From the Los Angeles Times
Another Turn in Ferrari Saga
Investigators in the wreck of a showpiece car ask how a small firm started a police department and find that it's quite easy.
By Richard Winton and David Pierson
Times Staff Writers
March 8, 2006
Sheriff's officials investigating the crash of a Ferrari in Malibu last month are asking how a small private transit company could create its own police department and allegedly hand out law enforcement identification to civilians, including the car's owner.
According to Yosef Maiwandi, it wasn't as difficult as you might think.
The San Gabriel Valley Transit Authority is a tiny, privately run organization that provides bus rides to disabled people and senior citizens. It operates out of an auto repair shop.
Maiwandi is the owner of Homer's Auto Service in Monrovia and is also one of three San Gabriel Valley Transit Authority commissioners.
Maiwandi said he started the nonprofit organization after receiving a bus in a trade for several motorcycles. He decided to use that bus and four others he later purchased to help transport disabled people in his community. The transit agency has memorandums of understanding with Sierra Madre and Monrovia to transport disabled people.
He said he formed the San Gabriel Valley Transit Authority Police Department shortly afterward in part because he has long been interested in police work. He also found that having a police department allowed him to do background checks on potential volunteers more quickly and seek federal money for security on the buses.
It is there where the story of the little transit authority intersects with the story of the rare Ferrari, which crashed last month in Malibu.
The Ferrari's owner, Stefan Eriksson, showed deputies a card stating that he was deputy police commissioner of the San Gabriel Transit Authority Police's anti-terrorism division. A few minutes after the crash, two other men who said they were with Homeland Security appeared at the scene and eventually took Eriksson away.
"We are just trying to help people," Maiwandi said, adding that he feels his agency is being unfairly tarnished because of his association with the Ferrari crash. "I wish he was driving a Corvette."
Maiwandi said he came in contact with Eriksson from another member of the transit board, Eriksson's civil attorney, Ashley Posner. Neither Posner nor Eriksson would comment.
Maiwandi said Eriksson approached him with an offer. Eriksson volunteered to install free surveillance cameras and a "facial recognition scan" — which could compare a person's image to one depicted in a wanted poster — on a bus to show law enforcement agencies how that could be helpful in catching criminals. He said he had given a similar system to transit agencies in England.
After a background check on Eriksson came back clean, Maiwandi said, he told the businessman he could use the authority's five buses to install the equipment.
In return for his volunteer efforts, Eriksson was made a deputy commissioner of the police department and given business cards. But Maiwandi denied that the other two men who said they were with Homeland Security had anything to do with his organization.
Although the department's website suggests that it is a fully functioning police agency, Maiwandi acknowledged that it consists of six people, including himself and the chief, who he said is a former Los Angeles police officer who volunteers his services.
State public utility regulations allow transit agencies to create police departments — even if they are not certified by the state's central training body for peace officers.
Typically, such private police departments are established by universities — such as Stanford, USC and Whittier College — or transit agencies like the Napa Valley Railroad.
But forming a police department is not as big a deal as it might seem.
State officials said police agencies cannot arrest people unless their personnel meet training and hiring standards set down by state law.
Most local police agencies are certified by California's Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training. But Alan Deal, a spokesman for the agency, said the San Gabriel Valley Transit Authority Police Department has not been certified.
Without meeting state standards, a police officer has few powers beyond that of a security guard, who can carry weapons and make citizen's arrests.
Deal said that his agency has discovered that several railroad agencies around California have created police departments — even though the companies have no rail lines in California to patrol. The police certification agency is seeking to decertify those agencies because it sees no reason for them to exist in California.
The issue of private transit firms creating police agencies has in recent years been a concern in Illinois, where several individuals with criminal histories created railroads as a means of forming a police agency.
Eriksson, 44, is a former executive with the video game machine company Gizmondo who left the firm shortly before a Swedish newspaper ran allegations that he had been convicted of counterfeiting a decade before in Sweden. Officials at the Swedish National Police confirmed Tuesday that he has a criminal record.
No one was injured when the rare Ferrari Enzo smashed into a power pole on Pacific Coast Highway at 162 mph. But the case continues to generate interest because the Ferrari is one of only 400 built, and detectives have struggled to understand what happened.
Eriksson told investigators he was a passenger in the Ferrari and that the driver was a man named Dietrich, who fled. But officials have been skeptical, noting that Eriksson had a bloody lip and the only blood found was on the driver's side air bag.
The transit authority is being examined by detectives on the Ferrari case as well as the sheriff's homeland security division.
And those officials aren't the only one curious.
Shelly Verrinder, executive director of Access Services, a county agency that provides transportation for the disabled, said she first heard of the San Gabriel Valley Transit Authority more than a month ago when a rider from an advisory committee said she used it.
Verrinder asked her staff to inquire about the transit authority, thinking that Access might work with the agency in the future.
So Verrinder had one of her staffers set up an appointment to meet the transit authority last Thursday at the Monrovia location — the auto shop — to receive a tour of the agency's facility. But before they met, a transit authority official called to cancel the meeting, saying that the group was preparing for an audit.
The rider from the advisory committee was Temple City resident Patricia Lafrance. She said she has used the transit authority buses about a dozen times over the last month.
"The experience has been wonderful," Lafrance, 63, said.