By Jill Harmacinski
---- — LAWRENCE — Police officer P. J. Lopez bought cars at reduced rates and received a $4,000 snow plow in exchange for increasing police ordered tows to M & W Towing of Lawrence, company owner Wilson Calixto testified yesterday in federal court.
In his first deal with M & W, Lopez wanted a 2008 Suzuki Reno that Calixto was selling for $4,500. Instead, Lopez gave Calixto $1,000 cash and guaranteed him at least 35 extra tows as payment, Calixto testified during the first day of Lopez’s corruption trial.
Calixto, who testified for federal prosecutors under an immunity deal, said he went along with Lopez because he was afraid to get knocked off the police department’s tow list and blackballed in city business.
“I felt if I said, ‘No,’ I’d be shut off ... Whatever he wanted, I agreed on,” said Calixto, who, under the immunity deal, will not face charges unless he lies under oath.
Lopez’s trial opened at U.S. District Court in South Boston with Judge Mark Wolf presiding.
Charged with bribery, lying to a federal agent and obstruction of justice, Lopez was indicted on Sept. 25, 2012 for his dealings with M & W and Calixto. From December 2010 to May 2011, Lopez allegedly ordered an increase in tows to M & W in exchange for the free snow plow and discount prices on abandoned cars stored at M & W. He is accused of lying to federal agents when they questioned him.
“This case is about a police officer who abused his authority and position and then lied about it to the FBI and tried to obstruct justice,” federal prosecutor Andrew Lelling said in his opening argument. Lopez, in exchange for abusing this power, received a stream of benefits, Lelling said.
But Alex Cain of North Andover, Lopez’s defense attorney, said authorities, in their rush to indict Lopez, relied on witnesses who had lied to them and later changed their stories. Also, he accused prosecutors of inaccurately linking the questionable tows to Lopez.
“He did not engage in a kickback agreement,” Cain said of Lopez.
M & W was one of four city tow companies that towed for the city of Lawrence on a rotating basis. In testimony yesterday, Calixto said two weeks after he spoke to the FBI about Lopez and his dealings, he was booted off the city’s tow list. Mayor William Lantigua sent him a letter saying he was being removed from the list because he released a car that Lawrence Fire Department wanted impounded for an investigation.
Calixto made roughly $150 off every police tow and additional charges could be applied if drivers didn’t immediately pick up their vehicles.
Calixto, 46, of Methuen, started his testimony by telling jurors he was in court “to tell the truth.”
In 1995, he started his company with just one tow truck. The company grew over time and in 2010, he had seven trucks. The father of six said he was audited by the IRS, owing $83,000 in unpaid taxes for 2007 and 2008, as well as $16,000 to the state’s Department of Revenue. He currently pays $1,100 monthly in combined payment plans for both debts, he said.
Also, he acknowledged having a drinking problem, for which he twice received treatment. He only drinks on weekends now, he said.
During questioning by federal prosecutor William Bloomer, Calixto said he’s known Lopez since he first came on the job in 1997. “We got to talk. Got to know each other a little. He’d come to my office. He’d say hi and we’d talk,” he said.
When the deal with the Suzuki Reno surfaced, Calixto said he was hesitant. But Lopez, he said, had previously told him about problems he had with another city tow company, Valley Towing, and how he “wouldn’t tow no vehicles to that company unless it was absolutely necessary.”
“You were afraid you’d be shut off like Valley Towing?” Bloomer asked.
“That’s correct,” Calixto replied.
After the Suzuki, Lopez later saw a Ford Escape he wanted. The price was $1,500 but Lopez gave him $1,000. Calixto said there was no discussion of tows “but they were coming in,” he said.
Later, Lopez took a 2002 Nissan Altima on Lopez’s lot. Calixto wanted $500 but he never received the money from Lopez. Again, the tows to his company increased, however.
Testimony: Lopez wanted snow plow
In February 2011, Lopez spoke to Calixto about buying him a snow plow for his own personal pickup. Lopez showed him pictures of what he wanted on an iPad in the towing office. He agreed to the purchase and gave Lopez a blank check with his stamped signatured on it.
“At this point, I couldn’t say no,” Calixto said. “I told the defendant to buy the plow.”
Lopez never repaid him for the plow purchase, Calixto testified.
Around April 2012, Calixto told Lopez he was spooked by something he read in the newspaper and feared he was being investigated. He told Lopez he needed to “slow down” the tows to him.
Later, FBI agents visited his office, asking for tow records from July 2011. After that, when Lopez spoke to Calixto he asked him to remove his cell phone battery. “He was paranoid. He thought we might be bugged, taped or bugged,” Calixto said.
In a discussion in Calixto’s living room, Lopez told him what he’d done “was unethical” but that “it was his word against mine,” Calixto said.
Lopez said the investigators would believe him because he is a cop. “He said I would go to jail and lose my business. I was scared. I didn’t know what to think,” Calixto said.
During the discussion, Calixto said Lopez said “he could lose his job, his pension ... go to jail.” Lopez told Calixto not to call him anymore, believing the phones were tapped “and they could hear everything.”
A woman working in Calixto’s office, Mayra Colon, felt badly for Lopez and wanted to help him. She suggested fabricating a receipt for the snow plow and saying Calixto took the money when he was drinking and didn’t remember. Calixto gave the FBI the fake receipt but after consulting with his attorney called the agents and told them “the truth.”
He advised Colon to do the same, he said.
Two weeks later, Calixto was off the city tow list. He said he lost 95 percent of his business and now runs just a single tow truck. He works full-time as a driver for JRM Hauling and Recycling, he said.
Under cross examination by Cain, Calixto admitted his grand jury testimony in the case was postponed because he drank heavily the night before it was originally scheduled. He also said he paid Colon under the table and did not pay employment-related taxes for her.
“Did the IRS know you were paying Mayra under the table?” Cain asked.
“No,” Calixto replied.
Lopez, who earns $60,000 annually, was immediately placed on paid administrative leave after his indictment. While he hasn’t worked in more than a year, Lantigua, who Lopez supports politically, has allowed Lopez to stay on the city payroll.
Testimony in the case is expected to resume at 9 a.m. today.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski under the screenname EagleTribJill.