A retired Santa Barbara County probation officer accused of bilking his union out of several hundred thousand dollars, pleaded not guilty on Monday and a judge ordered his immediate release from jail over the objection of a prosecutor.

Manuel "Ed" Torres, 64, appeared from the Santa Barbara County Jail by video conference in a Santa Maria courtroom, where he entered the not guilty plea to 15 felony charges, including tax evasion, and denied five enhancements. 

The charges, which were filed on Friday, stem from a yearlong investigation in which Torres is accused of stealing more than $600,000 from the Santa Barbara County Probation Peace Officers Association over a 10-year period from 2009 to 2019. 

Torres was arrested on a warrant in the 4800 block of South Bradley Road in Orcutt and booked into jail shortly after 2 p.m. on Wednesday.

After an initial appearance in Santa Barbara court, Torres appeared in Santa Maria with his attorney, Michael Scott, along with Deputy District Attorney Brian Cota and Judge James Rigali, who stood in for Judge Gustavo Lavayen.

Rigali ordered Torres out of jail on his own recognizance based on a pretrial report that recommended supervised release, despite a request by Cota to keep bail at $500,000. 

Cota argued for the bail based on public safety concerns, adding that Torres was "despondent," expressed anger towards former colleagues and that a jail phone conversation between him and his wife indicated he was suicidal. 

"It's not just the prison sentence, it's the financial toll they see in their future that makes them despondent," Cota said. "These are all warning signs that I've seen before. "He knows where they live, where they work and where they go to eat." 

Scott argued for Torres' release, citing the report and Emergency Rule 4, which was adopted by the California Judicial Council in April and sets $0 bail for pretrial inmates on all except 13 types of crimes. Scott said that his client's charges aren't included on the rule's list. 

Additionally, Scott said Torres has no prior criminal record and suffers from numerous heart-related conditions that may put him at risk for coronavirus. 

Rigali acknowledged that Torres, who is a former sworn peace officer, could be at risk for harm inside the jail while awaiting trial. 

"If he is found guilty, he's going to have to be housed somewhere," Rigali said. "Solving it in the short term doesn't solve it in the long term either." 

Cota asked the judge to reserve restitution due the amount Torres allegedly embezzled from the association. In addition to a potential prison sentence, Torres could lose at least 10% of his retirement, Cota said. 

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Rigali's release order includes conditions, such as that Torres have no contact with his former employer and colleagues, does not possess weapons and that he report to San Luis Obispo County Probation Department's pretrial unit. 

Torres was ordered to appear at 1:30 p.m. on Sept. 11 in Department 7 of Santa Maria court. 

During the timespan of his alleged embezzlement, Torres cut several checks to himself totaling more than $635,000, which he deposited into his personal account, according to District Attorney's Office investigator Chris Clement. 

The association funds come from dues, which are deducted from the paychecks of probation officers, and some of the money is meant for legal representation for members. 

Torres served as association president for more than 20 years and was a county supervising probation officer until his retirement on July 12, 2019, according to Clement. He was also a high school girls basketball coach at St. Joseph's High School and Orcutt Academy. 

The investigation began in July 2019 after County Chief Probation Officer Tanja Heitman alerted District Attorney Joyce Dudley to the possibility of fraud.  

The investigation revealed that Torres forged the signature of Tara Presley on association checks, which take two signatures to clear. Presley, who left the association in 2010, was the only other person required to sign checks, according to Clement.  

Several colleagues said accessing the accounts remained a hot topic for many years, according to Clement. 

"They all described a culture and environment that made it perfectly clear to all of the association, that Torres was in charge and he knew what he was doing," Clement said. "Torres had been president of the [association] for so long, that no one challenged him."

The bail scheduled for Torres' alleged crimes was $320,000, although Clement requested a higher amount due to the "sophistication and duration" of his alleged embezzlement and because he was a sworn peace officer at the time, according to court records.