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17 Baltimore officers charged in extortion scheme

The 14 Baltimore City police officers thought they were called to the police academy Wednesday morning for an equipment inspection. Instead, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III personally took their badges before they were arrested for allegedly conspiring to commit extortion with a Rosedale towing company.

Click here to read the affidavit of their arrest (PDF)

“I was there to reclaim our badge,” Bealefeld said Wednesday afternoon.

In all, seventeen officers and the two brothers who own Majestic Auto Repair Shop LLC were charged as a result of a joint investigation between Baltimore police and federal agents. The officers are alleged to have arranged for Majestic to tow vehicles from accident scenes since January 2009 even though the company had no contract to tow for the city, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Majestic paid the officers approximately $300 per referral, with one officer taking in more than $14,000 over the course of nine months, prosecutors alleged.

“Police officers are supposed to be working for the police department, not the highest bidder,” U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said Wednesday afternoon at his office, where he was joined by Bealefeld to announce the charges.

All but two officers had been arrested as of Wednesday afternoon and had their initial appearances in U.S. District Court. (Rosenstein said Wednesday night the two officers remained at large.) Each defendant faces one count of conspiracy to commit extortion, which carries a maximum of 20 years in prison. Rosenstein said the investigation is still ongoing, so more charges could be brought.

Watch video from the U.S. Attorney’s press conference

The investigation, which included wiretaps of the defendants, began within the city police department before they asked for help from the FBI, Rosenstein and Bealefeld said. Federal agents and prosecutors “worked intensively” on the case for several months, Rosenstein said, declining to discuss specifics.

According to a federal affidavit seeking the arrest warrants, an officer would contact Majestic co-owner Hernan Alexis Moreno Mejia upon arriving at an accident scene with information about the vehicle, including the extent of damage and type of insurance. The officer would tell the driver Majestic could tow and repair the car, as well as help with the insurance claim and waive the deductible, according to the affidavit. The driver was also told not to call the insurance company until after talking to Moreno.

Once Majestic towed the truck, the officer would write in the accident report that the driver arranged for his or her own tow or leave that portion of the report blank, according to the affidavit. Majestic would then submit a claim to the driver’s insurance company for repairs allegedly made.

Majestic is not one of the city’s “medallion” towing companies, meaning it is not under contract to tow vehicles from accident scenes for police. Last month, the city Department of Transportation sent out a request for proposals for privatizing the city’s towing services. Only one company, California-based Auto Return, filed a proposal, said Lester Davis, spokesman for Bernard C. “Jack” Young, president of the City Council and a member of the Board of Estimates, which would have to vote on the towing changes.

The privatization proposal was then withdrawn from the Board of Estimates agenda last week in favor of a new plan to revamp the existing medallion system, Davis said. Details of that new plan were not available Wednesday, and Adrienne Barnes, spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, said she could not comment on it.

Khalil A. Zaied, director of the city Department of Transportation, was unavailable to comment, his secretary said.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake praised investigators for their work in a statement.

“I expect all City employees to serve the public with the highest level of integrity, and I will not tolerate criminal or unethical activity by any city employee,” she said. “Any criminal activity by a Baltimore Police officer dishonors our City and the three thousand men and women of the Baltimore Police Department who serve with great professionalism and integrity.”

FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard A. McFeely reiterated the mayor’s point during the news conference.

“Absolutely nobody in the police department should be hanging their heads,” he said. “The police department rooted out corruption in their own ranks.”

Ten of the officers were assigned to the Northeast District, according to the affidavit. Bealefeld said the officers he met Wednesday morning at the academy were “subdued and orderly.” The commissioner told reporters they could “theorize and consider the ramifications” of choosing the academy as the arresting site. He declined to reveal his own thoughts other than saying he wanted it to be done “deliberately” but in a respectful way to the other members of the force.

“Actions speak louder than words,” he said.

Bealefeld added an academy recruit was with him when he took the badges, and the commissioner asked rhetorically what the recruit would say to his classmates. Bealefeld also interrupted a reporter suggesting the arrests were another blow to his department.

“This is not a setback or a smear,” Bealefeld said. “This is an absolute affirmation to our commitment to policing and ferreting out corruption within our ranks.”

The defendants are Majestic owners Moreno, 30, of Rosedale and his brother, Edwin Javier Mejia, 27, of Rosedale; along with suspended officers Eddy Arias, 39, of Catonsville; Eric Ivan Ayala Olivera, 35, of Edgewood; Rodney Cintron, 31, of Middle River; Jhonn S. Corona, 32, of Rosedale; Michael Lee Cross, 28, of Reisterstown; Jerry Edward Diggs Jr., 24, of Baltimore; Rafael Concepcion Feliciano Jr., 30, of Baltimore; Jaime Luis Lugo Rivera, 35, of Aberdeen; Kelvin Quade Manrich, 41, of Gwynn Oak; Luis Nunez, 33, of Baltimore; Samuel Ocasio, 35, of Edgewood; David Reeping, 41, of Baltimore; Jermaine Rice, 28, of Owings Mills; Leonel Rodriguez Torres, 31, of Edgewood; Marcos Fernando Urena, 33, of Baltimore; Osvaldo Valentine, 38, of Edgewood; and Henry Yambo, 28, of Reisterstown.

Business reporter Melody Simmons contributed to this article.