Miami-Dade Police Sgt. Emil Van Lugo knows cars.
At age 16, he won his first car show with a tricked-out Nissan 280ZX. His recent trio of luxury rides includes a rarely driven 1985 Ferrari 308 GTS, red with a tan interior, the same model used by a certain mustached TV sleuth.
“Just like Magnum P.I. drove,” Lugo said.
So it is with considerable disdain that Lugo, 45, regards the recent charges levied against him: that he stole cheap, low-grade, county-owned fuel for his wife’s metallic black custom-designed BMW Four Series. For a car buff, the idea is blasphemy — and now central to his defense.
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“If anyone knows anything about cars, you can only use premium gas,” Lugo said. “This is a high-performance vehicle. I’m going to ruin it if I use that kind of gasoline.”
Speaking publicly for the first time since his arrest in May, Lugo isn’t holding back. He insists that investigators are also using faulty calculations to measure gas mileage for his Miami-Dade patrol car — and are misinterpreting his meticulous care-car habits.
Prosecutors formally charged Lugo last week with five misdemeanor counts of petty theft and a third-degree felony count of organized scheme to defraud.
Not exactly the crime of the century. In all, Lugo is accused of stealing $277.25 in county gas.
Prosecutors aren’t backing down. “We have full faith in the quality of our investigation and our case,” said State Attorney’s Office spokesman Ed Griffith. “We look forward to our day in court.”
As of late, the State Attorney’s Office has floored it on fuel cases.
On Thursday, prosecutors issued a press release to announce the arrest of a Miami-Dade County parks supervisor accused of stealing county fuel. And the state in April announced that a Hialeah fuel company agreed to pay over $90,000 in fines for illegally hiking up the price of gas sold to taxpayers.
Last year, authorities arrested Miami-Dade Police Officer Rose Stabio and her husband for filling up their personal cars from a county fueling facility. Each got their charges dismissed after completing a program for first-time offenders; Stabio agreed to leave police work.
As for Lugo, he’s a 16-year veteran who until his arrest supervised an afternoon patrol platoon in the Hammocks district in West Kendall. In January, he and his officers were named the department’s “unit of the month.”
Lugo, a regular at Florida luxury car shows, made $130,000 last year. He and his wife have no children, and can afford luxury cars because they are pre-owned, Lugo said.
At work, Lugo drove a 2007 Ford Crown Victoria, the ubiquitous cop car never to be confused with a ride from the Fast and the Furious films.
Internal affairs detectives zeroed in on Lugo after they received an anonymous tip about his curious fuel habits.
Police said they found that on his days off, Lugo made weekly trips to Fuel Site No. 17, a depot at 7900 SW 107th Ave., mostly used by drivers from the county's Solid Waste Department. After fueling up his patrol car, Lugo often filled up two spare red gas cans.
Detectives began video taping him secretly and surveilling his West Kendall home. On one occasion, they recorded him filling his wife’s BMW with a gas can.
“It is a shame that a veteran police officer would go out of his way to steal from Miami-Dade County just to save a few dollars on gasoline,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a press release at the time.
But according to Lugo and defense attorney David Edelstein, his habits stemmed from his car care.
In his garage, Lugo kept three Ferraris, but virtually never drove the luxury vehicles. He insists he keeps high-octane fuel, bought with his own money, in cans inside his garage to run the engines — and to occasionally fill his wife’s BMW.
But Lugo says he kept another pair of gas cans, filled up during his weekly stops at Fuel Site No. 17, just for his patrol car, to top it off during the week.
“When the detectives saw him filling up his wife’s car, there is no way to distinguish between the gas cans,” Edelstein said. “He was really filling up the BMW with the high-octane gas bought with his own money.”
Putting the cheap low-grade gas in the BMW would have also violated the terms of the car’s lease, Edelstein said.
Edelstein and Lugo may have to present their version to a jury.
For now, Lugo has been relieved of duty without pay. To help make ends meet and pay his legal defense, Lugo recently sold his third Ferrari 599 GTB – also red, with a tan interior.
Before his arrest, prosecutors offered to not file the case if he agreed to leave police work. No way, Lugo says.
“Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve wanted to be a police officer,” Lugo said. “And I’ve always had a passion for being on the right side of the law.”