Michael John Zannitto, an 11-year veteran of the Garden Grove Police Department, was enjoying a day at Knott's Berry Farm when he met a woman who had recently been cited for speeding around a stopped school bus in Huntington Beach.
The off-duty officer wasn't in uniform, but prosecutors say Zannitto tried to impress the woman by promising that he could have her $234 citation dismissed.
About a month after the ticket was issued in November, Zannitto got a text message from the 32-year-old woman that included a picture of a bottle of alcohol and said she could provide free alcohol if the ticket went away, according to a statement Monday from the Orange County district attorney's office.
But Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Chris Duff said that the woman, who works in the alcohol industry, may have had more than one reason to offer the liquor.
"Based on the tenor of the texts, I get the idea that he wanted to date her, and she was perhaps providing alcohol so she wouldn't have to date him," Duff said.
Zannitto and his alleged co-conspirator, Erik Michael Krause, a 22-year veteran of the Huntington Beach Police Department, were charged Monday with one misdemeanor count each of conspiracy to obstruct justice. Each faces up to one year in jail if convicted of illegally helping the woman.
Attempts to reach Zannitto, 46, and Krause, 43, were unsuccessful. Calls to a phone number listed with Zannitto's residence received a message that said the line had been disconnected.
Garden Grove police Lt. Jeff Nightengale said Zannitto is on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the case. He referred questions to the district attorney's office and said his department would have no further comment.
Huntington Beach police Lt. Mitch O'Brien said Krause is also on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal affairs investigation that is expected to be completed in about a week. He said his department has audited all traffic tickets within the last 18 months and found nothing noteworthy.
"We're not a gigantic department so everybody knows everybody here," O'Brien said. "Unfortunately, Officer Krause will probably be painted as some evil guy. We can't stand by and watch this happen, but Erik is a good man. He's the kind of guy you'd love to live next to.
"This is definitely an anomaly."
Officials say that in January, Zannitto called the Huntington Beach Police Department, told an officer that the ticketed woman was his sister and asked to speak with Krause. Days later, Krause told Zannitto he would "take care of" the ticket, according to the district attorney's statement, and when Zannitto informed the woman, she texted that she would hand over "a bunch of alcohol."
"Sounds good to me," Zannitto is alleged to have replied by text message.
Despite initially having written several sentences of notes to document the woman's citation, Krause is accused of submitting a false declaration to his department, requesting that the citation be dismissed and writing: "Please dismiss in the interest of justice. No notes."
"Traffic tickets are dismissed, but usually not with a false declaration made under penalty of perjury," Duff said.
A Huntington Beach lieutenant happened to be double checking traffic tickets and came upon the discrepancy between Krause's initial report and his subsequent declaration, Duff said. Duff added that an investigation was launched but the alcohol never changed hands. Zannitto had previously instructed the woman to file a written declaration to contest her ticket and because Krause's declaration was never filed with the court, the woman's ticket was dismissed.
Krause and Zannitto are scheduled to be arraigned June 26 in Santa Ana.