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.
By Mark Gutglueck