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Ex-Calif. Officer Pleads Guilty to Buying, Selling Stolen Goods

San Diego Union Tribune

SAN DIEGO, Calif. - A former San Diego police officer, who bought thousands of dollars of stolen property from thieves and resold it on eBay while on the force, pleaded guilty Thursday to four counts of receiving stolen property.

James Estrella, 45, went on voluntary leave in March and is no longer a member of the department where he worked for 12 years, police officials said.

An emotional Estrella, who changed his plea on the day his preliminary hearing was to take place, faces a maximum of two years in custody when sentenced Jan. 13 by Judge Browder Willis.

"He realized what's at stake and what he's lost," said defense attorney Kerry Steigerwalt. "He never intended to bring dishonor among his colleagues. He's ready to redeem himself."

Steigerwalt said his client developed a "passion" for a "hobby" of buying and selling merchandise, which ultimately served as a "breeding ground" for criminals.

"He just walked too close to the line," Steigerwalt said outside court."He just got too close to the edge."

Estrella knew some of the items he bought were stolen, but became vulnerable when he realized he could buy merchandise at sizably reduced prices, Steigerwalt said.

The defendant's wife pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of receiving stolen property. Attorney Tom Matthews said his client acted as the office manager for her husband's online business.

"More than anything she was naive," Matthews told reporters.

Ruthy Estrella, 36, is not expected to receive any additional custody time when sentenced the same day as her husband. The judge ordered her released from jail immediately.

The investigation began in May, when sheriff's deputies arrested a suspect who had a carload of sweatshirts stolen from a Poway clothing distributor.

The arrestee eventually was linked to a burglary of sound equipment from an Escondido congregation.

Detectives did an online search and connected the officer to the sale of the church's stolen equipment on eBay, prosecutor Garry Haehnle said.

At the couple's July 23 arraignment, Haehnle said the pair sold $8,000 worth of bicycles, 47 machines used to find power faults valued at $5,000 each, 70 Callaway golf shafts valued at $70 each and an $18,000 global positioning system that was stolen in Vista.

Haehnle said $200,000 in stolen merchandise was seized when officers searched the couple's Chula Vista warehouse following their arrests.

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