A private investigator working on behalf of the Costa Mesa Police Officers’ Association was sentenced today to a year in county jail for an array of crimes, including a plot to get the city’s mayor arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.
Christopher Joseph Lanzillo, 47, of Lake Arrowhead, had pleaded guilty on Sept. 28 to two felony counts of conspiracy to commit a crime of unlawful use of electronic tracking device, one felony count of false imprisonment by deceit and one felony count of conspiracy to commit a crime of falsely reporting crime to an agency. Besides 364 days in county jail, the former Riverside police officer was sentenced to three years formal probation.
His partner, Scott Alan Impola, 49, of Canyon Lake, faces the same charges heading into a scheduled pre-trial hearing on June 8. He and Lanzillo worked as private investigators for the former Upland-based law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill, and Ethir, which the Costa Mesa cop union retained to conduct “candidate research,” including surveillance on Costa Mesa city council members, in the months leading up to the November 2012 election.
As part of Lanzillo’s conviction, he signed this statement: “In Orange County, California, on and between 6/19/12-8/24/12 I and Scott Impola did unlawfully conspire together and with another person to commit the crime of unlawful use of electronic tracking device against Stephen Mensinger and Robert Wexler, in violation of Penal Code section 637.7(a). And on or about Aug. 22, 2012, [we] did unlawfully violate the personal liberty of Jim Righeimer by fraud and deceit. And on or about 8/22/12, I and Scott Impola did unlawfully conspire together and with another person to commit the crime of falsely reporting a crime to agency in violation of Penal Code section 148.5(c).”
Mensinger and Righeimer were Costa Mesa City Council candidates and later members who tried to reign in employee pension costs, something that put them at odds with the police department. Wexler was a lawyer with a firm being challenged by Lackie, Dammeier, McGill, and Ethir.
On June 19, 2012, Lanzillo purchased a GPS monitoring device using the alias Robert Teller with Teller Investigations. Between June 21 and July 12 of that year, Lanzillo has admitted to and Impola is accused of conspiring to place a GPS tracking device on the vehicle of an attorney with a law firm that competed against Lackie, Dammeier, McGill, and Ethir. Between that July 25 and Aug. 22, Lanzillo also admits to and Impola is accused of conspiring to place a GPS tracking device on the vehicle of Mensinger without his knowledge or permission to illegally track him, too.
“The emotional and physical impact on my family, which includes my wife, two sons, and 77-year-old mother in law, has been etched deep,” says Mensinger in a victim impact statement delivered in court today. “All of us have endured ridicule, innuendo and threats. This entire episode has had a severe impact on our family both personally and professionally. While I may have been the original target of the police union’s wrath, the truth is my family has paid a great price for me simply doing my job to protect the fiscal interest of the residents of Costa Mesa.”
Righeimer, who is still on the City Council, was Costa Mesa’s mayor on Aug. 22, 2012, when he joined then-Councilman Gary Monahan at his Skosh Monahan’s restaurant in town. Impola was allegedly there, too, trying to gather evidence to smear Monahan, who like Righeimer and Mensinger had rising city pension costs in his sites. Lanzillo arrived near the restaurant a short time later, and he communicated with Impola and Lackie, Dammeier, McGill, and Ethir Managing Partner Dieter Dammeier using their cell phones and through text messages.
Around 5:45 p.m., Righeimer left the restaurant in his vehicle and drove home after he had consumed two dark-colored beverages. Lanzillo called 9-1-1 and falsely reported that he observed a man stumble out of the location and into a vehicle that matched the description of Righeimer’s black Yukon. Lanzillo falsely reported that the Yukon was swerving on the road and that the driver may be under the influence of alcohol or disabled.
With Lanzillo watching from his parked white SUV, the councilman was briefly detained outside his home during the DUI investigation. But Righeimer passed a sobriety test and was determined to not be under the influence because he’d only consumed Diet Cokes, not alcohol, at Skosh Monahan’s.
Righeimer immediately went public with accusations that he was put under surveillance by the police union, which claimed the elected official was paranoid. But Lanzillo later admitted during questioning that Righeimer did not stumble out of the bar and was not swerving when he drove.
“It pains me that I feel unsafe in the city I live in,” says Righeimer in his victim impact statement. “I worry if my home will be serviced if I have to call 9-1-1. I worry if I need help that once they know who is calling that they might delay the response time. Our family has felt humiliation by the entire experience, we were the target to put the pressure on.”
Needless to say, Mensinger and Righeimer still have active lawsuits against the police union, the defunct law firm and the two P.I.’s.
OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.