Calif. deputy chief accused of impersonating cop in road rage incident

The Orange County Fire Authority deputy chief of operations, who abruptly retired last week, allegedly threatened to arrest a motorist who gave him the middle finger


Tony Saavedra
The Orange County Register

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — A top-ranking Orange County Fire Authority official who abruptly retired last week amid allegations he impersonated a police officer in his unmarked fire vehicle left a woman "terrified" during an act of road rage, according to a police report obtained by the Orange County Register.

Mark "Pokey" Sanchez stepped down Friday as the agency's deputy chief of operations stemming from the December 2019 incident in Laguna Niguel that has triggered a criminal investigation by the Orange County District Attorney's Office.

Orange County Fire Authority Deputy Chief of Operations Mark
Orange County Fire Authority Deputy Chief of Operations Mark "Pokey" Sanchez, who abruptly retired last week, was accused of impersonating a police officer during a road rage incident in 2019, according to a police report. (Photo/Orange County Fire Authority)

According to the Orange County Sheriff's Department report obtained by the Register, a woman called 911 after she was pulled over by an unidentified motorist.

The 50-year-old Laguna Niguel resident and her daughter were leaving Bergeson Elementary School in her Hyundai Santa Fe at 3:45 p.m on Dec. 11, 2019, according to the report. As she made a left turn onto Rancho Niguel Road, the woman noticed a white SUV speeding north that almost hit her car.

The woman made an obscene gesture, displaying her middle finger, at the speeding SUV, which turned on its flashing lights and ordered her on the vehicle's public address system to pull over, the report said.

Threatened arrest

The SUV pulled up alongside the woman's car, with its passenger window to her driver's window.

"The driver told (the woman) he was a cop, was going to arrest her and that he had her on video," the report said. "The driver of the SUV told (the woman) not to disrespect him."

He then demanded the woman apologize, and she did, according to the report.

The woman heard the driver tell someone on a portable radio, "I'm going to cancel this arrest," and heard the reply, "OK."

The encounter left the woman "terrified" and unsure if she had spoken to a police officer, the report said. Her daughter wrote down the license plate number of the SUV. Deputies determined the vehicle was registered to the Orange County Fire Authority.

The driver was wearing a white baseball cap and a white T-shirt, the woman told the responding deputy.

Initial case closed

Weeks later, on Jan. 2, 2020, sheriff's Capt. Jeffrey Puckett called the Fire Authority and spoke to "fire investigator Pokey Sanchez," according to a second report. Sanchez told the captain he had peace officer authority and pulled the woman over for crossing a double-yellow line, according to the sheriff's report.

The report said the allegation of impersonating an officer was unfounded and the sheriff's case would be closed.

The Fire Authority said Tuesday that Sanchez never worked as an investigator during his 35-year tenure with the agency.

In general, fire chiefs and firefighters do not have the police power to make arrests and detain motorists, said Meagan Catafi, a spokeswoman for the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. Catafi, however, could not speak to this specific case.

DA's Office gets a tip

The Orange County District Attorney's Office was notified of the incident through an independent tip and determined through its own investigation that Sanchez had lied to sheriff's deputies, said office spokeswoman Kimberly Edds. She declined to elaborate.

The Fire Authority, which was created in 1995, provides protection for all unincorporated areas in Orange County and 25 cities.

In an email to the rank-and-file, OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy referred to a Register story on Jan. 15 that mentioned the D.A.'s investigation and said he was not able to comment on "statements made in the article."

"Despite the concerns that the article may raise, let us not forget that we are celebrating the service of our colleague to this community and wish him well in his retirement," Fennessy wrote.

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(c)2021 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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