17 Baltimore officers charged in extortion scheme

Seventeen Baltimore police officers were charged Wednesday with taking kickbacks for diverting drivers at accident scenes to an unauthorized towing company and repair shop.

A criminal complaint charges the officers and the owners of Majestic Auto Repair Shop in Rosedale with conspiracy to commit extortion in the course of their official duties. Brothers Edwin Javier Mejia and Hernan Alexis Moreno Mejia paid officers to arrange for their company, which wasn't a city-authorized shop, to tow vehicles from accident scenes and make repairs, according to the criminal complaint.

Officers are supposed to allow the owner to arrange for a tow on their own, or if the owner declines, to use police communication channels to contact only an authorized towing company. The officers charged in this scheme would state in reports that the owners arranged for their own tow or would leave that portion of the form blank, according to the complaint.

They would tell owners that Majestic could help with the insurance claim and waive the deductible, advising them not to call the insurance company before talking with the repair shop owner, the complaint alleges.

A claim would be submitted to the insurance company for repairs made by Majestic to the towed vehicle. Officers received $300 for each vehicle they steered to Majestic and one officer received more than $14,400 over two years, according to the complaint.

Fifteen officers were told to report to the police academy Wednesday morning for an equipment check, but instead they were met by FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard McFeely and Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld, who collected their badges before they were arrested.

"I personally took the badges from every one of those men who were arrested today," Bealefeld said at a news conference Wednesday. "I did that as the representative of all those dedicated, honorable men and women who serve and have worn this uniform. I did it for them."

Two officers charged Wednesday were on leave and were not arrested, but will be soon, according to department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. The 17 officers are suspended without pay, he said.

The department learned of the allegations against the officers and later turned to the FBI for help with the probe, Bealefeld said. The investigation, which involved wiretaps and surveillance, has been extremely difficult, according to U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein. He said there may be more arrests.

Each defendant faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

No one answered at Majestic on Wednesday evening, and an outgoing message said the shop is closed until further notice for a business emergency.

Rosenstein called the charges a double-edged sword. He said people might think that there is corruption inside the department, but they should also realize that the department is aggressively investigating it to stamp it out.

"Police officers are supposed to be working the police department, not the highest bidder," Rosenstein said.