A Sweetwater police detective used a stolen license plate to shirk hundreds of highway tolls for months until he was pulled over for speeding on Florida’s Turnpike, authorities said.
Sweetwater Detective Octavio Oliu surrendered Thursday to face felony charges — more than one year after he was suspended from the scandal-plagued department.
Oliu, 42, is facing charges of official misconduct and organized scheme to defraud. His lawyer, C. Michael Cornerly, said the officer will fight the allegations.
“License plates and toll violations?” Cornely said. “The facts don’t live up to the enormity and seriousness of the charges.”
Sweetwater’s mayor, Jose Diaz, said in a statement that Oliu had been on unpaid leave. “I will not tolerate officers who betray the badge or the citizens of the city of Sweetwater,” he said.
The arrest is another black eye for the small West Miami-Dade city beset by the recent arrests of public officials.
Former Mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño is serving federal prison time for corruption, while former detective William Garcia is doing nine years behind bars for identity theft and credit card fraud.
Federal and state authorities have been investigating widespread allegations into corruption within the ranks of public officials. Another sergeant, Remy Garcia, was also suspended pending a criminal probe.
The investigation into Oliu began in August 2013 when a Florida Highway Patrol trooper pulled over his black Chevrolet SUV, which had been seen “weaving between vehicles at a high rate of speed,” according to an arrest warrant released by the Office of the Statewide Prosecutor.
The trooper ran a computer check of the SUV’s Michigan license plate and found that it had been reported stolen.
Oliu “acted surprised.” He flashed his Sweetwater police badge and said “he had obtained the tag from the tow yard that morning and had run it with negative results.”
An FHP dashboard video camera showed Oliu getting out of his car and rummaging through a stack of license plates in his SUV’s trunk. Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Miami-Dade public corruption investigators soon launched an investigation.
They discovered that the tag had belonged to a man named Oscar Marquez, who was arrested in August 2012 at a Best Buy parking lot on suspicion of possessing stolen credit cards. Within weeks, prosecutors dropped the case.
That day, Sweetwater police towed the truck. Marquez’s aunt got the truck back from the yard — but it was missing the license plate.
She repeatedly called Sweetwater police and was told “the tag would not be returned,” FDLE agent Octavio Agüero wrote in his warrant.
Stymied, the woman called police in Michigan to report the tag stolen. Meanwhile, agents believe, Oliu was racking up over 500 SunPass toll violations and even red-light camera citations.
“The use of impounded-confiscated tags is not condoned or authorized by the city of Sweetwater Police Department,” according to the warrant.
Sweetwater hired Oliu in 2010. Three years earlier, he had been forced to resign from his previous job as a Miami-Dade County cop.
Federal authorities are still investigating Garcia, Oliu and civilian red-light camera monitor Richard Brenner. According to sources, Brenner was suspended from Sweetwater because he was working as a police officer, including making arrests, without being a sworn member of the department.
In their warrant, FDLE agents noted that Brenner is pals with Oliu. “Brenner has refused to cooperate with the investigation,” according to the warrant.
Oliu and Brenner were named in a 2013 federal lawsuit filed by a special-needs teacher who they arrested after making a critical remark about Sweetwater police on Facebook. Prosecutors later dropped the case against the teacher; the lawsuit was recently settled.