Apple Automotive, owned by former Apple Valley City Councilman Jack Collingsworth.
Examination of those tow companies put on towing rotations with cities throughout San Bernardino County show a consistent pattern of the owners/operators and, in some cases, the employees of those companies, making significant donations to the political campaigns of the city council members of the cities or the board members of the districts that maintain those tow rotations.
It thus appears that irregularities and corruptions of the tow franchises and their connections with law enforcement was largely informed by those with ties to the establishment and political insiders.
In Rancho Cucamonga, the wielding of such political influence in the granting of spots on those tow franchises was revealed in a lawsuit by a towing company operator whose company was excluded from that rotation.
In December 2020, Manny Acosta and his company, Pepe’s Towing, filed suit against the City of Rancho Cucamonga, alleging irregularities in the city’s towing franchise arrangements that included inconsistencies in the standards applied to the tow companies on the city’s towing rotation and that San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department employees, including most significantly the department’s executive director, John Fogerty, exhibited favoritism and made backdoor deals with other tow companies based on relationships between those employees and the tow company owners.
Beginning in 2018, according to the suit, Pepe’s Towing, which was one of the companies on the city’s towing rotation, began to object to a lack of consistency in the sheriff’s department’s standards and fairness in its dealing with tow franchise operators. The sheriff’s department retaliated against Pepe’s Towing as a consequence of those objections, according to the suit. The situation devolved from there, according to the suit, resulting in what was characterized in the lawsuit as the unfair and sudden termination of Pepe’s Towing’s towing services agreement with Rancho Cucamonga.
Named in the lawsuit were the City of Rancho Cucamonga along with the County of San Bernardino, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff’s Sergeant Gary Esmond and Sheriff’s Captain Donny Mahoney who was then serving in the capacity of Rancho Cucamonga’s chief of police, Rancho Cucamonga City Manager John Gillison, then-City Attorney James Markman, Mayor Dennis Michael, city council members Lynne Kennedy, Ryan Hutchison, Kristine Scott, and then-City Councilman Sam Spagnolo.
As a consequence of the city’s involvement in the lawsuit, Rancho Cucamonga officials undertook an examination of the fashion in which the tow rotation was being managed by sheriff’s department personnel. They came to the conclusion that the city should divorce itself from the situation entirely and opt out of the tow truck franchising process, lest the city find itself held to further account for irregularities the sheriff’s department had involved itself in with at least some of the tow truck companies. In June, Rancho Cucamonga Assistant City Manager Elisa Cox wrote to all of the city’s current tow truck franchise holders and applicants for such franchises that were to run over the three-year period from 2023 until 2026, informing them that the city’s participation in granting those franchises and maintaining them was to come to an end the following month.
“Thank you for responding to the City of Rancho Cucamonga’s RFP [request for proposal, i.e., bid invitation] for 2023-2026 police tow services,” Cox wrote. “I am writing to inform you that the city intends to discontinue its police tow rotation program at the conclusion of the current rotation cycle in order to focus its administrative resources on other priorities. At its July 19, 2023 meeting, the Rancho Cucamonga City Council will be presented with an ordinance to formally discontinue the city’s police tow rotation program, and to discontinue the current RFP process. If the city council approves those actions, responsibility for police tow services within Rancho Cucamonga will return to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, similar to the tow process in other contract cities in San Bernardino County. In preparation for this expected transition, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has begun an open enrollment process for tow providers for the Rancho Cucamonga Station’s tow rotation. Please contact the sheriff’s department with any questions about its open enrollment, as the City of Rancho Cucamonga is not involved in that process.”
In turning responsibility for the tow franchises over to the sheriff’s department, Rancho Cucamonga officials seemed to be hoping that any improprieties that existed might somehow cure themselves or, if not, that they would no longer be tied into them.
While the city’s political leadership had moved itself off into a zone of blissful ignorance, at least some of its constituents did not have that luxury. One of those was Robert Schlesinger.
Schlesinger and his wife would see the City of Rancho Cucamonga’s untoward legacy of the abuses in its towing arrangements intrude upon their 2023 Christmas Holiday in a way they would have preferred not to have happened. Now, Schlesinger is embarking on an effort to bring the reality of those abuses to a wider public consciousness that many in the sheriff’s department are now wishing wasn’t happening.
At the heart of the contretemps is a misunderstanding or miscalculation on the part of sheriff’s personnel with regard to Schlesinger, his level of sophistication, his gravitas and his resolve.
At 74 years old, he is at this stage of his life somewhat unremarkable or even indistinguishable in appearance, indeed coming across as unassuming. That lack of flamboyance belies a certain intensity that was either the cause or effect of his professional life until his recent retirement. He was for more than three decades a practicing patent attorney and for nearly a decade a chemistry teacher at Chaffey College. The demands of his legal career required that he have a mastery master of certain skills, including research, document preparation, marshaling of evidence and case presentation. Those skills have not diminished in his retirement. Nor has his intrepidity in the face of challenge and a willingness to meet adversity head-on abandoned him.
In the early evening of December 22, when his wife arrived home from work, she was puzzled to discover him inside their home, as she had not seen his car in front of their house, located in the gated community of Hamilton Ranch in north Rancho Cucamonga. Schlesinger had been engaged at his desk for most of the day and had no idea the car, a white 2003 Acura, was missing.
Upon Schlesinger phoning the sheriff’s department to report what he thought was a theft, he was informed that the car had not been stolen but towed and impounded by a tow company located in Ontario at the request of the sheriff’s department.
In response to his request, the department sent a deputy to Schlesinger’s home to explain what had happened. The deputy asserted that the car was impounded because it had not been moved from its place on the street in front of Schlesinger’s house since December 8, a period 14 days, well beyond the 72-hour limit that a car can remain parked on the street without being moved specified in the Rancho Cucamonga City Code. Schlesinger immediately contested that assertion, knowing he had in fact driven the car the previous day. That softened no soap with the deputy, who insisted the department had documentation and proof to show the car had not been moved for two weeks. He was informed that he would be able to get the car out of impound by coordinating with the towing company and arranging to pay a fine, towing fee, impound fee and storage fee.
When the incredulous Schlesinger repeated that the car had been driven within the last 24 hours, the deputy stated in no uncertain terms that the department was in possession of irrefutable proof that the car had not been moved for 14 days, suggesting that the infraction of not moving his car for 72 hours was analogous to a crime, for which Schlesinger would now need to pay the price. An issue covered in his exchange with the deputy was how it was that the department, which normally does not patrol within the gated section of Hamilton Ranch where Schlesinger and his wife live, had been present to take note of the car. The deputy said the department had come into Hamilton Ranch on December 8 for some unrelated matter and noted the location of the car. When the same deputy returned to Hamilton Ranch on December 22, he had noted the car in the same spot and called the tow company to impound it. The deputy implied that after Schlesinger recovered the car, he would not be able to continue to park it in front of his house thereafter or otherwise risk having it impounded again. The deputy said Schlesinger would do well to park the car in different spots around his neighborhood in front of other houses on his street and block. When Schlesinger said he had not purchased a home in Hamilton Ranch to be prevented from parking in front of his own house, the deputy said he should consider selling his house and moving somewhere else.
Upon the deputy’s departure, Schlesinger called the tow yard and was informed that he would not be able to retrieve his vehicle until the day after Christmas, at which point the total charges would exceed $700.
Schlesinger went to the Rancho Cucamonga Sheriff’s Station housed in the city’s public safety building at around 11 p.m. to speak with a department supervisor about why the department had towed his vehicle. Two department personnel told him he could request a hearing before a sergeant at the station on December 27, the Wednesday after Christmas, in which he would be given an opportunity to show that the car was wrongfully towed and that if he presented a convincing case, the fines imposed by the sheriff’s department would be waived. While at the station, Schlesinger noted that a large notice was posted at the reception window stating that payments in cash were required to get a release for impounded vehicles.
Schlesinger was fit to be tied. While not living a hand-to-mouth existence, exactly, he and his wife have numerous financial commitments and had just spent a considerable amount of their disposable income on Christmas gifts for family and friends, several of which were in the Acura. They had recently made a substantial disbursement from their savings/checking account to cover their daughter’s tuition, leaving them, at the moment, tapped out. The following day, after a sleepless night, Schlesinger set about compiling the evidence he would need to provide a convincing case that the department had no legitimate grounds to tow and impound his Acura. With a modicum of effort, he was able to secure still photographs, i.e., frames, from the time/date stamped footage of a neighbor’s security video showing that the space from which the car had been towed was occupied in the proceeding 72 hours by both the Acura and another vehicle, that being his daughter’s car, which was in place while she was briefly visiting her parents. In addition, on December 20, Schlesinger and his wife had gone Christmas shopping, using the Acura to go to several stores, during which sojourn his vehicle had been caught on video elsewhere. The information and materials Schlesinger had obtained rendered the version of events signed off on by the deputy who authorized the tow inoperative, he was confident, once he was given the forum to present that proof, as long as the forum was a fair one that was not rigged against him.
Schlesinger’s wife’s birthday is December 24. The sheriff’s department’s action in having his car impounded impinged on his family’s plan for her birthday celebration.
Schlesinger was persistent and relentless in seeking to assemble his case and bolster it with further evidence. He had recurrent contact with the sheriff’s department, throughout which the deputies and supervisors he dealt with insisted that the impounding of the car was legitimate.
At the hearing on December 27, Schlesinger made his case, marshaling all of the evidence he possessed, it appeared to no avail. At one point, Schlesinger was proffered a waiver, one which called for him to “relieve and guarantee and protect the County of San Bernardino, and the City of Rancho Cucamonga and their officers, employees or agents against any loss or liability by releasing possession of said vehicle to me, and assume all liability and become liable for all expenses accrued against said vehicle occasioned by impounding and storage of the same.”
Schlesinger had steeled himself for an unsuccessful outcome of the hearing, during which, it turned out, he was yet being met with the department’s unyielding contention that the impounding of the car had been done in full accordance with the law and all applicable administrative procedure. He was prepared to forsake the car rather than cave to the pressure he was under to simply pay the fine and all fees to both the city and the tow company in order to recover the vehicle. At the end of the hearing, he then requested that he and his wife be permitted to retrieve the contents of the car – primarily the Christmas presents they had stored therein, and which were at that point two days past the time they were to have been delivered to those for whom they were intended. The department gave him leave to do so.
After he and his wife went to the tow yard in Ontario, the employee at the company’s auto storage compound contacted the sheriff’s department to ascertain whether Schlesinger and his wife should be permitted onto the premises. While he and she were there, the watch commander with the sheriff’s department informed the tow company that the department was authorizing the release of the Acura.
At this point, Schlesinger is weighing his options. He recognizes that the vast majority of those who have been put through what he and his wife experienced would merely chalk what has occurred up to experience and move on, grateful for having gotten their vehicles back. The same grit and determination that fueled his resolve to find the evidence to prove he had not violated the city’s ordinance prohibiting parking in any one spot for more than 72 straight hours, together with his sense of fair play and resentment of abuse will not allow him to just drop the matter.
He said members of the department made outright misrepresentations in impounding his car and then continued, willfully and knowingly, with those misrepresentations when he challenged the legitimacy of the department’s action. The higher-ranking officers at the department recognize what occurred, he said. The proof of that is he now has his car. What is incumbent upon the department at this point is to discipline or terminate the deputy who authorized the towing of his car, he maintains.
“There is a culture of silence in law enforcement that is present in the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department,” Schlesinger said. “It is accompanied by a culture of arrogance and abuse of authority. I am in a position to expose it. I am going to have a go at doing that. I have photographic evidence to show my car was not stationary for 72 hours and I have photographic evidence to show my car was not stationary for 14 days.”
There is more to what occurred than a simple mistake or misrepresentation, Schlesinger said.
“The deputy or deputies contrived evidence,” Schlesinger said. “After I challenged the impound, I was shown chalk markings on the ground in front of my house. I was told those marks had been put there on December 8. The slot where a car can park in front of my house is very tight. Anyone who would park there would be within that limited space. What was there was a crudely drawn line around where the tires would be. The thing was, though, the chalk was still intact on December 22. There had been rain that would have washed it away between December 8 and December 22, so it couldn’t have been there since December 8. I never saw that chalk on the street in all those times I parked there and got out of my car or when I got into my car and drove off. The sheriff’s department is phoneying up evidence.”
Schlesinger said, “There is a towing racket being perpetrated by the sheriff’s department and it is a racket. They are stealing cars, doing so by using what look to be legal means. Even assuming most tows are quasi-legitimate, one might reasonably argue that more cars are wrongfully towed by the sheriff’s department and many are not retrieved because of the heavy financial fines and fees, thereby making the sheriff’s department effectively the largest car theft ring locally. This is an outrageous situation. For me right now, it is just a matter of finding the right attorney or the right law firm with the staying power to go the whole way on this.”
The Sentinel posed several questions relating to the incident involving Schlesinger to the sheriff’s department’s spokeswoman, Mara K. Rodriquez, including what the department was doing in the Hamilton Ranch area on December 8 and 22, the actual reason why Schlesinger’s car was towed and impounded and why the department sought, initially, to justify that action by claiming, falsely as it turned out, that the car had not been moved for 72 hours. The Sentinel asked why the department engaged in misrepresentations about the grounds for seizing Schlesinger’s vehicle and why the department at first insisted on Schlesinger having to sign a waiver absolving the deputy, the department and the county from any responsibility for its action in order for Schlesinger to get his car returned to him. The Sentinel sought from Rodriquez why, ultimately, the department determined Schlesinger’s vehicle should be returned to him without his having to sign the waiver or pay the impound fees and fine. The Sentinel asked at what point the department recognized that the stated grounds for seizing Schlesinger’s vehicle was spurious. The Sentinel sought to determine at what point the department recognized Schlesinger, as an attorney and former college professor, possessed a degree of status and wielded sufficient credibility to be able to controvert the misrepresentations at least one of the department’s deputies had engaged in. The Sentinel asked what is to befall the deputy whose representations about the continuous presence of the vehicle in front of Schlesinger’s residence have now been convincingly controverted by the evidence Schlesinger produced and whether that would entail discipline or termination.
The Sentinel inquired about reports to the effect that deputies with the sheriff’s department, particularly ones in Rancho Cucamonga, are shaking down vehicle owners to get their cars and the degree to which the department’s command structure is aware of those reports. The Sentinel asked if the department had initiated an investigation into the reports and whether the department or sheriff has concern for the damage exposure of such accusation might have on the department’s reputation. The Sentinel sought from Rodriquez whether any deputies had been disciplined over real or suspected shakedowns of car owners.
The Sentinel asked what standards/protocol has gone into the selection of companies to be put on the department’s tow rotation and whether the department granted tow franchises or otherwise put tow companies on its tow rotation because the ownership of those companies facilitated the eventual acquisition of vehicles towed at the request of the department’s personnel by members of the department and/or their family members.
The Sentinel asked about the City of Rancho Cucamonga’s management’s insistence on excluding itself from participating in the selection of the companies to be on the city’s tow rotation, leaving that up to the sheriff’s department and whether that reflected city officials’ lack of ease with the larcenous relationship the department’s deputies have developed with some of those tow companies.
The Sentinel asked if Sheriff Dicus cared to comment on this matter and the potential it has to sully the reputation of his department, in particular the Rancho Cucamonga Station, and what action he deems appropriate to redress this circumstance.
Rodriguez said she would “reach out to the Rancho station for information and get back to you,” noting that a response might not be immediately forthcoming because of the holiday. The Sentinel had not received a response by press time.

Gayk Replaced By Gerken As Ontario Fire Chief

For the 32nd time in 132 years, the torch has been passed at the pinnacle of the Ontario Fire Department. Chief Deputy Mike Gerken on December 19 in the Ontario City Council Chamber recieved the department’s ultimate promotion when he was sworn in as the department’s 33rd Chief, replacing Ray Gayk, the department’s 32nd chief.
Chief Gerken has been a professional firefighter for more than 26 years, having initially hired on with the Alhambra Fire Department in 1996 as a paramedic. In 1998 he made a transfer to Ontario as a fireman, thereafter moving up the ranks to captain, battalion chief, deputy chief and chief deputy.
In his capacity as chief deputy, Gerken led the department’s operations bureau, overseeing emergency operations, specialty team programs and fire services at Ontario International Airport. He also served as fire marshal, guiding the fire prevention bureau’s citywide development projects, fire inspection program, and grant programs.
Gerken was an active member on the hazardous materials team for 16 years. During his tenure as a team leader and battalion chief liaison, that specialty unit evolved into a California Office of Emergency Services Type 1 hazardous materials handling resource and is now recognized statewide as a premier program.
Gerken earned his master’s degree in organizational leadership with a concentration in change leadership from Gonzaga University. He received a bachelor’s degree in business management from San Diego State University. In addition, he graduated from Mount San Antonio College paramedic and fire academy programs and is a 28-year licensed paramedic.
Gerken’s predecessor, Chief Gayk, has retired after a 33-year career that included service in the Riverside County Fire Department and the Redlands Fire Department before he landed a position as a firefighter in Ontario in 1997. He became chief in 2018.
During his time as Fire Chief, Gayk led the Ontario Fire Department Command Team in completing several high-level projects, such as developing its first standards of cover and strategic plan, completing the Ontario Fire Department Command Training Tower project, placing two fire stations into service in the Ontario Ranch area and placing the first Ontario Fire Department paramedic ambulance unit in service in over 40 years, and beginning the first Ontario Fire Department Fire Academy to create a more diverse workforce within the department.
Gayk served on the California Fire Chiefs Association as vice president of the operations section, area director, and on the state legislative committee, recently completing a term as president. Gayk served the International Association of Fire Chiefs/Western Fire Chiefs Section as the California state director.
Gayk has written over 40 published articles in Fire Rescue Magazine and has spoken at numerous conferences on several topics related to the fire service throughout the United States.
“We want to express our gratitude to Chief Gayk for his dedicated contributions to our community throughout the years, in his most recent achievement as a key member of the leadership team driving the public-private partnership that will unite various fire and emergency medical services agencies, along with ambulance transport services,” said Mayor Paul Leon.

GJ Says Yucaipa Solons Lost Public’s Trust With Managerial Sacking & Voting Conflicts

In a report delivered December 15, the San Bernardino County Grand Jury stopped short of concluding that three members of the Yucaipa City Council violated the Brown Act when they forced the resignation of the former city manager, joined with their two other colleagues in outright firing the city attorney and then acted without any prior announcement to hire one of their political associates as the replacement city manager and one of the new city manager’s professional associates as the follow-on city attorney. Nevertheless, the civil review panel made a finding that Yucaipa City Hall’s controlling political coalition had engaged in action that has severely undercut its credibility with the public.
While the grand jury did not delve into the minutiae or the intricacies of the accusations that the way the troika effectuated those changes entailed an out-and-out violation of the State of California’s open public meeting law, it observed that the series of backroom maneuvers the council engaged in had created an atmosphere in which the city council “has lost the trust of many citizens.”
The city’s political establishment – consisting of the three council members who actuated those sackings and the city manager and city attorney replacements who now occupy City Halls’ most powerful staff posts – hailed the grand jury’s reluctance to get into the weeds with regard to the Brown Act implication as a vindication of the January 2023 action which changed the administrative dynamic in the city. Nevertheless, they put out a statement in which they roundly criticized the grand jury for concluding a less than thorough investigation of the controversial developments which resulted in the first recall efforts in Yucaipa’s 34-year history.
Simultaneously, a spokesman for the recall proponents said that the grand jury’s inquiry and findings had served to document two serious issues pertaining to conflicts of interest and a prior business relationship between a member of the city council and a member of the planning commission, which merits the attention of both voters and prosecutors.
The issues in Yucaipa which fell under the scrutiny of the grand jury had their genesis in, first, an October 23, 2022 vote by the Yucaipa City Council as it was then composed to extend City Manager Ray Casey’s contract until June 2024. That council consisted of Greg Bogh, David Avila, Justin Beaver, Bobby Duncan and Jon Thorp. At the time of that vote, Bogh and Avila were lame ducks, as they had both opted against running for reelection in the following month’s municipal election. In the November election, Matt Garner proved the top vote-getter in the race to replace David Avila in the First District and Chris Venable won in a two-person race to supplant Greg Bogh in the Second District.
Unbeknownst to the electorate, prior to the election a discussion had taken place between then-candidate Garner and both Beaver and Duncan in which they had discussed jettisoning Casey as city manager in the event that Garner’s election bid was successful. At some point after Garner was elected but before he was sworn into office in December 2022, the trio had confirmed that commitment.
On January 9, 2023, the first substantive meeting of the Yucaipa City Council with Garner and Venable as members, was held. After adjourning into a closed session conducted outside the scrutiny of the public shortly after the meeting began, Beaver, Duncan and Garner pressured Casey into resigning and moved to conduct a vote to terminate City Attorney David Snow. The vote to accept Casey’s resignation was 3-to-2, with Beaver, Duncan and Garner prevailing and Thorp and Venable dissenting. The council then voted 5-to-0 to fire Snow. At that point, Steven Graham, the city attorney with the City of Canyon Lake in Riverside County, materialized and began functioning as Yucaipa’s City Attorney. The council then voted 4-to-1, to offer the position of city manager to Chris Mann, who at that time was the city manager of Canyon Lake, a member of the Yucaipa Water District Board of Directors, and the principal in Mann Communications. Mann, like Graham, had been present on the civic center grounds throughout the meeting.
Nearly two score Yucaipa residents who had been alerted at the last minute that something was in the offing had shown up at the meeting, several of whom had hoped to be able to talk the council out of getting rid of Casey, a Princeton-educated civil engineer with extensive public works experience in governmental and municipal settings and construction experience in the private sector. He had served as Yucaipa’s city engineer/director of public works for five years beginning in 2003 before he was promoted to the position of city manager in 2008. The crowd’s efforts at intercession had been to no avail, and Casey abruptly joined the ranks of the unemployed or retired or both.
With Mann and Graham on hand for the meeting and Graham assuming the role of city attorney on the spot without any forewarning, there were immediate accusations that a violation of The Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law, had taken place. The Brown Act prohibits a quorum of an elected governmental body or an appointed governmental body with decision-making authority from meeting, discussing any matter to be decided or voted upon or coming to a consensus in any way about a matter to be voted upon outside of a public forum. The Brown Act allows less than a quorum of an elected body – as in the case of the five-member Yucaipa City Council, two members – to meet and discuss some contemplated action to be voted upon, but it prohibits either of those two members from engaging in a “serial” meeting of a quorum, whereby one of those members then separately meets with another member to discuss the upcoming action or vote.
Residents who were opposed to what was tantamount to Casey’s sacking reasoned that a Brown Act violation had to have taken place, as Graham was on hand for the meeting before he was hired as city attorney and, likewise, Mann was immediately present, in anticipation of the action the council ultimately took.
The council majority would eventually form a response to the Brown Act violation accusation that held no such violation had occurred since the collusion with regard to Casey’s forced exit and Snow’s firing had taken place prior to Garner being sworn in as a member of the city council, such that when that plotting took place, the three did not constitute a quorum of the city council.
For those upset at Casey’s departure, that defense was one that relied on a distinction without a difference and constituted an admission of duplicity on the part of the three, given Beaver’s and Duncan’s October 23 vote to extend Casey’s contract and Garner’s failure to inform the community of his intention with regard to the city manager prior to his election.
Moreover, many Yucaipa residents, acutely conscious that their 27.8-square mile, 55,495-population city at present is less densely populated than 13 of San Bernardino County’s 24 incorporated municipalities, were concerned that the council majority is set on allowing aggressive development to occur, allowing the city’s largely rural nature to be eradicated and replaced by “stack and pack” subdivision after subdivision that would make Yucaipa indistinguishable from scores of other cities in Southern California that are now composed, practically, of wall-to-wall houses. Mann owns Mann Communications, which touts itself as a mouthpiece for the development industry. Residents believed putting him in place as city manager presaged just such a development frenzy.
A recall committee formed, and some 193 city residents lent their names as sponsors of the effort, with
62 residents of District 4 signing the notice of the intention to circulate the recall petition against Justin A. Beaver, 67 residents of District 3 signing the notice of the intention to circulate the recall petition against Bobby Dean Duncan and 64 residents of District 1 signing the notice of the intention to circulate the recall petition against Councilmember Matthew Gabriel Garner.
Reasons given for seeking the recall against each of the three were that they had acted to terminate Casey and had violated the Brown Act in doing so.
In the aftermath of Casey’s departure and the hiring of Mann, Mann replaced the city clerk who had been in place under Casey, Kimberly Metzler, with his own choice, that being Ana Sauceda, whom he had previously promoted to city clerk when she was employed at the City of Canyon Lake.
To protect his political masters on the city council, Mann formulated a strategy of hiring the Los Angeles-based Sutton Law Firm, using city money, to represent Sauseda as plaintiff, acting in her capacity as the city’s chief elections officer, in a lawsuit challenging the validity of the recall effort. According to the suit as authored by two of the Sutton Law Firm’s attorneys, Bradley W. Hertz and Eli B. Love, the recall proponents could not prove their allegation that a Brown Act violation had occurred with the forced departure of Casey, and the recall proponents’ separate accusations against Beaver, Duncan and Garner that each had acted to terminate Casey and Snow was not true since no single one of them had such authority and the actions to relieve Casey of his city manager’s post and fire Snow were ones taken collectively by the entire city council body. The lawsuit was presented as adhering to recently passed law, AB 2584, allowing Sauseda to contest the accuracy of the stated grounds for a recall. Sauseda’s suit, was filed against all 193 of the recall proponents.
To augment that effort, Mann had Joseph Pradetto, whom he had hired to serve as Yucaipa’s director of governmental affairs and official spokesperson, intensify the intimidation level against the recall proponents. Pradetto, in trumpeting to the Yucaipa community that the recall proponents were being sued by the city clerk, publicly stated, “In addition to the provisions of AB 2584, Sauseda also cautions recall proponents that, ‘Per Elections Code section 18600, it is a misdemeanor offense to circulate or obtain signatures on a recall petition that intentionally misrepresent (sic) or make (sic) false statements.’”
Faced with the distraction of the lawsuit and stood off by Pradetto’s threat to have them jailed for persisting with the recall effort, recall proponents fell far short of gathering, by the August 16, 2023 deadline, the minimal 1,826 valid signatures from among District 1’s 7,303 registered voters to qualify a ballot item on recalling Garner, the minimal 1,478 valid signatures of the 5,912 registered voters in District 3 to qualify a ballot item on recalling Duncan and the minimal 1,623 valid signatures from among the 6,492 registered voters in District 4 to qualify a vote on recalling Beaver.
Nevertheless, several of the recall proponents approached the San Bernardino County Grand Jury, lodging a complaint with regard to all that had occurred, doubling down on the accusation that a Brown Act violation had taken place and accusing the council majority, aided by Mann, Sauseda, Pradetto and the Sutton Law Firm, of interfering in the political process and the recall proponents’ exercise of their First Amendment Rights.
The grand jury on December 15 released a report on its investigation and findings.
“The purpose of this report is to shine a light on the actions of members of the Yucaipa City Council that have agitated and divided this once sleepy town and to make findings and recommendations to the Yucaipa City Council to help regain the trust of the citizens of Yucaipa,” the report’s introduction states.
The grand jury stated “The original complaint was that there was a violation of the Brown Act. The grand jury found no violation. However, there appears to be a violation of the public’s trust.”
In that regard, the grand jury observed that the “new city council,” i.e., the one in which Garner and Venable replaced Bogh and Avila, “through its nontransparent method of replacing the long-time city manager” created “resident disdain, resentment, and anger.”
According to the grand jury, “For many years, Yucaipa relied on its long-serving city manager for governance and on its long-serving city attorney for legal advice. In late 2022 the city council unanimously renewed the city manager’s contract. Within a month of taking office in 2023, though, a newly elected city council decided that the city needed a change. At a closed session it voted to accept the resignation of the city manager despite the contract renewal just a few months earlier. The reasons for this resignation are unknown to the grand jury. At the same closed session, the council immediately replaced the city manager with its pre-selected choice. The council didn’t require applicant vetting; indeed, it didn’t require any applicants at all. The council didn’t interview other qualified applicants; there were no other applicants to be considered for such an important decision. Some city council members believed that the applications, vetting and interviewing took place during the previous council term, and that their only function now was to approve the choices. The evidence showed that some of the council members had not met these pre-chosen candidates until the meeting during which the council appointed them. Even before the city council vote, the soon-to-be appointed new city manager (and city attorney) waited in the parking lot outside the council chambers, to be called into the meeting and introduced to the council. These city council actions blindsided many residents; their outrage followed, soon to be fueled by additional questionable actions.”
The concern of residents who then became involved in the recall effort with regard to the city embarking on aggressive residential growth found confirmation when the city pushed forward, with Mann in place as city manager, with a development proposal, referred to as the “Serrano Estates Project,” lying at the periphery of the largely rural and undeveloped “North Bench” section of the city, according to the grand jury. The council’s apparent adherence to this developmental imperative extended to a conflict of interest which, the grand jury hinted, potentially relates to issues of criminal implication.
“On August 17, 2022, the planning commission voted 4 to 2 against approval of the Serrano Estates Project,” the grand jury noted. “Immediately thereafter, the applicant appealed the decision to the city council. On September 12, 2022, the former city council voted to deny the applicant’s appeal. On January 9, 2023, the new city council was installed. On January 9, 2023, two months after the election of the three new city council members, the city council called a special session. Although the agenda had brought attention to the fact that this meeting would be used to discuss personnel issues, the public knew no particulars. While these actions were permissible, they lacked transparency. During this meeting, although the present and soon-to-be former city manager’s contract was renewed in October 2022, by a 5-to-0 vote, the city manager resigned. The council immediately appointed a new city manager to replace him. The newly elected city council then promptly removed the current city attorney and installed a new one. When the full meeting continued, constituents were informed of the new appointees. Public outcry ensued. Residents complained they had no input into the changes. The lack of transparency was evident. The selected appointees waited outside in the parking lot, knowing that they would be installed. On March 15, 2023, the Serrano Estates Project applicant made changes to the plan in accordance with suggestions made by the new city council, and the council approved it despite the objections of many citizens. The grand jury found that some residents viewed the appointment of the city council’s choice for city manager and city attorney as a move to assure that the council could approve the Serrano Estates Project. In March 2023, opposition in the community continued to grow after the Yucaipa City Council approved the project. Opponents expressed their concerns at the city council meetings and in the local paper. According to meeting minutes and media reports, opposition to the project grew with each city council meeting. At one of the heated city council meetings where the council discussed the Serrano Estates Project, a council member responded to citizens voicing their concerns by saying, “All I hear is blah, blah, blah.” In fairness, the civil grand jury has evidence that many citizens were rude in their addresses to the council. Some members of the public were disruptive; some violated the rules of the meeting; others were name-calling during their speaking time. Regarding the public complaints that the Yucaipa City Council has navigated this project opaquely and with little consideration for some of the objections of the public, the San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury found city council members have prior and current personal and business relationships with entitlement and/or development companies that want to redevelop the North Bench area. The grand jury discovered there was a prior business relationship with a member of the planning commission and the city council. The businesses were real estate sales and development. The procedure complied with the law regarding consideration or approval of the Serrano Estates Project. However, the rule of law is only half of the city council’s mandate for governing. The voice of the people is the other and perhaps paramount.”
Enlarging upon that point, the grand jury stated, “For years local residents opposed the Serrano Estates Project, and the prior city council and planning commission rejected it. But the new council nevertheless voted to approve the project. For years North Bench residents enjoyed the serenity of its rural setting. It was zoned RL-1, one home on each one-acre lot. The new city council proposed rezoning the North Bench to allow ‘cluster housing,’ more housing on less land (up to four homes on each one-acre lot and multi-resident units such as condos and apartments). Many residents believe that the approval of the Serrano Estates Project provided a gateway to the rezoning of the North Bench later because the Serrano Estates Project is immediately adjacent to the North Bench area. Many North Bench residents and some other district residents opposed the change. The proposal, the residents asserted, would deprive Yucaipa of a rural residential and open-space region and instead would create a congested sprawl with insufficient infrastructure. Anger swelled, then ballooned when residents learned that a council member was a real estate agent, had a property listed in the North Bench district and possibly stood to reap a substantial financial gain upon council approval of this proposal and subsequent sale of the listing. Despite the apparent financial conflict of interest and lack of transparency, no council member deemed it prudent to recuse himself. Angered and frustrated once again, citizens responded. The city council’s efforts to rezone the North Bench district created an uproar among Yucaipa citizens and spawned raucous city council meetings.”
The efforts to thwart the recall taken by the city council using and involving Mann, Sauseda, the Sutton Law Firm and Pradetto as proxies exacerbated the atmosphere of distrust in the city, according to the grand jury.
“A citizen’s group, the Coalition to Save Yucaipa, filed a recall notice seeking to remove three city council members, one of them the mayor,” according to the grand jury. “The city clerks’ office immediately filed a lawsuit to halt the recall, naming as defendants each citizen who signed the petition. Recall law requires that each petitioner must include his/her address. Subsequently, anonymous letters were sent to each signer, informing them that their information would be published in the local newspaper. The lawsuit filed by the office of the city clerk, and the anonymous letters, intimidated many Yucaipa residents, especially those who had their names on the petition, and therefore on the lawsuit. Many Yucaipa citizens are incensed. They do not believe the city council demonstrated adequate concern for their objections to the possible rezoning of the North Bench and to the approval of the Serrano Estates Project; they did believe that the council acted with a lack of transparency when it replaced the former city manager and city attorney, with pre-selected people, without much notice to or input from the community. The anonymous letters sent only to the recall petition signers did not help the public perception of the city council.”
In August, the deadline for the recall proponents to have gathered sufficient signatures to force the recall elections against Beaver, Duncan and Garner had elapsed. With the recall effort having failed, the judge hearing the lawsuit brought by Sauseda concluded that the matter being litigated “is deemed moot.” Despite that, Sauseda is proceeding with the lawsuit, which the grand jury said is perpetuating the community’s distrust of city government.
“As of the writing of this report, the office of the city clerk had not agreed to dismiss the petition for writ of mandate, despite the fact that the judge deemed the matter moot,” the grand jury stated. “Nevertheless, the Office of the Yucaipa City Clerk, with retained counsel, decided to move forward with the lawsuit. If the city clerk’s office continues on this path, Yucaipa likely will spend thousands of dollars in attorney fees and the defendants, residents who had signed the recall petitions, may spend thousands more on their own attorney fees. These actions may further erode the public trust and the Yucaipa City Council itself must share some of the blame. Since the new council term began in 2023, the Yucaipa City Council has developed a reputation among many residents of ignoring the concerns of the public and of fostering an atmosphere of mistrust, disdain, anger, resentment, lack of transparency and appearances of conflicts of interest. Regaining the residents’ trust is paramount.”
The grand jury said the city should form a watchdog committee to provide oversight of the city council, report to the public on the operations of city government, ensure compliance with general ethics principles and with campaign finance, contracting, lobbying, conflicts of interest, and other laws and regulations, as well as with government transparency guidelines. The grand jury said the city should also implement a formal written and on-line complaint process whereby citizens may ask questions or voice concerns about the actions of the city council and put in place transparent procedures that give time for council members and the community to provide input before the council solicits applications and appoints high-level city employees. The city needs to update the Yucaipa Code of Conduct as relates to the city council and it should develop an effective training policy in all city government transparency policies, as well as in the state statutes and regulations related to city government, such as the Brown Act [and] the Fair Political Practices Commission regulations about conflicts of interest.
The grand jury’s report prompted Mann and Pradetto to put out a reflexive defense of their political masters on the city council.
“Following months of heated public discourse initiated by a vocal group of residents critical of recent actions taken by the Yucaipa City Council, the San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury decided to investigate allegations of Brown Act and conflict of interest violations, and other concerns over transparency. In a report released on Friday, December 15th, the grand jury found no such violations,” according to Mann and Pradetto. They quoted Mayor Justin Beaver in furthering that assertion.
“After nearly an entire year of public upset and scrutiny, the County Civil Grand Jury has confidently declared our city council violated no laws,” Beaver was cited as saying. “Certainly, when passions run high, allegations sometimes get made; in this case the allegations of criminal conduct were unfounded. I serve today as your mayor, your representative here in your local government, and I remain committed to enhancing transparency and communication between City Hall and you all.”
Despite that claim of vindication, Mann and Pradetto asserted that the grand jury’s findings and recommendations were unjustifiably critical of the city and the city council, as they were “based on an incomplete investigation and understanding of the laws and standard practices applicable to local government. The city is also disappointed that the report fails to mention that some of the complaints and recommendations relate to decisions and actions by previous councils and administration, ignoring the many efforts the current council and city manager have taken to get the city back on course.”
The grand jury’s erroneous conclusions were based on the ignorance and lack of experience and sophistication of the grand jurors, according to Mann and Pradetto.
“Civil grand juries are comprised of citizen volunteers (most often retirees), most of whom lack legal and/or local government education, training or experience,” Mann and Pradetto stated. “This clearly seems to be the case with the individuals seated on this year’s San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury, as their report demonstrates an alarming lack of understanding of common practices and laws pertaining to municipal government operations. One of the recommendations, if implemented, would actually violate the law. Another egregious error was the Grand Jury’s failure to interview the Yucaipa City Manager, who serves as the city’s chief executive officer, and thus was the person with the required experience and information needed to provide investigators with current and accurate information.”
This shortcoming, in fact, represented, according to Mann and Pradetto, either a civil or criminal violation on the part of the grand jury itself.
“The grand jury report violates state law,” Mann and Pradetto said. “By not interviewing the city manager, the grand jury report not only contains antiquated and incorrect information, but it also violates provisions of the California Penal Code. As the chief executive officer of the public agency that is the subject of the report, the city manager must be interviewed. Under Penal Code Section 933.05(e), an opportunity to address the grand jury is mandatory unless the court determines that such an interview would be detrimental to the investigation. Interviewing the city manager is a basic step in completing a comprehensive and fair investigation. Failing to do so has resulted in a report rife with factual inaccuracies.”
Further, according to Mann and Pradetto, “[T]he Grand Jury failed to offer the city the opportunity, under Penal Code Section 933.05(d), to have a representative of the city read and discuss the findings of the grand jury in order to verify the accuracy of the findings prior to release. This leads to a report with a set of findings and recommendations built upon erroneous information.”
Mann went on the record as stating, “This is particularly concerning because the report contains several significant factual errors that will only serve to inflame the tensions and public sentiment for which the grand jury expresses so much concern. It was irresponsible to allow this report to be released without giving the city an opportunity to correct flagrant misinformation, with the expectation that the city will simply address the inaccuracies in its official response, as the damage to public trust will already have been done.”
Mann and Pradetto dismissed the grand jury’s criticism of the secretiveness that led up to Mann’s hiring, saying, “Confidentiality is an important consideration in any recruitment. Present job security and long-term career opportunities could be jeopardized if an applicant’s interest in another position is made public prematurely. In recent months, many other local jurisdictions have hired a city manager or county CEO without undertaking a public engagement effort, and a number of those hires were made without a formal recruitment process. A high-profile example is the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, which has selected two of its past three CEOs without conducting open recruitments, and sought public engagement in none of those cases. Standard practice does not involve community input into personnel matters because such involvement could undermine recruitment efforts and compromise a candidate’s right to a confidential process. However, these facts did not preclude the grand jury from making critical findings of the Yucaipa City Council’s process and making related recommendations. Had the grand jury researched the law and customary practices for the appointment of agency executives, it would have found that confidentiality in the process is not only legal, it is critical to a successful transition.”
The grand jury’s findings with regard to the present city council reviving the application for the Serrano Estates development after it was rejected by the previous city council were flawed, Mann and Pradetto asserted, since “The applicant modified the project and resubmitted it as a new project, triggering a new hearing process.”
Mann and Pradetto sought to defend Sauseda’s filing of the lawsuit challenging the recall effort.
“The recall proponents did not challenge the city clerk’s assertion in the lawsuit that the petitions contained false or misleading statements,” they said.
Mann and Pradetto took issue with the grand jury’s statement that the city council needs to implement additional transparency measures and to offer additional training for elected officials.
“Since the new city council was elected and new city manager appointed, the city has taken extraordinary measures to increase transparency that were not done under previous administrations,” according to Mann and Pradetto.
Chris Robles, a spokesman for the Coalition to Save Yucaipa, said Mann’s and Pradetto’s attempts at minimizing the seriousness of the grand jury report and its findings through their ill-advised attacks on grand jury itself did not detract from “the alarming findings that underscore concerns related to conflicts of interest and a lack of transparency with their local governance. Although not intended as a criminal indictment, the December 15, 2023 Grand Jury report does reveal two significantly disturbing issues worth referring to law enforcement, those being conflicts of interest with developers and a prior business relationship between a member of the city council and the planning commission. The grand jury found that certain city council members have conflicts of interest with developers seeking to develop the North Bench area. This revelation raises questions about the impartiality and fairness of decision-making processes related to this and other development projects in Yucaipa. Another troubling discovery outlined in the report is a prior business relationship between a member of the planning commission and the city council. The nature of this relationship involved real estate sales and development, indicating potential conflicts that could compromise the integrity of city planning and development decisions.”
Speaking on behalf of the Coalition to Save Yucaipa, Robles said, “While we find vindication in the grand jury’s 2023 Report that our reasons for recalling three city council members were honest and correct and the city clerk’s lawsuit was merely judicial harassment designed to intimidate residents and protect the council majority, it deeply saddens us that the reputation of our beloved Yucaipa has been severely damaged by this city council. The grand jury report shines a light on the year-long erosion of public trust in Yucaipa’s municipal governance, the wasted tax dollars on a self-serving lawsuit, council member incompetency, lack of transparency, and conflicts of interest with developers. We call upon all Yucaipa residents to join our demand for the city council to immediately and transparently address these issues, demonstrating a commitment to rebuilding the trust and confidence of the community. The Coalition to Save Yucaipa remains steadfast in its mission to promote responsible and ethical governance, and will continue to monitor developments related to the grand jury’s admonishment of the Yucaipa City Council.”
Kathy Sellers, one of the recall proponents, told the Sentinel, “Joe Pradetto’s comment that the report found no wrongdoing is another example of his pompous word salad. As I read the report, the grand jury found numerous examples of malfeasance. Several people also filed formal complaints with the district attorney’s office and that investigation is still ongoing.”
-Mark Gutglueck

7 Of 8 Enamorados Remain Jailed As Misdirection Plagues Defense

For the third week in a row, Edin Enamorado and the eponymous group of activists he leads have been outmaneuvered by the authorities in the battle that counts, that being the effort to take possession of the evidence implicative of their propensity for escalating their activism into physical confrontations and incidental violence.
Both previously and in the first two weeks after eight Enamorados including Edin Enamorado himself were blitzed by San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies in predawn raids on December 14 and taken into custody, charged with conspiracy, assault and a host of related charges, they and their movement had relied upon civil rights attorney Christian Contreras to serve as their mouthpiece and legal representative. While Contreras’s true talent consists of advocacy for the advancement of the liberty, egalitarianism, social inclusion and the eradication of prejudice, constructing a defense against criminal charges was not and is not his strong suit. With each assertion by Contreras that the eight Enamorados or, as Contreras insisted on referring to them, “the Freedom 8,” were engaged in earnest efforts to promote social and political reform, his clients were losing ground as the sheriff’s department and the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office were making strides in convincing the court that the Enamorados’ crusade to protect Hispanics in general and recent immigrants from Latin America more specifically, particularly those who are seeking to make their way in the world by sidewalk/street vending, had, on occasion made use of violence and intimidation.
In his approach, Contreras emphasized that the motives and intent of his clients in their willingness to become a buffer protecting downtrodden Latinos was a defensible principle and they were being demonized and unfairly tarnished because of the intrepid way they go about what they are doing. The government was using, Contreas said, its overwhelming power and authority in an illegitimate bid to foreclose the Enamorados’ right of free expression.
With his focus on rhetorical rhapsody and seizing the moral high ground to ensure that his clients have a path for effectuating social reform rather than deflecting accusations of wrongdoing by his clients, what Contreras was missing was that the authorities were not angling to shut the Enamorados in general and Edin Enamorado in particular up but instead seeking to ensure that the statements they, most notably Edin Enamorado, had made remain on the public billboard that is social media. It was those acts of public speech and free expression which the prosecution has found to be in its own interest to not only preserve, but ultimately, highlight. What Contreras failed to grasp was that every day, indeed every hour and even every minute that his primary client – Edin Enamorado – remained incarcerated, the forces arrayed against him – primarily the sheriff’s department investigators, had not only the opportunity but the time to harvest from the internet and a host of social media platforms materials – many of them videos – that will ultimately serve as the ammunition to be loaded, aimed and then volleyed at Enamorado and his cohorts when they come before a jury.
It is Edin Enamorado’s deeply held belief that America, i.e., North America, was and therefore still is the land of the indigenous people of the Americas. In his worldview, foreigners, primarily in the form of European colonizers, usurped the land and resources that the indigenous tribes had enjoyed as their own for tens of thousands, indeed, hundreds of thousands, of years without the interference of outsiders.
As the rich white Europeans engage in the domination of Latinos or La Raza through their capitalistic system and hoard the wealth and goods they are accumulating by continuing to exploit those who are less fortunate and not well-fixed financially, according to Enamorado, he and those with whom he networks and is in league are perfectly and morally justified in taking back what was taken from them. For members of the Anglo establishment to tell a Latino that he should go back to Mexico, Enamorado has said, is like a human telling a fish that it should get out of the sea. It is not the Mexicanos who should go back to Mexico but rather the white population that is socially and economically ascendant in the Golden State who should, as he once put it to Dr. Phil McGraw on national television, “go back to England.”
In carrying out his calling of protecting the Latino and immigrant population being assailed formally or informally, officially or unofficially by agents of the white-controlled government such as the police or municipal code enforcement officers or white bigoted bullies who insult, assault or interfere in any way with street vendors or sidewalk vendors, Edin Enamorado maintains he and the group he leads are entirely justified in responding in kind by fighting fire with fire.
In his role a social justice crusader, Enamorado engages in a form of street activism and politicking that consists of equal parts of a presumption of moral superiority, making accusations of racism, profanity, rapid fire questions and assertions without giving his interlocutor an opportunity to respond, immediately dismissing any response his target manages to get in edgewise, browbeating, insults and threats. In such circumstances, the intent is not to achieve an exchange of information or views but rather to relentlessly intimidate, provoke and generate more heat than light. Key elements of Enamorado’s tactics are being surrounded by a physically intimidating support network, the use of surprise, verbal domination and videography to capture indelible moving sound images of the individual being confronted, which in many, though not all, cases will result in an untoward or intemperate remark or reaction. Routinely, videos of these confrontations are uploaded onto social media platforms Enamorado controls. Some of those depict an individual being confronted or in other cases bystanders to the protests the Enamorados are engaged in growing impatient at being blocked or hemmed in or harangued and then reacting, whereupon the subject is ganged up upon and physically assaulted by those present.
Previously, Enamorado and his associates were active in Southern California, primarily in Los Angeles County, making occasional forays elsewhere. In 2023, several of the Enamorados’ actions took place in San Bernardino County, partly as an outgrowth of his effort to avenge the action of some San Diego State University students who had, in his words, harassed a street vendor. One of those students was Breanna Peelman, the daughter of Upland Police Sergeant Nick Peelman. The Enamorados cited a connection between the incident in San Diego involving Peelman’s daughter and Peelman’s entanglement in a 2013 shooting of an 18-year-old Hispanic. In the same timeframe, Enamorado took up residency in Upland, which he at one point implied but did not directly state was occasioned by his efforts to have Nick Peelman bounced off the Upland Police force. That effort included holding nighttime rallies on the residential block in neighboring Rancho Cucamonga where Sergeant Peelman lives. Using his trademark bullhorn, Enamorado exhorted a group of Enamorados who had accompanied him there to voice their disapproval of what he called Peelman’s bigotry.
With his advent in San Bernardino County, Enamorado espoused similar causes as he had taken up elsewhere. When the City of Fontana in October undertook to pass a sidewalk/street vendor regulation ordinance and the following month augment the ordinance with $232 vendor cart/merchandise impound fee, the Enamorados showed up en masse at the city council meetings where those matters were on the agenda to register their protest, in both cases resulting in disruptions which prompted Mayor Acquanetta Warren to clear the council chambers of the public before the council voted on the matter behind closed doors. By the fashion in which Edin Enamorado conducted himself, staging a rally on the street where Warren lived after the crowd was excluded from the October 24 meeting at 10 p.m. that evening and returning to the council chamber the morning of November 15 for the continuation of the meeting that Warren had suspended on the evening of November 14, at which point he engaged in another disruption, he was arrested on both occasions by the Fontana Police Department.
After the October 24 meeting, the City of Fontana sought a temporary restraining order against Enamorado to keep him from coming within 100 feet of Mayor Warren or her home. On October 27, Superior Court Judge Ron Gilbert denied the request for that civil harassment temporary restraining order.
When Upland residents objected to the Enamorados’ characterization of Peelman, the police department and the entire city and Upland community as racist, Edin Enamorado organized protests outside some of their homes, at one point following the 93-year-old father of one of those residents from one of his son’s home to the home of another of his sons who also resided in Upland. At one point, when a congregation of more than 30 Enamorados swarmed a residential neighborhood in northern Upland, given that the residence of District Attorney Jason Anderson and his family was nearby, the Upland Police Department felt it necessary to send a contingent of officers to shadow the group and monitor the circumstance using a magnifying video camera and a parabolic listening device.
Edin Enamorado was arrested when several Enamorados conducted a protest outside the home of an Apple Valley woman to protest what they said was a racist rant she had engaged in while within a Disneyland restroom when she encountered a woman speaking Spanish to her son.
It was an incident on September 24 that led to the extended incarceration and extensive criminal charges against the eight Enamorados.
On that day, they had come to Downtown Victorville in the area that included the highly visible span of Palmdale Road between Amargosa Road and McArt Road, a stone’s throw from the sheriff’s station on Amargosa Road, to protest the action of a sheriff’s deputy who had been videotaped slamming a 16-year-old girl as he and a fellow deputy sought to break up a fight between that girl and another that had broken out in the parking lot outside Ray Moore Stadium in the immediate aftermath of a high school football game between Victor Valley and Big Bear the evening of September 22.
Bullhorn in hand, Edin Enamorado led a party of roughly 40 Enamorados, most of them from lower San Bernardino County and Los Angeles County, to Victorville on that Sunday, as they carried placards calling for justice and paraded in the vicinity of the sheriff’s station. Exhorting the crowd and demanding that the deputy who had injured Jeffers be identified, fired and prosecuted, Enamorado used his cell phone to videorecord the protest, which was also being memorialized for posterity by at least three other Enamorados using shoulder-held, handheld or tripod-mounted video cameras.
As the protest was ongoing, a couple in a relatively late model Hyundai had gone into the car wash proximate to the sheriff’s station near the intersection of McArt Road and Palmdale Road. Upon attempting to leave, the woman, who was driving, was unable to pull onto Palmdale Road from the car wash parking lot’s exit because of the traffic flow on Palmdale Road coupled with the constant stream of protesters moving in both directions on the sidewalk and gutter of the roadway. Despite the Hyundai’s obvious presence and the driver’s intent to leave, the protesters remained disregardful of the car and its occupants as most were engaged in making a show of protest to the motorists passing by on Palmdale Road.
The occupants of the Hyundai exhibited patience initially, but after more than two minutes, the woman sounded the Hyundai’s horn. This had no appreciable impact on the protesters, who continued to file in front of the car, such that the driver could not move the car forward without running into and possibly injuring one or more of the protesters. A further wait ensued, at which point the woman sounded the horn once more and the man opened the door on the passenger’s side of the car. As he emerged, he was immediately engaged by three of the Enamorados, at least one of whom referred to him as a “bitch” and accused him of opening the door on one of the woman protesters. One, then two, and then a third Enamorado began to rain blows on the man, who attempted to defend himself while he was angled away from the car and then knocked to the ground. As he attempted to get to his feet, he was pepper sprayed.
The incident was captured on video from at least three perspectives. Among those who can be seen in one of the video depictions hitting the man is Edin Enamorado, who does so with his left fist while holding and continuing to video with his cellphone in his right hand.
The man succeeded in getting up but as he was staggering, he was knocked to the ground once more and kicked while he was down. Off camera, shortly after the man came out of the car, Edin Enamorado could be heard belittling him for being less than a man for hitting the woman with his car door. After the man was pepper sprayed and on the ground for the second time, Edin Enamorado can be heard remarking that he had gotten what he deserved.
As it was ongoing, the incident was livestreamed to Enamorado’s YouTube page.
From their nearby vantage, deputies saw the assault and roughly two minutes later they came to the spot of the assault, whereupon a shoving match ensued between two of the deputies and two of the Enamorados. Within minutes, at least eight deputies had arrived. Narrowly, Edin Enamorado avoided arrest, but the deputies took four of the Enamorados into custody at that time: David Chávez, 27, of Riverside, who was arrested on suspicion of assault with a caustic chemical and unlawful assembly; Wendy Luján, 40, who is described variously as Edin Enamorado’s partner or wife, who was arrested on suspicion of assault with a caustic chemical, obstructing a peace officer, battery and unlawful assembly; Victor Alba, 30, of Victorville, who was arrested on suspicion of obstructing a peace officer, battery and unlawful assembly; and Wayne Freeman, 36, of Moreno Valley, who was arrested on suspicion of obstructing a peace officer and unlawful assembly.
Upon her booking, Luján provided her jailers with a Pomona address rather than her actual residence in Upland, which sheriff’s department’s investigators, as a result of their subsequent investigation, now believe was an effort to protect Edin Enamorado, with whom she cohabits, from being connected to what had occurred that day.
Edin Enamorado uploaded an extended video of the protest including the assault of the couple in the Hyundai to a social media account on TikTok he controls under heading “Edin Enamorado is going live.” The video was presented to the public within a context in which it was suggested that what had occurred was a demonstration of the noble efforts of the Enamorados to stand up to racism. The posting did not dwell on the consideration that the passenger of the Hyundai who was assaulted is Hispanic.
The sheriff’s department investigation that ensued in short order brought Edin Enamorado into focus, helped along in part by his utterances to the media and other public forums in the immediate aftermath of the Chávez, Luján, Alba and Freeman arrests when he assigned blame for what had occurred to the driver of the Hyundai, who, he said, “tried to run over protesters” and her passenger, who, Enamorado asserted “hit a woman” and then assaulted Luján, who, Enamorado indignantly insisted, had merely “defended herself.”
When investigators observed the video of the assault which offered a visual and verbal contrast to what Enamorado claimed to have occurred, they began to explore the activities of the Enamorados and their leader in multiple other venues, which were likewise documented in posted videos.
As investigators delved into the circumstance, they became aware of further incidents involving the Enamorados and Edin Enamorado specifically, and began trading notes with the police agencies in Los Angeles, Pomona, Upland, Fontana, Riverside, Santa Ana, Long Beach, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Woodland Hills, Huntington Park, San Bernardino and Moorpark, and their dealings with him.
A department investigator working undercover in the guise of a social activist gained access to several Enamorados, obtaining crucial information in that way. At least two Enamorados who had been arrested by the department or other agencies proved vulnerable to compromise by means of deals that could be cut with them in exchange for cooperation to include providing inside information known only to the Enamorados themselves.
At some point, Edin Enamorado took stock of how the extended video of the protests in Victorville on September 24, including the assault on the couple in the Hyundai, represented evidence of criminal activity by both him and his associates, and he removed it from his social media platform. That, investigators and prosecutors believe, is a demonstration of what they term “consciousness of guilt” on Enamorado’s part. Despite his scrubbing of the video, investigators had already secured a reprint.
Despite the Chávez, Luján, Alba and Freeman arrests in Victorville on September 24 and the arrest of Enamorado himself in Fontana on October 24 and November 15 and Apple Valley on December 10, the Enamorados grew progressively bolder with their actions and protests in San Bernardino County. Early in the morning of December 14, between 3:20 a.m. and 4:46 a.m., however, department teams in a coordinated set of seven raids served arrest and search warrants at the Upland apartment of Enamorado, 36, and Luján, 40; the Riverside home of Chávez, 28; the Bell habitation of Fernando López, 44; the Ontario premises of Vanessa Carrasco, 40; the San Bernardino abode of Gullit Eder Acevedo, 30; the San Bernardino residence of Stephanie Amésquita, 33; and the Los Angeles apartment of Edwin Peña, 26. All are identified as Enamorados active in protests for social justice that turned violent. Contreras denounced the arrests as “baseless” and the charges “absurd and resemblant of conduct in a third world country.” He said, “The arrests of the Victorville 8, including Edin Alex Enamorado, were clearly done in retaliation for such activists exercising their First Amendment rights. Criticizing elected officials and law enforcement officers should never be criminalized and that it what the sheriff’s department has done in this case.”
The portrayals of the arrests as an attack on the First Amendment, however, ignored the violence that had occurred during the September 24 protest in Victorville and the irrefutable video evidence, which originated not with the sheriff’s department but the Enamorados themselves. In this way, when the arraignment for the defendants took place on December 18, Contreras missed a crucial opportunity to contest the arrests and the prosecution request for a no bail hold on all of the defendants on relevant technical grounds, instead engaging in a rhetorical flourish calculated for public relations purposes with the public in general, rather than with the judge, Shannon Faherty, who had been a deputy prosecutor with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office before she spent two years as a court commissioner before her 2020 appointment to the Superior Court.
As a consequence, Judge Faherty was persuaded by the prosecution’s assertions that releasing any of the eight would represent a threat to the community, which entailed them remaining jailed through Christmas until their next hearing, which was supposed to take place on December 26 before Judge Zahara Arredondo.
Contreras pushed forward with the legally moribund theory that the arrests and filing of criminal charges against the eight constituted a constitutional violation, arguing that because the defendants were social and political activists, any action they took was protected under the First Amendment. The petition for a writ of habeas corpus Contreras filed with the Court of Appeals, labeling the Enamorados detention “unconstitutional,” was denied.
On December 26, the hearing for the eight that was supposed to take place before Judge Arredondo was instead conducted by Judge Melissa Rodriguez, who scheduled a preliminary hearing and bail consideration for them two days hence. On December 28, again with Judge Rodriguez presiding, the court acceded to the prosecution requests to perpetuate the no bail holds on Enamorado, Chávez, López, Carrasco, Amésquita and Peña, while agreeing to grant Acevedo bail of $40,000 and defer a bail review for Luján until January 2.
Acevedo had the fewest number of counts against him of all of the defendants. He was charged with violating PC 245.2, use of a deadly weapon on an operator of a motor vehicle; PC 236, false imprisonment; and PC 182.5 conspiracy to commit a gang-related felony.
Enamorado is charged with 16 felonies; Luján with 14; Chávez, is charged with the same 14 counts lodged against Carrasco; Peña is charged with 14 counts; López is charged with 12 counts; and Amésquita faces nine counts.
While the ostensible purpose for keeping the Enamorados locked up is the physical threat they represent to the community at large, the actual rationale and the practical benefit of doing so for the prosecution is it buys further time for the investigators to not only interact with the informants within the Enamorados that they have cultivated but to carry out an exhaustive examination of the videos and other materials that the Enamorados, Edin Enamorado in particular, have mounted on multiple social media platforms. Obtained during the early morning raids on December 14 were cell phones and computers at the various defendants’ homes. The seizure of those devices potentially has allowed the department investigators and forensic analysts to review video and social media postings to websites Edin Enamorado controls or has access to, videos that were once mounted but taken down or ones that might not have been mounted or uploaded to those websites or platforms. It is not known, however, outside of the sheriff’s department or district attorney’s office whether investigators were able to crack whatever protections barring access Enamorado may have had on those devices. The more time the department’s forensic examiners and cyber system consultants have to work on those items, the greater the chances are that they will obtain access to those videos, some of which include evidence of physical confrontations between some of the Enamorados and those they were targeting with their protests or, as in the case in Victorville on September 24, bystanders who were caught in the middle.
At the time of the Enamorados’ arrests, Edin Enamorado had dozens or even scores of postings to various social media accounts yet in place, including ones it appears that he was monitoring for the public responses they were generating and others which he may have forgotten about. Some of those contain material which could be of assistance to prosecutors. Enamorado’s continuing incarceration is preventing those postings from being taken down, giving investigators a grant of further time during which to discover their existence and preserve them.
In the immediate aftermath of the December 14 arrests, the Sentinel was in contact with Contreras’s office and sought to obtain from him whether he had ascertained which Enamorados had been persuaded by law enforcement to serve as informants and whether Contreras was preparing to have the court exclude as evidence any statements made by those informants and/or videos made by the Enamorados during the course of their protests.
Contreras did not respond to those inquiries.
The Sentinel has now learned that the Enamorados are no longer utilizing Contreras as their criminal defense attorney and are instead represented by Nicholas Rosenberg, a five star attorney who has had considerable success in getting clients exonerated at trial or severely weakening the cases against his clients by exploration and discovery of the various means of investigation used by law enforcement agencies in building those cases, including the use of informants and undercover operatives, and then successfully excluding inculpatory evidence.
Contreras remains the Enamorados’ legal representative with regard to the assertion of their civil rights and privileges under the U.S. and California constitutions.
Mark Gutglueck

Redlands Officials Sanguine But Residents Concerned About Becoming Victims Of In-N-Out Success

The phenomenal drawing power of more than four score of the 272 In-N-Out Burger locations elsewhere in California and what many see as the too-nonchalant planning approach of City Engineering Manager Don Young and Project Planner Sean Reilly to say nothing of the already-existent traffic circulation challenges in the Redlands “Doughnut Hole” near the northwest confluence of the 210 and I-10 freeways has raised concerns of an intractable traffic nightmare when the popular fast food restaurant opens at the furthest extension of the Citrus Plaza later this year.
Last March, the Redlands Planning Commission gave go-ahead to the In-N-Out proposal, which is to consist of a 3,887 square-foot drive-through restaurant with an 866 square-foot outdoor dining area under a covered patio, and dual drive-through lanes and bicycle racks on a 2.1-acre site located at the southwest corner of West Lugonia Avenue and Citrus Plaza Drive, on the west side of the Interstate 210 freeway.
The project will also entail the completion of an augmentation driveway further to the west of the project driveway, and provide a private easement for access to the parcel located to the south, which contains existing telecommunications equipment that will be accessed by an easement across the project site.
The project was exempted from environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act guidelines in accordance with Section 15303, relating to new construction of small structures, and Section 15332, relating to infill development.
As it is subject to East Valley Corridor Specific Plan, which requires a traffic impact analysis for all proposed new drive-throughs, a traffic study was carried out. The study/analysis extended to the project’s anticipated impact on off-site traffic circulation. Based on that study, both city officials and In-N-Out corporate representatives said they were confident the traffic flow design for the undertaking would have little appreciable impact on the area. Nevertheless, observers of operations at existing In-N-Out Burger stands, particularly during the hours of 4:30 p.m to 7:30 p.m. during the evening rush hour/dinner hour window – which in reality runs to as long as three hours – believe the project will create, or exacerbate existing, traffic backups in the area.
According to Young, he is satisfied that ingress to and egress from the project is “adequate.” He said entry into and exit from the project will be from two driveways on Lugonia Avenue. On the east end of the project, patrons will be able to enter the site at the intersection with Citrus Plaza Drive, which is a four-way intersection with a traffic signal. The east driveway provides two exit lanes and one entry lane. On the west end of the site, a driveway is shown on the project plans with one lane in and one lane out.
According to Michelle Bennett, the development manager for In-N-Out, what she referred to as “a 33-car stack” will exist on the site, one that is longer than the standard room provided for cars built into the company’s other locations. Bennett said that would be “more than enough” length of internal area to accommodate the number of cars at dinner hour/rush hour.
At two of In-N-Out’s sites in Upland, two of its sites in Ontario, one of its sites in San Bernardino and one of its sites in Claremont, as many as 70 cars have been in the queue on weeknights as commuters are making their way home. Similar backups occur at other In-N-Outs too numerous to list here.
Many anticipate substantial backups on Lugonia and Citrus Plaza Drive.
Redlands residents have noted that congestion already besets the Doughnut Hole/Citrus Plaza district. At the intersection of Alabama and Lugonia, which is well west of the In-N-Out project site, cars can be restricted from moving for well over a minute. At the intersection of Nevada Street and Lugonia Avenue during rush hour, which is even further west of the project site than Alabama and Lugonia, cars heading in all directions can be jammed behind signals for well in excess of two minutes as gridlocks occur, with cars stuck in the intersection after a light turns red, preventing cross traffic from moving at all. Less onerous delays of half of a minute can occur at other intersections with traffic signals in the area.
The shopping center to the north of the project site has numerous retail and restaurant businesses, including Chick-Fil-A, Famous Dave’s BBQ, and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, among others. There is a self-storage facility to the immediate west as well as a Raising Cane’s restaurant with drive-through lanes. Existing freeway right-of-way is located to the immediate east and south.
Redlands residents say they believe Young was too optimistic in his pronouncement that the city will experience traffic circulation issues only in the immediate aftermath of the opening of the drive-through, anticipated for May or thereabouts, and that after the novelty wears off, normal traffic flow will resume.
The surrounding zoning consists of the County of San Bernardino’s East Valley Special Development land use designation to the north, and the City of Redlands’ General Commercial District of the East Valley Corridor Specific Plan to the west, south and east.
-Mark Gutglueck