The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 16 asked the state attorney general for an inquiry into the criminal investigation and prosecution of an Indiana businessman who makes 1966-era Batmobiles at the behest of an Atherton resident.
The request to investigate both San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos and the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office comes almost one month after Mark Racop's business in Logansport, Indiana, was raided by county deputy sheriffs at the behest of Bolanos with aid from the Cass County sheriff, who provided one deputy of his own to serve as a liaison.
Last week, journalist Dan Noyes of ABC7 reported that the Board of Supervisors planned to ask the California Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate the sheriff's office's actions in the Batmobile raid. The board's letter, sent to the Attorney General on Aug. 16, calls on Bonta to use his authority to investigate both the sheriff's and the District Attorney's offices.
In the letter, the Board of Supervisors mention that the raid, which has received a great deal of public attention and scrutiny, falls under the purview Bonta's oversight authority under the California Constitution. Section 13 of the state constitution grants the AG authority over the state's "county sheriffs and district attorneys in matters pertaining to the duties of their respective offices," wrote Mike Callagy, county executive, in the letter to Bonta.
On July 19, four San Mateo County deputies from the Vehicle Theft Task Force along with one deputy from Cass County, Indiana, raided Racop's business, Fiberglass Freaks with the intent to arrest and extradite him back to California, according to Bolanos. Deputies searched Racop's garage and seized two file folders. They then took Racop back to the Cass County Sheriff's Office facility. According to Bolanos, Racop was not handcuffed, nor was he ever incarcerated, due to his health.
In an internal four-page memo, Bolanos gave his staff a detailed account of what led up to the raid of Racop's business. He also describes the raid itself, how his deputies received the search warrants, what they seized and the level of involvement of the Cass County Sheriff's Office.
In the memo, Bolanos said his deputies "did nothing wrong, and I stand with them and support them."
"While it is true that I asked that this case be investigated, and I am acquainted with the victim as I am with many residents of San Mateo County, I would make the same request of our investigators whenever a potential crime of this nature came to my attention," Bolanos said in the memo.
Asked about the supervisors' letter to Bonta, Bolanos said: "I stand by my comments in my memorandum attached to the letter to the attorney general's office. The sheriff's office properly investigated, concurrently with the district attorney's office, a major financial crime reported by a resident of the county."
County prosecutor's decision
In an interview, District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe said he would not comment on any recent updates or findings in the case, saying that he hoped to have all the information and make a final decision about whether to pursue the case by the end of August or early September.
He also declined to comment on whether he felt his prosecutor had made the right call — and whether, had he been the one to decide, he would have filed the initial charges.
"Great question, not a chance I'd answer it," he said, adding, "I will be a professor with her when this is done, to say the least, and do a little bit of educating."
Wagstaffe said he first heard about the Batmobile case about a year ago, when the Atherton Police Department came to his department on a complaint from Sam Anagnostou. Anagnostou, an Atherton resident, accused Racop of "theft by false pretense" after the $210,000 Batmobile that he ordered was delayed. The carmaker has said that Anagnostou did not complete a payment and stopped communicating for several months.
Wagstaffe's office, however, declined to prosecute, saying the matter was best suited for civil court. Anagnostou did sue Racop, but that case was dismissed on a technicality, according to Racop.
Anagnostou, who played in an adult basketball league that Wagstaffe refereed, directly made contact with Wagstaffe, who then asked his secretary to refer the complaint to his consumer fraud unit. The department ultimately declined to take the case, and Wagstaffe said that was the last he heard of it for the next few months.
Anagnostou's realty corporation also made a one-time donation of $1,000 to Wagstaffe's reelection campaign last summer, though Wagstaffe said he didn't know about it then.
In the spring, when Anagnostou called Bolanos to ask him to investigate the case, the sheriff assigned his team to investigate Racop. They searched bank records and email correspondence. One of Wagstaffe's prosecutors decided there was enough probable cause to pursue the case and issued an arrest warrant.
"We've had three judges look at it. Two judges looked at the search warrant and said, 'Yep, there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed, and these records would be evidence of it,'" he said. A third judge reviewed and approved the charges and issued an arrest warrant.
Wagstaffe himself said he had only heard "a little bit" about the case before leaving for vacation at the end of July.
"I got back involved in it when I got back, two weeks ago ... It sort of had exploded by then," he said. "When I got back two Thursdays ago, I sat my prosecutor down with myself and my chief deputy, and said, 'I want an A to Z. Tell me what this case is about.'"
County supervisors to investigate
Supervisor Warren Slocum expressed concern over the handling of the case — and its implications for how justice is carried out in San Mateo County.
"The bottom line — I have a lot of questions that I've been asking myself, especially after reading the sheriff's explanation to us as to the facts of the case," he said.
Slocum said that the board was in the process of hiring a retired judge to conduct an independent investigation into the matter. He declined to name the judge but said they hoped to finalize the contract in the next day or two.
Addressing concerns raised that Anagnostou was given special treatment by both the county sheriff's and the district attorney's offices, Wagstaffe was quick to defend his prosecutors.
"I do respect that concern," he said. "But in terms of my office, I know, whatever decision was made, right or wrong, it wasn't done because of who the victim was.
"Everybody deserves to be treated the same," he added. "That's what we strive for here. And I'm sorry there's an image out there with the public that that hasn't occurred."
Slocum said he "respectfully disagreed" with Wagstaffe that anyone would have received the same legal treatment by the District Attorney's Office.
"It seems like — and I don't have all the facts — there are two systems of justice here: one for a wealthy connected person," he said, and one for everyone else. "If you're a small person struggling in North Fair Oaks you get another version of that (justice system)."
In light of recent events, Slocum mentioned the possibility of establishing a civilian oversight committee, something he said the county Board of Supervisors planned to discuss and vote on in September. Though he doubted that oversight of the sheriff's office would have prevented the Batmobile investigation, he wondered whether future incidents might be avoided "by virtue of having a proactive look at policies and procedures."
"These latest events sort of cemented the importance of doing this work," he added.
Sheriff's office oversight
Nancy Goodban, executive director of Fixin' San Mateo County, said that if a civilian oversight committee had been in place, the Batmobile raid would definitely be under investigation. Fixin' San Mateo County is a local grassroots organization whose goal is to create civilian oversight of the sheriff's office and establish a county inspector general.
"It's the kind of incident that calls out for oversight and shows how important civilian oversight would be and gives the Board of Supervisors an extra set of ears and eyes," Goodban said. "Right now the Board of Supervisors has asked the attorney general, which is also independent, and otherwise you're dealing with the internal sheriff's department. So having independent oversight would really help the county, would help the Board of Supervisors, residents and taxpayers get a better understanding of independently what's going on."
The Board of Supervisors first became aware of the Batmobile incident after several residents spoke out during public comment at the Aug. 2 meeting. Residents asked the board to investigate both sheriff's and the district attorney's actions. Board President Don Horsley asked Callagy to look into it and report back.
"I just want to make it clear that investigative priorities and prosecutorial decisions are not really the purview of the Board of Supervisors," Horsley said during the meeting. "If that were the case, we would be accused of political prosecutions or political investigations, and so that's why there's a distinct separation of powers. And so the powers to do investigative priorities or set investigative priorities really rests with the sheriff. And prosecutorial decisions clearly rests with the district attorney."