Las Vegas police have obtained a rare court order to seize two homes that former water officials are alleged to have bought with bribe money.
Chief District Judge Jennifer Togliatti quietly signed a "search and seizure warrant" on May 16, saying she had found "sufficient grounds" to seize the homes.
But she sealed a police affidavit justifying the seizures because of the ongoing investigation into the activities of Robert Coache and Michael E. Johnson.
Coache, 52, a retired deputy state engineer with the Nevada Division of Water Resources, and Johnson, 51, a former chief hydrologist for the Virgin Valley Water District, are charged in a $1.3 million bribery scheme.
They are accused of unlawfully taking the kickback to help a wealthy Bunkerville landowner sell Virgin River water rights to the Southern Nevada Water Authority for $8.4 million and then laundering the bribe money through a series of transactions, including the purchase of the two homes.
Prosecutors said Thursday they don’t recall the district attorney’s office ever obtaining an order for police to seize a home in a criminal case.
Detectives have not physically taken possession of the two homes linked to Coache and Johnson or evicted its residents because they don’t want to be responsible for the upkeep of the homes in a declining real estate market, prosecutors said.
Police, however, have filed the seizure documents in District Court and with the Clark County recorder, which prosecutors think will act as liens and prevent the owners from selling the properties.
Prosecutors also now have the option of initiating civil forfeiture proceedings for police to formally take ownership of the homes. Forfeitures usually occur after criminal proceedings.
Coache and Johnson bought one of the homes under the name of Cibola Investments, a company they owned. Records show they paid $139,000 in September 2008 for the four-bedroom home at 9582 Bighorn Ranch Ave., near Sunset and Fort Apache roads.
Coache provided the money for his son, Jordan, to buy the other home at 8724 Melissa Meadows St., police allege. The 3,692-square-foot, four-bedroom home, near Jones Boulevard and Horse Drive, was bought for $215,250 in August 2008, records show.
Police allege Coache and Johnson funneled the money they received from the Bunkerville landowner, John Lonetti Jr., through a company called Rio Virgin LLC. Lonetti, 77, who was interviewed by detectives, has not been charged in the case.
Defense lawyer Bret Whipple, who represents Coache, said Thursday that he’s not surprised by the home seizures.
"They’ve been freezing money that’s coming out of that particular fund," he said. "This is to be expected."
Whipple said police have frozen bank and investment accounts belonging to both defendants.
Whipple contends that investigators "missed the mark" and that Coache never got any money from Lonetti.
But Chief Deputy District Attorney Marc DiGiacomo has argued that police have well documented the financial links between Lonetti and both defendants.
DiGiacomo said last week that detectives have been unable to recover nearly $1 million of the $1.3 million involved in the arrangement.
The indictment alleged the former water officials carried out the bribery scheme between Jan. 1, 2006, and May 21, 2008, while both men had their public jobs. They continued to launder the proceeds of the bribe until Sept. 13, the indictment alleges.
Coache, who is free on $250,000 bail, retired from his state job in May 2010, and Johnson, who was looking to post his $250,000 bail soon , resigned under fire from the Virgin Valley Water District in August.
Their arraignment before District Judge Abbi Silver on the 50-count indictment was continued until Tuesday.
Contact Jeff German at email@example.com or 702-380-8135.