LOS ANGELES – Two Los Angeles-area men who unlawfully sold or purchased police badges from a southeastern San Diego County tribe – one who lied to the FBI about the scheme, the other who was arrested while high on drugs while carrying a stash of firearms and claiming to be a police officer – have agreed to plead guilty, the Justice Department announced today.
The two defendants named in court papers filed Tuesday are:
- Colin Gilbert, 80, of Marina del Rey, who has agreed to plead guilty to one count of making false statements, which carries a statutory maximum sentence of five years in federal prison; and
- Akiva Grunewald, 45, of West Los Angeles, who has agreed to plead guilty to one count of bribery, a crime that carries a penalty of up to 10 years in federal prison.
Gilbert and Grunewald are expected to formally enter guilty pleas in the coming weeks.
According to court documents, beginning in 2016, Gilbert and others recruited wealthy people to join the Manzanita Tribal Police Department. Gilbert lived approximately 177 miles – three hours by car – from the Manzanita Reservation, was not a member of and had no affiliation with the Manzanita Tribe. The wealthy individuals were asked to make a large payment, ranging from $5,000 to $100,000 and sometimes styled as a “donation,” in exchange for membership in the Manzanita PD, which they wanted because of the benefits they believed having law enforcement credentials would bring them.
In August 2019, Gilbert arranged for an individual whom Gilbert understood had no prior law enforcement experience or training to become a member of the Manzanita Tribal Police Department after making a $5,000 payment. The buyer told Gilbert that his primary motivation for obtaining the badge was so he could carry a concealed firearm without a permit.
During a November 2019 interview with the FBI, Gilbert lied, in part, by telling agents “…everybody that I had brought on had proper credentials, had the proper training, had everything done correctly,” according to his plea agreement. Gilbert then falsely told the FBI that everyone, including the newest recruit, had taken a specific law enforcement training class before receiving credentials, even though Gilbert knew this individual had not. After his interview with the FBI, Gilbert called the new recruit and asked him to return the credentials and, if ever asked, deny having received them.
For his part, in July 2018, Grunewald corruptly gave the Manzanita Tribal Police Department chief $20,000, intending to obtain a tribal police badge. Grunewald had never served as, or trained to become, a law enforcement officer and had never served in the military or as a private security officer. Instead, Grunewald’s motivation was to conceal-carry firearms in California without getting a permit.
After obtaining the badge, in August 2018, Grunewald – then an addict and unlawful user of oxycodone and other narcotics – was pulled over by Culver City Police after an officer saw Grunewald run across a busy street and enter a black Range Rover that was missing a front license plate, had tinted windows, and had a rear license plate that rightfully belonged to a different car.
During the traffic stop, Grunewald displayed his Manzanita PD badge out of his window and identified himself as a police officer. Grunewald “was shaking visibly, sweating, and appeared extremely nervous,” his plea agreement states.
The police officer asked Grunewald to exit the vehicle after Grunewald said he was carrying a firearm on his right hip. During a search of the vehicle and Grunewald himself, law enforcement recovered two loaded firearms, approximately 43 oxycodone pills, a police gun belt with handcuffs, a collapsible baton, a tactical vest, pepper spray, and numerous other badges and credentials associated with other law enforcement agencies.
After his August 2018 Culver City arrest resulted in the seizure of his badges, Grunewald then asked the Manzanita Tribal Police chief for another badge. Grunewald then used these new credentials to purchase several firearms, including a semi-automatic rifle. During these gun buys, Grunewald lied on federal forms that he was not an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance when, in fact, he was.
In May 2019, Los Angeles Police arrested Grunewald, who possessed firearms and ammunition and was under the influence of oxycodone at the time, following multiple 911 phone calls reporting indecent exposure at a gas station, with an undressed man – Grunewald – in distress, hitting himself.
Grunewald, who was sweating profusely, again identified himself as a police officer and told law enforcement he had taken Percocet and Ambien. Police found two Manzanita PD badges and other law enforcement ID on Grunewald’s person. Police searched Grunewald’s black Range Rover and found four firearms, including the semi-automatic rifle, along with more than 200 rounds of ammunition.
Federal prosecutors in October 2021 secured a guilty plea from Anthony Reyes Vazquez, 51, of Oxnard, who admitted to stealing more than $300,000 while serving as the head of the Manzanita Tribal Police from 2012 to 2018. Vazquez pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in San Diego to one count of theft concerning programs receiving federal funds. Vazquez sold fake badges to buyers who made substantial payments to become members of the Manzanita Tribal Police Department and have privileges available to law enforcement officers, such as carrying concealed weapons.
Vazquez is scheduled for sentencing on April 29, 2024.
The FBI in Los Angeles and San Diego investigated this matter with substantial assistance from the Culver City Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department.
Assistant United States Attorney Frances S. Lewis of the Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section is prosecuting this case.