A former San Diego County tribal police chief, who oversaw a department and officers who did not have recognized law enforcement authority, pleaded guilty Monday to stealing more than $300,000 from the Manzanita Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.
Anthony Reyes Vazquez, 49, of Camarillo, entered the plea in San Diego County federal court, admitting to one count of federal program theft for stealing from the tribe, whose reservation is in eastern San Diego County off Interstate 8.
Vazquez, who is not a member of the tribe, admitted in a plea agreement that he and other members of the Manzanita Tribal Police Department had no authority to enforce laws or identify themselves as law enforcement or peace officers.
Nevertheless, he gave police badges to wealthy individuals — most of whom resided in the Los Angeles area and had no law enforcement experience — in exchange for large payments or donations. The individuals, known as the VIP Group, used the badges to obtain privileges typically reserved for law enforcement officers, including carrying concealed weapons.
The payments for the badges ranged from $5,000 to $100,000, according to the plea agreement, which did not outline how many payments were made or the total amount.
Vazquez “spent a small proportion” of the payments on gifts or supplies for the tribe and the police department, and also paid kickbacks or commissions to those who helped him recruit members of the VIP Group, according to the plea agreement. Vazquez also paid himself a $2,000 monthly salary and pocketed about $300,000 of the VIP Group payments.
Vazquez also admitted in the plea agreement to owning at least 24 firearms and illegally transporting guns from Arizona to California, despite having two prior criminal convictions that prohibited him from owning or possessing firearms. He did not disclose the convictions to the Manzanita Band.
Defense attorney Michael Zweiback said in a phone interview Monday evening that his client “has accepted full responsibility for his actions and looks forward to sentencing to put this behind him.”
Zweiback declined to say whether Vazquez had any law enforcement training or credentials, and said more information about how he became police chief on the reservation would be disclosed closer to sentencing, which is slated for Jan. 24 before U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel.
Vazquez pleaded guilty the day the case was filed against him, a common occurrence when there have been pre-indictment negotiations between prosecutors and defense attorneys. Both Zweiback and Assistant U.S. Atty. Andrew Galvin declined to say whether prosecutors were investigating other people in connection with the scheme, but Zweiback implored prosecutors to do so.
“We urge the federal government to look into those individuals who sought out and received the credentials as volunteer police as well as opportunities to carry concealed firearms,” the defense attorney said.
Zweiback declined to say whether his client was cooperating with the government.
The acting chairwoman of the Manzanita Band of the Kumeyaay Nation did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Monday. Nor did the new chief of the Manzanita Tribal Police Department.
According to the plea agreement, Vazquez became the police chief in September 2012 after drafting a memorandum of understanding between the tribe and an unincorporated association known as the Manzanita Tribal Police Officer Assn. The agreement was signed by Vazquez, the tribe’s chairman and a tribal councilmember, and stated the Manzanita Tribal Police Department would have responsibility for enforcing all federal, state and tribal laws on the reservation.
Vazquez served as police chief until October 2018, recruiting unpaid volunteers as officers, according to the plea agreement.
“At no time was the Manzanita PD recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the state of California as a police department,” the plea agreement states. “At no time did members of the Manzanita PD, including (Vazquez), have the authority to identify themselves as either federal law enforcement officers, state law enforcement officers, or peace officers as that term is defined under California law.”
According to the plea agreement, Vazquez and others began recruiting members of the VIP Group in 2016. The VIP Group members paid large sums of money for badges but “were not expected to perform any law enforcement services … and many never visited the Manzanita Band reservation at all.”
Members of the VIP Group received their badges “upon making the requisite payment, not upon the completion of any training course,” according to the plea agreement. But their “Manzanita PD badge (purported) to give the holder the privilege to carry a concealed weapon.”
Vazquez faces up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced early next year, and has agreed to pay restitution of at least $300,000 to the Manzanita Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.
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