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King City police scandal ignites Latinos' ire

Two in the Police Department and the brother of one are accused of running a towing scam targeting Latinos. Many say they have experienced discrimination for years.

March 15, 2014|By Lee Romney
  • At a King City news conference, Carlos Ponce Martinez, consul general of Mexico in San Jose, condemns "exploitation" of the agricultural town's immigrant community. Rufina Recendiz, right, also spoke.
At a King City news conference, Carlos Ponce Martinez, consul general of… (Lee Romney, Los Angeles…)

KING CITY, Calif. — Angel Pineda tucked his white cowboy hat under a folding chair in the packed church hall and listened.

First came the civil rights presentation — on what to do if pulled over by police. "I want a lawyer," American Civil Liberties Union staffer Daisy Vieyra, who had come from San Francisco, enunciated in English. "I want a lawyer," the crowd repeated.

Then came the indignation, as local residents and advocates from outside this southern Salinas Valley agricultural community made it clear that tomorrow's King City will not be the same as yesterday's. The crowd was at a "know your rights" event convened on a recent evening in response to a local scandal.

"They thought in this little town they could do what they did inside the Police Department and no one would know?" Mickie Solorio Luna, western regional vice president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, bellowed in Spanish. "Well, now we know.... Together we will fight for this cause."

Late last month, prosecutors filed charges against a King City police sergeant, the acting police chief and his brother — who runs a local towing company — in connection with an alleged scheme to confiscate and sell vehicles belonging largely to low-income immigrants.

For every 10 to 15 cars that Sgt. Bobby Carrillo sent to Miller's Towing, prosecutors allege, he got one free in return, once giving one to acting Chief Bruce Miller.

For many here, it was hardly news. They say they'd been pulled over by the police for minor — or no — offenses for years, their cars hauled off to Brian Miller's tow yard, where fees from mandatory 30-day impounds climbed so high they could not afford to pay.

They didn't complain. A number were undocumented and driving without a license. (A new California law will allow people in the country illegally to apply for driver's licenses, beginning in January.) Others said in interviews they feared retaliation and felt they had nowhere to turn.

Pineda said in an interview after the church hall meeting that his son was stopped last year for a reason Pineda cannot recall, and his Chevy Lumina minivan was towed to Miller's. The father of seven, who arrived here more than three decades ago to work the fields, said he couldn't scrape together $1,500 to retrieve it.

"It has to change," Pineda, 71, said quietly. "Like they said here tonight, there's power in unity."

Lawyers for the accused, who plan to enter not-guilty pleas this week, asked the public to withhold judgment until the facts are in. "My client is of Mexican heritage," said Carrillo's attorney, Michael Schwartz, "and any allegation that this is some form of singling out of a certain ethnic group is offensive."

Brian Miller's attorney, Allan Kleinkopf, called his client "a good family guy … not the kind of guy who would initiate this kind of thing." An attorney for Bruce Miller did not respond to a request for comment.

As part of the ongoing investigation, the Monterey County district attorney also charged two other officers, a sergeant and the former longtime police chief with crimes unconnected to the alleged towing scheme, diminishing the sworn force by nearly a third. Allegations include the improper gift of a city patrol car to an officer, illegal weapons possession and criminal threats. All have pleaded not guilty.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, the charges have already triggered a fierce response.

Attorneys filed a federal civil lawsuit seeking compensation — and class-action status — for those victimized by the alleged towing scam. Among them is Blanca E. Zarazua, honorary Mexican consul for Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, who planted herself at a table after the recent church meeting and gathered complaints.

And at El Sinaloense, a downtown restaurant, owner Veronica Villa and others huddled with regional League of United Latin American Citizens leaders during a recent lunch hour and pledged to start a local chapter.

"People are asking me, 'Why are you speaking out?'" said Villa, who arrived from Mazatlan more than a quarter of a century ago. "But I am against injustice. We want a King City that has a future."

::

Incorporated in 1911 as the "City of King," the town boasts a connection to novelist John Steinbeck: His father, an agent for a milling company, was among its settlers.

After wheat came spinach, lettuce, onions and grapes. Mexican workers who initially flocked here were men, but that soon changed. So did migratory routes, as job seekers — some of them indigenous — from Michoacan and Jalisco were followed by those from the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca.

By 2010, according to the U.S. census, more than 87% of the town's population of 13,000 was Latino.

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