EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 9, 2013

Cop guilty in towing kickback scheme

By Jill Harmacinski

---- — BOSTON — Lawrence Police Officer P.J. Lopez walked out of federal court yesterday a guilty man.

A U.S. District Court jury convicted him of bribery and related charges connected to a towing kickback scheme he arranged with M & W Towing of Lawrence and its owner Wilson Calixto.

Lopez, 47, showed no emotion as Judge Mark Wolf’s clerk read the jury’s unanimous guilty verdicts for bribery, obstruction of justice and lying to a federal agent. Members of Lopez’s family, including his children, who were seated in the first row of the courtroom gallery, cried and consoled one another as the verdicts were handed down.

The jury deliberated for three hours.

A police officer in Lawrence for the past 16 years, Lopez remains free until his sentencing on Jan. 14. Judge Wolf said he could go to Salem, N.H., to do errands but otherwise must remain in Massachusetts until sentencing. Lopez has already turned in his expired passport to the federal probation office in Boston. He must now call the probation office on a daily basis and visit the office weekly pending sentencing, Wolf ordered.

Prosecutors expressed concern over Lopez being freed after the verdict as his wife owns a home in the Dominican Republic, of which they said they had photographs.

Lopez faces up to 20 years in prison on the obstruction charge, up to 10 years on the bribery charge and five years maximum for lying to a federal agent. He can also be fined up to $250,000 on each charge, according to information provided by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office.

Lopez, a political supporter of Mayor William Lantigua, has remained on the city payroll at $60,000 a year since his Sept. 25, 2012 indictment. It was unclear last night if Lantigua would order Lopez taken off the payroll.

It was also unclear if Lopez plans to file an appeal of the convictions. Defense attorney Alex Cain declined comment last night.

Lopez was convicted for his involvement in the M & W Towing scheme, which involved him purchasing several vehicles at reduced rates and receiving a $4,000 snow plow in exchange for sending an increase in police-ordered tows to M & W from December 2010 to June 2011.

M & W at that time was one of four city companies that towed for the city of Lawrence on a rotating basis. Calixto, who was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony against Lopez, said he made roughly $150 off every tow ordered by police.

Last Tuesday, the day the trial opened, Calixto testified at length about his arrangement with Lopez. He said he gave the officer reduced rates on car purchases — a Suzuki Reno, Ford Escape and Nissan Altima — and also gave him a $4,000 snow plow in exchange for sending extra tows to M & W.

Mayra Colon, who worked under the table at M & W as Calixto’s secretary, testified last week that after the FBI started questioning her and others about Lopez, she created a fake receipt showing Lopez paid $4,000 for a snow plow. Colon was also granted immunity from prosecution.

She then told Calixto to lie to FBI agents by saying Lopez had paid the $4,000 but he had forgotten he was paid because he was drunk. Calixto, when he testified, acknowledged he had had a drinking problem.

Colon later told FBI agents she fabricated the receipt and made up the payment story.

Calixto, in his testimony, said he repeatedly went along with Lopez because he didn’t want to get thrown off the Lawrence tow list or blackballed in city business.

Calixto, who once had seven tow trucks, now only has one truck he runs out of this home. He works full-time as a driver for JRM, he said.

An FBI analyst also provided a year-to-year comparison of tows ordered by Lopez during the time frame covered by the indictments.

In Janary 2011, Lopez ordered 30 tows during M & W’s tow week, according to the analysis.

Also, in February 2010, Lopez ordered three tows during M & W’s tow week. A year later, during the same respective tow week, he called for 48 M & W tows, according to the FBI calculations.

Prosecutor William Bloomer, in his closing argument yesterday, said this case was about a police officer sworn to uphold the law who exploited the public’s trust for personal gain. Calixto, Colon and Carlos Ortiz, an M & W tow truck driver, “are the people he chose to rope into this conspiracy,” he said.

They all considered Lopez their friend, said Bloomer, noting Colon broke into tears as she testified against him. When Calixto, Colon and Ortiz were on the stand “they couldn’t bring themselves to look at the defendant,” Bloomer said.

Calixto, Bloomer emphasized to jurors, said that he was afraid not to go along with Lopez’s plan, fearing he’d lose business.

“He was afraid if he didn’t go along with the defendant’s proposal, he’d be shut off,” Bloomer said. “There was an understanding here. Lopez generated a significant amount of tows for M & W, and in exchange he’d get stuff.”

Bloomer also noted Calixto and Colon did lie to federal agents during the investigation and later cooperated, telling the truth. But he said neither of them benefitted from any of the lies. Instead it was “their good friend P.J. Lopez” who did.

“They were trying to protect him,” he said.

Cain told jurors the burden of proof fell on prosecutors and they failed. “This case rises or falls on the credibility of Wilson Calixto, Mayra Colon and Carlos Ortiz,” Cain said. Ortiz was an M & W tow truck driver who also testified against Lopez.

On the stand, Calixto admitted he was engaged in IRS tax fraud. And Colon, who worked under the table at M & W while collecting disability payments, lied to both a federal grand jury and federal agents, Cain said.

As FBI agents investigated, Colon took it upon herself to create a fake receipt for the $4,000 snow plow and concoct a story about Lopez paying Calixto for the plow but not recalling due to drunkenness. Lopez had no idea she was doing this, Cain said.

“At no point did she consult with Mr. Lopez,” Cain said. “At no point did Mr. Lopez encourage (Colon) to do this. At no point did he ask them to do this.”

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.