Six Detroit police officers have been charged with extortion after receiving bribes from the owners of automobile collision shops in the latest corruption scandal to hit the department in recent months.
Two officers were indicted Wednesday and four retired officers have pleaded guilty to committing extortion, according to federal court records.
Detroit police Chief James Craig said two additional officers are under internal investigation and could be fired for their parts in the alleged extortion scheme, which the chief said was ongoing for as long as 12 years.
“This has been going on for some time in the department,” Craig said. “There have been previous investigations, which didn’t result in any closure, because there just wasn’t enough evidence. As troubling as these allegations are, I’m happy to see there’s some closure to a longstanding problem.”
The court filings unsealed Wednesday emerged 14 months after The Detroit News revealed federal investigators were probing an elaborate scheme involving collision shops that stripped stolen vehicles and collected thousands of dollars from insurance companies for unnecessary repairs.
The cases appear to be an offshoot of a broader public corruption scandal that has led to charges against 18 people, including towing titan Gasper Fiore and a former deputy police chief, according to a source familiar with the investigation.
Until Wednesday, the corruption scandal was focused on at least three fronts: Macomb County politicians pocketing bribes in exchange for approving municipal contracts with Sterling Heights trash hauler Rizzo Environmental Services, Fiore’s towing empire, and the Macomb County Public Works office.
The charges, in some cases, were sealed as long as a year ago, a move that likely gave federal agents time to investigate and build a case against more people, said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor.
No collision shop owners were named in the cases unsealed Wednesday.
“This is a classic case of benign corruption, at least that’s how officers can justify it to themselves,” Henning said. “They’re not being bribed to look the other way but the officers are putting a little cash in their pockets.”
“The vast majority of Detroit Police Officers are courageous, dedicated, superb public servants,” Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Lemisch said in a statement Wednesday. “The charged defendants should have put the people of Detroit first, rather than lining their own pockets.”
Those charged are:
■Officer Deonne Dotson, 45, who was indicted on six extortion counts.
■Officer Charles Wills, 52, who was indicted on four extortion counts. He is accused of pocketing $5,600.
Lawyers for both officers could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
■Retired officer James Robertson, 45. He pleaded guilty earlier this year to two extortion counts, according to court records unsealed Wednesday. He received $2,000 in fall 2014 from the owner of a Detroit collision shop in exchange for sending an abandoned vehicle to the business for repairs.
His lawyer declined comment.
■Retired officer Jamil Martin, 46. He received $500 from the owner of a Detroit collision shop in 2014 in exchange for sending vehicles to the shop for repairs.
Martin could spend up to 30 months in federal prison, according to his plea deal. His lawyer could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
■Retired officer Martin Tutt, 29. Tutt’s plea deal covers two counts of extortion and he has admitted receiving $1,000 from a Detroit collision shop in summer 2014 in exchange for referring an abandoned vehicle to that shop for repairs. He could get sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. His lawyer could not be reached for comment.
■Retired officer Anthony Careathers, 52. He struck a plea deal and admitted pocketing $1,500 from a collision shop owner. He could spend up to 24 months in federal prison, according to his plea deal. His lawyer declined comment.
The extortion charges are 20-year felonies and include $250,000 fines.
“The actions of these six officers illustrate a pattern of misconduct and an abuse of authority, which is in contrast to the vast majority of law enforcement professionals at the Detroit Police Department who serve each day with distinction and integrity,” said David Gelios, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit office.
Craig said he’s directed the Professional Standards Section to launch an internal investigation into two officers who were not part of Wednesday’s indictments and plea deals.
“There isn’t enough evidence to charge them criminally, but there’s evidence they violated administrative rules, and they could be subject to termination,” Craig said.
The officers indicted Wednesday were among six Detroit cops suspended in fall 2016 amid a months-long federal and Detroit Police investigation.
Last year, a police source told The News the scheme started with officers whose job is to hunt for stolen and abandoned vehicles. After they found one, this is what would happen, according to the source:
Officers are supposed to alert dispatch, which assigns one of 23 authorized tow companies to pick it up, depending on where the vehicle was found and which of multiple firms were next on the rotation list.
But they didn’t alert dispatch; instead, they were calling one tow company to pick up the vehicles. The tow company usually paid the officers between $50 and $100 for each car towed.
Officers would look for vehicles with minimal damage, such as ignition switch damage or missing tires. The tow company would then tell the vehicle’s owner it had found their stolen vehicle, which had unspecified damage, and that it worked with a collision shop that would waive the deductible for repairing it.
If the owner agreed to have the work done at that collision shop, employees then would strip vehicles of their motors, transmissions and other major parts without the owners’ knowledge. When a claims adjuster for the owner’s insurance company saw the stripped vehicle, thousands of dollars in damages would be assessed.
The collision shop owner would collect the money, put the parts back on the vehicle and do the minor repairs for the original damage before telling the owner to pick up the vehicle. The owners were never aware of the scheme.
Two collision shops in Wayne County are being investigated.
The cases were unsealed two months after former Detroit Deputy Police Chief Celia Washington, 57, was indicted on federal conspiracy and bribery charges.
Washington pocketed bribes in exchange for helping an unnamed towing mogul grab a bigger piece of a Detroit towing industry that totaled more than $2 million a year. City attorneys say the towing mogul is Fiore.
Washington was charged after investigators built a case with secret video recordings, a “significant number” of wiretaps, text messages and other evidence, according to court records.
Last year, Craig said the six officers were suspended with pay, pending the outcome of the investigation.
This type of corruption is difficult to detect, in part, because the amount of money officers received is so small, Henning said.
“Even if you multiplied the amount by five, they just sold their career for less than $30,000,” Henning said.