Column: When a sheriff OKs harassing a pastor for a Batmobile, it’s time for accountability

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

People who’ve had a relative killed by deputies, for example, and can’t get any answers about what happened because a sheriff refuses to be transparent about the department’s internal investigation.

Or people who’ve filed a complaint about being wrongfully detained or roughed up by a deputy only to hear nothing back because a sheriff is resistant to oversight.

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 pastor from Indiana named Mark Racop.

He has become ensnared in a ridiculous criminal investigation over 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 to Fiberglass Freaks, the shop where he has been building officially licensed, 1966-era 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, Ind. — thousands of miles out of their jurisdiction, midway between Chicago and Indianapolis, with taxpayers footing the bill — on the orders of Bolanos.

Weeks earlier, Bay Area real estate agent Sam Anagnostou, who through his company, donated $1,000 to Bolanos’ ultimately unsuccessful reelection bid, had approached the sheriff about Racop.

Back in 2017, Anagnostou ordered a $210,000 custom Batmobile from Fiberglass Freaks, with the expectation of Racop completing it sometime in 2018.

But delays happened. The pandemic happened. And Anagnostou didn’t make a payment for almost nine months. In the meantime, Racop — adhering to the rules spelled out in the sales contract about missed payments — moved another customer ahead of Anagnostou.

By 2021, Anagnostou had grown so impatient and so angry that he tried getting his local Atherton Police Department to investigate and persuade the San Mateo County district attorney’s office to file charges against Racop. No luck. Then he tried filing a lawsuit in California, alleging fraud. No luck there either. The judge ruled that Indiana would be the proper venue for hearing the case.

Bolanos was Anagnostou’s last hope.

“In an era where law enforcement is under such siege, this seems like this was not 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 establish credibility with people, not do things that look like we’re doing favors. And that’s kind of, unfortunately, what this looks like.”

Indeed, the optics are so bad that the Board of Supervisors has been flooded with calls and emails from angry constituents.

As a result, the county has asked the California attorney general’s office to investigate what happened. And on Saturday, the county retained retired Superior Court Judge Winifred Y. Smith to launch yet another investigation.

“What we can do is extremely limited,” said Horsley, who was sheriff of the county for 14 years. “This is the California Constitution. The sheriff is an elected officer. We can’t remove them from office. And nor would we over one particular incident, but it is a heck of an incident.”

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Full disclosure: I know Racop. Well, Mark.

I met him about six years ago, when he officiated the wedding of two longtime friends, Dawn and Jeff. He’s a geeky guy, a filmmaker whose love of the Batman began as a kid. He legit wanted to be the Dark Knight when he grew up and, while he doesn’t regularly wear a cowl and cape, loves to shout: “To the Batmobile!”

I frankly hadn’t thought about Mark in years. Then, a few days ago, Dawn woke me up muttering and squinting at a Facebook post on her phone.

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

(Mark Racop)

“Mark got hemmed up by some California sheriffs.”

“What?”

“California sheriffs!”

I should mention this conversation happened in Las Vegas, first thing in the morning after my birthday celebration. Well, it might have been in the afternoon. It’s hard to tell in Vegas sometimes. But Dawn gamely plowed ahead, relaying the wild, convoluted story about Mark — first reported by KGO-TV in San Francisco.

I needed to know more. So I called up Mark.

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

A spokesperson for Bolanos didn’t return a request for comment.

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

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

Mark didn’t know it then, but he had been charged with two felonies, including for fraud. He since has had to hire an attorney in California “at 695 bucks an hour with a huge retainer” — and do it with a frozen bank account.

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

“The evidence was submitted to three different judges here in San Mateo County, the first search warrants and the final one for the arrest warrant and they all said yeah, there’s reasonable cause to believe a crime has been committed,” he said.

Still, given the backlash — not to mention the speculation, since Anagnostou’s company donated to the district attorney’s campaign as well — Wagstaffe has backed off.

He has vowed to take a closer look at the case and get Mark’s side of the story. Already he has delayed an Aug. 19 order to appear in court in San Mateo County.

“I think we need a lot more when you have a victim, a wealthy victim, who’s spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars to build a Batmobile,” Wagstaffe told me. “That conveys a certain image to a jury. I think a jury of our citizens would require some very clear evidence that a fraud has occurred.”

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

Voters will decide whether to amend the county charter to allow the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to remove a sheriff from office. To do so, at least four of the five supervisors would have to agree that he or she is no longer fit to serve.

It’s an option available to all charter counties in California, including San Mateo County.

Of course, the L.A. County ballot measure stems from supervisors’ long-running public battle with Villanueva. But there are sheriffs all over California brazenly testing and abusing public trust without any real accountability between elections, as the San Mateo County mess illustrates.

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

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

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

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

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