A 52-year-old Westminster woman with back problems faces $1,592.72 in E-470 toll charges because the president of the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, who also headed the narcotics unit of the Longmont Police Department, used a stolen license plate that comes back as registered to her.

Police Tolls

Debra Romero stands for a portrait next to her new car that she is unable to register with the state because of unpaid toll bills on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 in Westminster. Romero faces nearly $1,592.72 in E-470 license plate toll bills because the Longmont Police Department has been using a stolen license plate that comes back as registered to her. Almost a year after contacting the police about the matter, the bills have not been paid and Romero cannot legally drive her new car because of the unpaid tolls. (Michael Ciaglo/Special to The Denver Gazette)

The state has barred the woman, Debra Romero, from renewing the registration for her car, which expired in May, until she pays off the unpaid tolls she didn’t accrue. She said she’s left with no car to drive and has had to rely on her two children to drive her to her appointments with a doctor as she considers undergoing her third back surgery.

“It’s got me down to depression because I don’t know who to talk to or what to do,” Romero said. “I reported it stolen, but they aren’t doing anything about it.”

When contacted by The Gazette, Longmont City Manager Harold Dominguez and Longmont Deputy Police Chief Jeff Satur promised to fix the situation, which they said was an oversight by the city.

“She does not deserve to be in that situation,” Satur said.

Dominguez said the matter was referred to the city’s risk management division for resolution months ago, but he said a search found no reimbursement from the city for the toll charges.

Police Tolls

Debra Romero shows two license plate toll photos with the same license plate, but different cars on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 in Westminster. Romero faces nearly $1,592.72 in E-470 license plate toll bills because the Longmont Police Department has been using a stolen license plate that comes back as registered to her. Almost a year after contacting the police about the matter, the bills have not been paid and Romero cannot register her new car because of the unpaid tolls. (Michael Ciaglo/Special to The Denver Gazette)

“We can’t find that payment was made, and we want to resolve that situation as fast as we can,” Dominguez said.

Internal police records show Acting Police Sgt. Stephen Schulz, who headed the Longmont Police Department’s narcotics unit, took the unclaimed recovered license plate from the police department’s property and evidence room and began using the plate on an unmarked take-home police car.

Internal police documents show the license plate issue caused controversy at the Longmont Police Department because the use of the plate skirted the way undercover license plates are supposed to be issued.

In an internal May 5th police memo, Longmont Police Commander Eric Hulett wrote he found the use of evidence room license plates on undercover take-home vehicles “to be very alarming and out of alignment with the proper practice of having the state issue special license plates for undercover police officers.”

The license plate foul-up is not the only issue at the police department involving Schulz, who is state president of the state FOP, the largest professional police advocacy group in Colorado.

Schulz and three other officers in the narcotics unit were placed on paid administrative leave for months while the city retained the Denver-based Investigations Law Group to investigate the narcotic’s unit workplace environment. Another officer had accused Schulz of using an epithet used against homosexuals to describe the way the officer looked for wearing a mask to protect himself from the COVID-19 virus, records show.

After that probe, the narcotics unit, which was called the special enforcement unit, was disbanded and folded into other operations at the police department. Schulz, who did not return telephone messages and emails seeking comment, has returned from administrative leave and is currently working in a unit that investigates gang activity. Dominguez declined to comment on the external investigation and how it was handled, stating it was a personnel matter that he could not discuss.

The internal police memo issued in May stated that nobody at the police department kept track of which evidence room license plates were being used and which officers were using the plates at any given time.

“This allowed them to operate with no tracking or accountability should someone call and complain on that license plate,” the memo further stated. Hulett in the memo said he worried the situation could potentially lead to “allegations of cover-up or inappropriate activity by the police, etc. This practice has been going on for years, but there was no specific policy or procedure about it.”

Romero’s saga began when her husband bought a 2007 Chevrolet Monte Carlo at a police auction in Denver in the Spring of 2020. Mark Duran, her husband, registered the car in her name, and then sold the car to a used car dealership and removed the plate and stored it away.

The couple say the plate was stolen from them, and then turned up in the back seat of an abandoned car, which the Longmont Police Department seized.  Duran said that when a police officer contacted him about finding the plate in an abandoned vehicle, he told the officer that he had sold the car, and that the plate needed to be destroyed.

Rather than the plate getting destroyed, it ended up on the unmarked police take-home truck driven by Schulz, who was the acting sergeant in the Longmont Police Department’s Special Enforcement Unit, according to internal police records. The plate has amassed the tolls that weren’t paid, those records show.

Romero said the E-470 toll system won’t waive the tolls even though she reported the license plate as stolen to the Adam’s County Sheriff’s Office in October.

The internal police memo states that Schulz wanted to use narcotics funds to take care of the situation when the matter needed instead to be referred to the city’s risk management division for resolution.

“At best, this would be circumventing established and proper city practices and at worst could be interpreted as an attempt to pay someone under the table, to hide an embarrassing mistake made by the unit,” the memo stated.

“I was also concerned that Acting Sgt. Schulz was trying to get my permission to circumvent normal procedures, and if circumstances had been slightly different, he may not have told me about it at all,” the memo from Hulett continued. “I also was very curious how he managed to run up a toll bill in excess of $1,000 in just nine months of driving his departmental take home vehicle.”

Romero said that Schulz contacted her after she filed a report with the Adam’s County Sheriff’s Office and said the tolls would be taken care of by the department. She said Schulz left a cell number for her to call and follow-up, but that when she called that number, it showed as an invalid number.

Meanwhile, Romero said she’s at the mercy of her children when it comes to scheduling her appointments.

“I have a hard time walking,” she said. “I’m disabled. I have doctor follow-ups and physical therapy appointments, and the only way I can get to them is to have my kids available to take me because I can’t drive my car if I can’t get the registration renewed.”

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