Repair shop owner Alex Moreno said he was approached in 2008 by a Baltimore police officer with an idea to help boost sales at his fledgling Rosedale business: In exchange for a cut, officers would funnel cars to the shop.
Soon, Majestic Auto Repair was getting customers almost exclusively from city police — he testified Tuesday in federal court that more than 60 officers would ultimately get in on the scheme, receiving $300 for each referral. Business grew so fast that he had to expand to new lots to store all the cars; the backlog was so deep that they paid for rental cars to keep customers from becoming frustrated by the wait.
"The officers are the first ones to go to the [accident] scenes, and instead of the car going to the city [yard] or other shops, they'd come to our shop," Moreno testified.
Moreno, 31, has pleaded guilty to his role in the kickback scheme, which led to federal indictments against 15 officers. He testified Tuesday against two officers, Samuel Ocasio and Kelvin Manrich.
According to police and federal prosecutors, the officers were circumventing the city's system of authorized towing companies by referring cars to Moreno in exchange for payment. Majestic would often increase damage to the vehicles — hitting side panels with poles, breaking off mirrors — to increase payouts from insurance companies, Moreno testified.
Thomas Crowe, Ocasio's attorney, has acknowledged that his client referred drivers to Majestic, but said nothing in the department's general orders prohibits officers from making recommendations. He said prosecutors cannot prove that Ocasio was paid for his referrals. Manrich's attorney did not make an opening statement.
Moreno, whom Crowe referred to in his opening statement as "despicable," testified that he knew Ocasio and Manrich exclusively through their involvement in the alleged kickback scheme.
Moreno immigrated to the United States from Honduras at age 17, unable to speak English. He learned the language and attended college while playing professional soccer, and established a family with two children. At one point, Moreno applied to join the Baltimore Police Department.
"I always wanted to be an officer or be in the Army since I was a kid," Moreno testified.
In June 2006, he and his brother Edwin Mejia started Majestic. Moreno said Majestic sought to become one of the city's licensed towing companies but that only larger firms are considered for the contracts.
Moreno said the idea to pay police for referrals was hatched in 2008 by Officer Jhonn Corona, his neighbor and shop customer. Corona spread word of the plan through the department, Moreno testified, and officers called when they encountered accidents.
Corona pleaded guilty to conspiracy and extortion last fall.
Moreno testified Tuesday that he had been with a city officer named Osvaldo Valentine when Valentine falsely reported that his personal vehicle had been stolen. Moreno said the vehicle was at his shop and that Valentine had reported it stolen because he couldn't make the payments. Valentine pleaded guilty to conspiracy and extortion last fall.
Moreno testified that at one point, his tow truck drivers joined another company and some of the officers started working with them instead. Those drivers have not been charged.
Business grew so fast that Majestic struggled to stay profitable, Moreno said. They often paid officers to bring their own cars in for repairs, did not require other customers to pay deductibles, and paid for rental cars.
According to testimony, Ocasio got his personal vehicle repaired at Majestic, including damage added by Moreno, and briefly stopped communicating with Moreno because he was upset at how long it took to get it fixed.
Prosecutors played a recording of a wiretapped phone conversation between Moreno and Ocasio in which they talked in Spanish about an accident scene. Ocasio described damage to four cars, with he and Moreno appearing to discuss which ones might bring a bigger payment from insurance companies.
"How did this miracle happen?" Moreno asked, an apparent nod to Ocasio's call to Majestic after months of not communicating.
"I've been on the streets for a month and nothing's come up," Ocasio replied.
At the end of the call, Moreno told Ocasio: "Call me for anything else; I am always here waiting."
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