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A Batmobile, a Bay Area Sheriff and calls for accountability


California is littered with people who have a legitimate dispute with an elected sheriff.

People who had a relative killed by deputies, for example, and who can’t get any answers about what happened because a sheriff refuses to be transparent about the department’s internal investigation.

Or people who filed a complaint about being wrongfully detained or manhandled by a deputy, but heard nothing because a sheriff is resisting scrutiny.

It’s bad enough for those of us who live here, as anyone who has dealt with Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva can attest. But now, California’s failure to deter questionable behavior by its sheriffs is even affecting people in other states.

Specifically, a soft-spoken pastor from Indiana named Mark Racop.

He was caught up in a ludicrous criminal investigation into a Batmobile launched by outgoing San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos at the behest of one of his wealthiest campaign donors.

In July, Racop opened the door to the store, Fiberglass Freaks, where he’s been building officially licensed 1966-era Batmobiles for more than a decade, to find not one but four members of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department standing there. outside with warrants. .

They were there in little Logansport, Ind. — thousands of miles from their jurisdiction, halfway between Chicago and Indianapolis, with taxpayers footing the bill — on Bolanos’ orders.

Weeks earlier, Bay Area realtor Sam Anagnostou, who through his company had donated $1,000 to Bolanos’ ultimately unsuccessful re-election bid, approached the sheriff about Racop.

In 2017, Anagnostou ordered a custom $210,000 Batmobile from Fiberglass Freaks, hoping Racop would complete it in 2018.

But delays have occurred. The pandemic has happened. And Anagnostou paid nothing for almost nine months. Meanwhile, Racop – adhering to the rules set out in the sales contract regarding missed payments – moved another client ahead of Anagnostou.

By 2021, Anagnostou had become so impatient and angry that he tried to have his local Atherton Police Department investigate and persuade the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office to press charges against Racop. No chance. Then he tried to file a lawsuit in California, alleging fraud. No luck there either. The judge decided that Indiana would be the appropriate place to hear the case.

Bolanos was Anagnostou’s last hope.

“In a time when law enforcement is under siege, it seems like it wasn’t very well thought out,” San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley told me. “What we’re trying to do – what we should be trying to do – is establish our credibility with people, not do things that look like favors. And that’s kind of, unfortunately, what it looks like.

Indeed, the optics are so bad that the oversight board has been inundated with calls and emails from angry voters.

As a result, the county asked the California Attorney General’s office to investigate what happened. And on Saturday, the county retained retired Superior Court Judge Winifred Y. Smith to launch a new investigation.

“What we can do is extremely limited,” said Horsley, who served as sheriff for 14 years. “It’s the California Constitution. The sheriff is an elected officer. We can’t remove them from office. And we wouldn’t go back on any particular incident either, but it’s a hell of an incident.

::

Full disclosure: I know Racop. Well, Mark.

I met him about six years ago when he was officiating at the wedding of two longtime friends, Dawn and Jeff. He’s a geeky guy whose love for Batman started when he was a kid. He legitimately wanted to be the Dark Knight when he was growing up and, though he doesn’t wear a cowl and cape regularly, likes to shout, “To the Batmobile!”

Frankly, I hadn’t thought of Mark in years. Then, a few days ago, Dawn woke me up mumbling and squinting over a Facebook post on her phone.

A member of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department inspects a Batmobile at Fiberglass Freaks.

(Marc Racop)

“Mark got framed by California sheriffs.”

“What?”

“California Sheriffs!” »

I should mention that this conversation took place in Las Vegas, first thing in the morning after my birthday celebration. Well, maybe it was in the afternoon. It’s sometimes hard to tell in Vegas. But Dawn bravely stepped forward, relaying Mark’s wild and convoluted story – first reported by KGO-TV in San Francisco.

I needed to know more. So I called Mark.

He was still outraged and confused by what had happened. He told me how members of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department, along with a deputy from the Cass County, Indiana Sheriff’s Department, refused to let him call an attorney and treated him like a criminal.

A Bolanos spokesperson did not return a request for comment.

“They kept saying they were probably going to arrest me,” Mark told me, “and they were probably going to extradite me to California.”

It turns out the four-person team had a warrant, not only to search Fiberglass Freaks for records of the Batmobile Anagnostou commanded, but also to arrest Mark and bring him back to San Mateo County.

Mark didn’t know it then, but he had been charged with two crimes, one of which was fraud. He has since had to hire a lawyer in California “at $695 an hour with a huge down payment” – and do it with a frozen bank account.

County of San Mateo Dist. Atti. Steve Wagstaffe explained that while he was off duty, prosecutors believed there was enough evidence to show that Mark “made a promise that couldn’t be kept” about the Batmobile.

“The evidence was put before three different judges here in San Mateo County, the first search warrants and the last for the arrest warrant and they all said yes, there are reasonable grounds to believe that a crime has been committed,” he said.

Yet given the backlash — not to mention the speculation, since Anagnostou’s company also donated to the district attorney’s campaign — Wagstaffe backed down.

He vowed to take a closer look and get Mark’s side of the story. He has already delayed an Aug. 19 order to appear in San Mateo County court.

“I think we need a lot more when you have a victim, a wealthy victim, spending a couple hundred thousand dollars building a Batmobile,” Wagstaffe told me. “It gives a certain image to a jury. I think a jury of our citizens would require very clear evidence that a fraud took place.

::

Stories like Racop’s explain exactly why an upcoming Los Angeles County election measure is so important.

Voters will decide whether or not to amend the county charter to allow the LA County Board of Supervisors to remove a sheriff from office. To do this, at least four of the five supervisors would have to agree that he is no longer fit to serve.

This is an option available for all counties in California, including San Mateo County.

Of course, the LA County ballot measure stems from the supervisors’ longstanding public battle with Villanueva. But there are sheriffs all over California who brazenly test and abuse the public trust without any real accountability between elections, as the San Mateo County mess illustrates.

And unlike Racop, whose case has garnered national media attention, most Californians are losing their fights with sheriffs, a reality that only reinforces the deep mistrust between law enforcement and poor communities in color.

“I’m the guy who goes to restaurants and I look at the police officers, I look at the sheriff’s deputies and I say, ‘Thank you so much for your service. Thank you and I hope you have a good evening. It’s me,” Racop said.

Now he has trouble sleeping and eating. He has heart problems. He is stressed.

“I get PTSD when I see a sheriff’s vehicle,” Racop said. “So it’s not good. It’s not good, you know?


Los Angeles Times

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