A Batmobile, a Bay Area sheriff and calls for accountability

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

For example, people where a relative of deputies was killed and who can’t get answers about what happened because a sheriff refuses to be transparent about the department’s internal investigation.

Or people who have filed a complaint about being wrongfully arrested or beaten by a deputy only to hear nothing because a sheriff defies supervision.

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 inability to deter questionable behavior among its sheriffs is even affecting people in other states.

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

He became embroiled in a ridiculous 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 of Fiberglass Freaks, where he’s been building officially licensed 1966 Batmobiles for more than a decade, to find not one but four members of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department standing outside with warrants .

They were there in tiny Logansport, Indiana — thousands of miles out of their jurisdiction, midway between Chicago and Indianapolis, with the taxpayers footing the bill — on Bolanos’ orders.

Weeks earlier, Bay Area real estate agent Sam Anagnostou, who through his firm had donated $1,000 to support Bolano’s ultimately unsuccessful re-election campaign, had contacted the sheriff about Racop.

Back in 2017, Anagnostou had ordered a $210,000 custom Batmobile from Fiberglass Freaks with the expectation that Racop would finish it sometime in 2018.

But there were delays. The pandemic happened. And Anagnostou has not made any payment for almost nine months. Meanwhile, Racop – in compliance with the missed payment rules set out in the sales contract – has brought another customer before Anagnostou.

By 2021, Anagnostou had grown so impatient and angry that he was attempting to get his local Atherton Police Department to investigate and convince the San Mateo County Attorney’s Office to file charges against Racop. No luck. He then attempted to file a lawsuit in California alleging fraud. No luck there either. The judge ruled that Indiana was the appropriate place to hear the case.

Bolanos was Anagnostou’s last hope.

“At a time when law enforcement is under such a siege, this doesn’t seem 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 build credibility with people and not do things that make it seem like we’re doing a favor. And that’s what it looks like, unfortunately.”

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

As a result, the district has asked the California Attorney General’s Office to investigate the incident. And on Saturday, the county hired retired Supreme Court Justice Winifred Y. Smith to open another investigation.

“What we can do is extremely limited,” said Horsley, who was sheriff for 14 years. “It’s the California Constitution. The sheriff is an elected officer. We cannot remove her from office. And we wouldn’t overlook any particular incident either, but it’s a damn incident.”

::

Full Disclosure: I know Racop. Well, Mark.

I met him about six years ago when he was consummating the marriage of two longtime friends, Dawn and Jeff. He’s a geeky guy whose love for Batman started as a kid. He desperately wanted to be the Dark Knight growing up, and while he doesn’t regularly wear a hood and cape, he loves to yell, “To the Batmobile!”

To be honest, I hadn’t thought about Mark in years. Then, a few days ago, Dawn woke me up mumbling and squinting to a Facebook post on her phone.

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

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

(Mark Racop)

“Mark was locked up by some California sheriffs.”

“What?”

“California Sheriffs!”

I should mention that this conversation took place in Las Vegas, the morning after my birthday party. Well, it could have been in the afternoon. It’s hard to tell in Vegas sometimes. But Dawn bravely plowed ahead and told the wild, twisted story about Mark – first reported by KGO-TV in San Francisco.

I needed to know more. So I called Markus.

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

A spokesman for Bolanos did not respond to a request for comment.

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

As it turns out, the team of four had a search warrant not only to search Fiberglass Freaks for records of the Batmobile Anagnostou ordered, but to arrest Mark and take him back to San Mateo County.

Mark didn’t know it at the time, but he had been charged with two crimes, including fraud. Since then, he’s had to hire a lawyer in California “at $695 an hour with a huge advance” with a frozen bank account.

San Mateo County Atty District. Steve Wagstaffe explained that while he was on leave, prosecutors believed there was enough evidence to show that Mark made “a promise that couldn’t be kept” regarding the Batmobile.

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

In the face of the backlash — not to mention the speculation since Anagnostou’s company also donated to the prosecutor’s campaign — Wagstaffe has backed out.

He has vowed to look into the case and get Mark’s side of the story. He has already delayed an August 19 order to appear in court in San Mateo County.

“I think we need a lot more if you have a victim, a wealthy victim, who’s going to spend a few hundred thousand dollars to build a Batmobile,” Wagstaffe told me. “It conveys a certain image to a jury. I think a jury of our citizens would want some very clear evidence that fraud took place.”

::

Stories like Racop’s are exactly why an upcoming election action in Los Angeles County is so important.

Voters will decide whether to amend the county charter to allow the LA County Board of Supervisors to remove a sheriff from office. This would require at least four of the five caregivers to agree that he or she is no longer able to work.

This option is available to all charter districts in California, including San Mateo County.

Of course, LA County’s electoral action stems from its longstanding public struggle with Villanueva. But there are sheriffs across California who brazenly test and abuse public trust with no real accountability between elections, as the San Mateo County mess demonstrates.

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

“I’m the guy that goes to restaurants and I look at the cops, I look at the sheriff’s deputies and I’m like, ‘Thank you for your service. I appreciate you and hope you have a safe evening.’ That’s me,” Racop said.

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

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

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-08-14/sheriff-harass-indiana-pastor-batmobile-wealthy-san-mateo-campaign-donor A Batmobile, a Bay Area sheriff and calls for accountability

Alley Einstein

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