MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA – When Leonel De La Cruz Alefo was driving to work one day last March in his 1995 Toyota Corolla, he was carrying with him the $1,700 in cash that he planned to put toward a newer car.
That money was taken from him — and has yet to be returned — when Montgomery police patrol officer Phillip Moultrie pulled him over under the pretext of a traffic stop. Alefo drove on to work that day with no money and no citation.
When Moultrie pulled him over a week later in the same area, near Troy Highway and Virginia Loop Road, Alefo did not have any cash to take. That day, Alefo, who works in the logging industry, drove on to work with a citation for allegedly running a red light.
Alefo was one of three Hispanic victims who came forward last year after Moultrie, a third-shift pa trol officer, pulled them over in the early morning hours on March 16, 20 and 24. Moul trie, who pleaded guilty last month, took a total of $2,562.25 from them.
The fourth victim was a confidential informant for MPD who used $1,500 of the city’s money.
Circuit Court Judge Johnny Hardwick sentenced Moultrie, 29, to 40 years in prison Wednesday. Moultrie received four 10-year sentences, which will be served consecutively. He faced two to 20 years on each count of theft from a person, which is considered a violent crime.
All of the victims are from Mexico and are not legal residents of the United States, which is what made them an easy target for Moultrie, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Daryl Bailey.
Moultrie said Wednesday that he saw the cash as “free money,” Bailey said.
On Wednesday, three of the victims told their stories with help from translator Sgt. O. Gonzalez of MPD.
All three victims said that they were afraid to report Moultrie because they feared retaliation and doubted that anything would be done about it.
Initially, Jose Juan Ruiz Prudencio said he was frustrated over losing $300 earned from lawn service jobs, but he was mostly thankful he was not given a ticket, even though he said he was never told what his offense was. Later, he said he felt violated and decided he had to do something to get his money back.
“At first I didn’t think justice was going to be done, because, after all, we are illegals in this country,” said Prudencio, who has been in Montgomery for eight years. (The outcome) changes everything. Even though we’re illegal, justice was done.”
Although Moultrie’s thefts and abuse of authority damages the public’s trust and erodes the relationship between law enforcement and the Hispanic community, Bailey said he hopes Wednesday’s sentencing will help restore some of that confidence.
“That sends the message to the Hispanic, and any other communities, that no one is above the law and that we will take these cases seriously and that we will prosecute them,” Bailey said Wednesday.
“A message has to be sent, not only to the community, that this is taken seriously, but also to law enforcement — don’t think about it because you will be caught and you will be prosecuted and this is what will happen to you,” Bailey added.
Moultrie also was ordered to compensate the victims for the money that was stolen.
A message left with Moultrie’s attorney, Leon David Walker, was not returned as of late Wednesday evening.
There is no evidence that Moultrie victimized other people in a similar way or that any other police officers participated in the thefts, Bailey said.
In the cases involving the non-informant victims, they did not realize their money was gone until after Moultrie finished reviewing their insurance and identification cards and conducting a pat down and even a vehicle search in at least one case. One of them, Edgar Salazar-Martinez, who had $350 stolen, said Moultrie appeared angry when the victim said he did not have a driver’s license.
Salazar-Martinez, who said he was initially confused and afraid when Moultrie started to search him, said he is still worried about retaliation. He said the police officer’s disregard for his well-being was atrocious to him, but he said sentencing has renewed his faith in the criminal justice system in America. Salazar-Martinez, who has a family, is a construction worker.
Alefo, who said the police are corrupt in Mexico, said he made the decision to report the theft to the mayor’s office instead of the Police Department. Alefo, who has been in Montgomery for three years, said he is still distrustful of law enforcement. Even so, Alefo said the 40-year sentence was encouraging, and if there are other victims, he said he hopes the news will give them the courage to come forward.
“There is obviously a huge disconnect between people who have come into this country from other countries and what they know about our legal system,” Bailey said. “There is a distrust among those people — of law enforcement, prosecutors, judges — and we work very hard … trying to dispel those myths.
“Mr. Moultrie was just a rogue police officer who let all of his brothers and sisters in law enforcement down on those days. Not only is he going to have pay for it, but the police officers have to pay for it because their reputation is tarnished, unfairly to them, because of him.”