A small central California town is without one-third of its police officers after an investigation involving stealing impounded cars from Hispanic residents led to the arrest of six officers, authorities said.
The officers were arrested in King City, a town 150 miles southeast of San Francisco on Tuesday morning, officials said.
After residents complained of corrupt acts within the department, the Monterey County District Attorney's office launched an investigation.
The police officers allegedly targeted poor Latinos, many of whom could not speak English. District Attorney Dean Flippo said when the car owners couldn't pay the fees, their cars were either sold or given away for free to some officers.
According to Flippo, more than 200 vehicles were impounded in the alleged scheme.
Four King County officers were arrested, including the recently retired police chief and the acting chief.
Sgt. Bobby Javier Carrillo, Acting Chief Bruce Edward Miller, former Chief Dominic David Baldiviez, and Mario Alonso Mottu Sr. have been charged with bribery, accepting a bribe and embezzlement, authorities said.
"There has been a significant breakdown in the internal leadership of the King City Police Department," Flippo said. "It also appears to me that some officers have dishonored their badge."
According to investigators, Carillo headed the scheme. Investigators say for every 10 or 15 cars impounded, Carillo would receive one to keep or sell. One of those cars, authorities said, was given to then-Police Capt. Bruce Miller.
In the only interview he has given, Miller told a KSWB-TV reporter he was shocked by the charges, saying, "The charges they are looking at is receiving or requesting a bribe, and I've never done that. I was aware of the investigations, but I didn't know that I would become a suspect. My reputation is spoiled. There's no coming back from this, even if I'm found innocent."
Two other officers, Jaime Andrade and Mark Baker, were also arrested on unrelated charges, including possession of an assault weapon, illegal storage of a firearm, or suspicion of criminal threats.
Those arrested were bailed out of jail within hours, KSBW reported. All six of the officers have been placed on paid administrative leave.
Authorities said most of the cars were taken in by the same towing company. The operator of that towing company, Brian Miller, is the brother of the acting police chief. He was also arrested.
At a news conference, Flippo told reporters that local residents told him: "The police are taking our property. They are taking our cars. They take our money. And we can do nothing about that".
The Sheriff's Department, as well as nearby departments in Greenfield, Soledad, and Gonzales, is lending officers to King City's 17-officer department, now down to just 11.
City Manager Michael Powers told ABC News the city will not be providing the men with legal representation.
An arraignment is set for Monday.
It is unclear whether the police officers involved have hired lawyers. An official at the local courthouse said they did not have information on whether the men had any legal representation.
The Associated Press reported that the police station was closed today.