The four loud bangs startled Richard Statner, who was driving up the Dublin Grade on east Interstate 580. “It sounded like something was banging into the sheet metal of my truck,” he said of the noises, which came at one-second intervals. He glanced to his right, but it was dark and he saw nothing. The mysterious clanging soon stopped, and since his Ford Ranger was handling okay, he shrugged off the incident and headed home. Two days went by before he discovered the four bullet holes. Someone had been shooting at him.
The 48-year-old Dublin resident’s pickup was one of eight vehicles struck by bullets nearly eleven months ago along a stretch of 580 between San Leandro and Castro Valley. They were all victims of the so-called East Bay Sniper.
Coming about a year and a half after the case of the infamous DC sniper, the 580 shootings drew intense media attention. Each day, it seemed, a new report surfaced about another victim. It was as if the sniper was prowling East Bay freeways every night. Lost in the din of the news coverage was that all of the shootings reportedly occurred in a single hour on the evening of February 23. It just seemed as though the sniper had gone on a weeklong rampage because several victims didn’t notice the bullet holes in their vehicles for a few days.
No one was injured, but the wall-to-wall news coverage created a commuter panic. Hundreds of tips poured in as police helicopters buzzed over the Castro Valley area. It was as if every time a pebble hit a car, its driver was sure the sniper had struck again. People were afraid to drive at night.
Under fierce pressure to solve the case, the California Highway Patrol announced a major breakthrough on March 11. At a packed press conference in Dublin, the CHP identified Christopher Charles Gafford of Stockton as the East Bay Sniper. Highway patrol brass were not shy about congratulating themselves for tracking down and arresting the 27-year-old construction worker, who had a drug problem and owned several guns. The announcement made national news. East Bay freeways were once again safe to drive, CHP officials said proudly.
But less than 24 hours later, the highway patrol was dealt an embarrassing blow. The Alameda County District Attorney’s office tersely announced that not only was there insufficient evidence to charge Gafford with eight counts of attempted murder, there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him with any crime.
In public, highway patrol officials downplayed the DA’s stunning announcement. Suspects are often rearrested and charged when investigators develop more evidence, they assured reporters. “We’re positive it’s him,” CHP spokesman Sergeant Wayne Ziese told reporters. “He’s our prime suspect.”
But interviews and unpublished crime reports reveal that the CHP had little evidence to back up its boasts. Only three of the eight shooting victims had seen anyone at all, and none could identify Gafford. None properly identified his vehicle. Nor did any of his guns match the bullet fragments found in the victims’ vehicles. An examination of CHP crime reports even raises questions about whether all the bullets could have been fired by a single gunman. And while there have been no reported shootings on Interstate 580 in the ten months since Gafford was arrested, there also were no additional incidents in the sixteen days leading up to his arrest.
The highway patrol’s case turned out to be so flimsy that county prosecutors wouldn’t take it, and many California law-enforcement officials do not believe Gafford was the sniper. But that didn’t stop the CHP. Anxious to solve the crime and put the public’s fears to rest, the highway patrol and some of its powerful allies found another way to make Gafford pay when they escalated a small-time drug charge into a serious offense that threatened to keep him behind bars for as long as 51 years.
Chris Gafford fell victim to the criminal justice system, despite the dearth of evidence against him. He became an easy target for an overmatched and overconfident state agency bent on broadening its authority under the leadership of a top cop hoping to avoid early retirement.
Gafford now spends his days in a federal prison. In a series of recent phone conversations in which he spoke publicly about his case for the first time, he steadfastly maintained his innocence and remains outraged about what happened to him. His wife and daughter have had to sell the family’s home and move back in with her parents, and he hasn’t been with them in more than ten months.
Meanwhile, in all likelihood, the real sniper or snipers are still out there.
It all started when Gafford’s wife reached out to help him. Chris and Sativa Gafford were an unlikely couple to be caught in the harsh glare of media scrutiny. They were a typical working-class American pair eking out a living on the fringes of the Bay Area. High-school sweethearts who grew up along the Milpitas-San Jose border, neither went to college. She is a dental assistant; he is a burly but gentle ironworker who followed her father into the building trades.
Gafford’s parents split when he was six, and he and his mom, Margo, bounced around until they landed at the Casa del Lago mobile home park in San Jose when he was in the fifth grade. Family and friends describe him as a good kid. “Our definition of trouble was riding our bikes out late,” said his childhood best friend Paul Carbone, who still lives there. Chris loved radio-controlled cars, and when he was old enough, he bought a souped-up Chevy Vega that he street-raced in Milpitas. He had smarts, too, but chafed in the classroom and couldn’t wait to join the working world.
One of Chris’ first career aspirations was to become a police officer. So his mother bought him a rifle and two handguns. She let him use them at the firing range, and then gave him the guns when he turned old enough to own them legally. But after a friend took Chris on a behind-the-scenes tour of San Francisco County Jail, his mother said, he lost his desire to join the ranks of law enforcement.
In 1994, Chris met Sativa Tidwell through a mutual friend during her last year at Milpitas High. They dated for two years, then got engaged and moved in together. They found an apartment in San Jose, and later moved in with her parents in Milpitas to save money. Sativa’s dad, Dennis Tidwell, introduced Chris to welding, and he soon began picking up jobs throughout the Bay Area. After they married, Chris and Sativa packed up and moved to Stockton in 1999 in search of a home they could afford. Shortly thereafter, she gave birth to their daughter, Savannah, and the following spring, they purchased a cute beige-and-white Craftsman-style bungalow for $82,500 just north of the city limits.
The Gaffords settled into a suburban life. They joined a local church, while he rose each day at 4 a.m. for his four-hour round-trip commute to construction sites around the Bay Area. But then in the fall of 2002, Chris’ dad, Harold Gafford, died of pancreatic cancer. “I never really saw him cry,” Sativa said of her husband. “I knew that it hurt him, but he just stayed to himself about it.”
Job stress also was getting to Chris. Long commutes, long hours, and difficult working conditions required him to be almost constantly alert. He later recalled that it was about this time that a colleague turned him on to methamphetamine — the drug of choice for ironworkers. He soon got hooked, and was doing speed up to three times a week. “It just snowballed,” he said.
At first, Chris managed to hide his growing problem from his family. Sativa said she didn’t notice him acting differently until several months later. “Drugs were the last thing I ever thought,” she said. “He was always against drugs. I never did drugs. If we knew somebody in high school who was doing drugs, we stayed away from them.”
But by the spring of 2003, it was apparent Chris had changed. Instead of playing with Savannah in the evenings, he would hole up alone inside their locked garage, refusing to let Sativa in. When she asked why, he once responded angrily: “Because I can.”
Sativa noticed that Chris had developed sores on his arms, but forgot all about it after he explained that he sometimes neglected to wear his leathers while welding. There were no other signs of drug use as far as she could tell; it wasn’t as if people were traipsing through their house at all hours. But bills were piling up, and Sativa suspected Chris was getting high in the garage. So she went to Longs and bought a drug-test kit. He agreed to take the test and it came back clean, but she didn’t know the kit detected only marijuana and cocaine, not methamphetamine.
Still frustrated that Chris wouldn’t let her in the garage, Sativa drilled three holes in the walls to sneak a peek. But before she saw anything, he filled them up. So on November 12, 2003, after Chris stormed off following another argument about the garage, Sativa decided to break in. She’s a shy woman, but she was determined. She grabbed a piece of the garage’s siding, ripped it back, and reached inside to unlock the door handle. When she realized there was a deadbolt that could be opened only with a key, she jammed a screwdriver into the lock and jimmied it open. Then she took a black marker and scrawled in big letters on the inside of the wall: “Because I Can.”
Sativa said she immediately ran back inside the house. She had no intention of actually searching the garage, and was just mad that Chris wouldn’t let her in. But once she calmed down, she realized that she was curious, so she returned to the garage and started poking around. At first, she saw nothing out of the ordinary, but then she noticed that his small toolbox was locked, so she pried it open. Inside were several glass pipes specked with trace amounts of white powder. “I was hysterical — crying,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. I was scared.”
Sativa called her mom, who told her to call the police. “I panicked,” recalled Sativa’s mother, Linda Tidwell. “I didn’t know what was involved in drugs. I was afraid. I said: ‘You need to think about Savannah.'” Sativa also thought police would get her husband help. A few minutes later, two San Joaquin County sheriff’s deputies arrived, at about the same time that Chris came home. He immediately admitted that the drug paraphernalia was his and that he had been smoking meth. “They said: ‘Do you want to press charges? Do you want Chris to be arrested?'” Sativa said of the deputies. “I said: ‘No.’ But they said: ‘We’re sorry, we have to arrest Chris.'”
After the deputies took him away, Sativa’s parents arrived. Still curious, they all decided to look around the garage. Inside a cabinet, they found more paraphernalia, so they called the sheriff’s department again. “I just wanted to get the stuff away from the house,” Sativa’s mother said. This time, narcotics investigators returned and found flammable chemicals used to make methamphetamine; they deduced that Chris had been operating a small makeshift lab. He later told investigators he couldn’t afford his $300-a-month habit, so he had been trying to cook crank for himself. Instead of facing a minor drug-possession charge, Chris was now ensnared in a felony manufacturing case. And because the detached garage was kitty-corner to Savannah’s bedroom, prosecutors added a felony charge of child endangerment to his rap sheet. “Police told us he could blow up the garage and it could hurt Savannah,” Sativa said.
Although there was no history of violence in their marriage, Sativa also obtained a temporary restraining order against her husband on the advice of sheriff’s investigators. But she soon changed her mind, and never had it enforced. Just before Thanksgiving, Gafford’s childhood friend Carbone gave Chris’ mother enough money to bail him out, and he came home.
Gradually, the Gaffords’ lives returned to normal. One of the conditions of Chris’ bail was that he attend meetings of Narcotics Anonymous. He worked each day on the retrofit of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, went to NA meetings, played with Savannah, and was in bed by nine each night, Sativa said. “We were working things out,” she said. “Our relationship was better. No more secrets. No more locked garage.”
Chris was hopeful about a plea deal with prosecutors, who had offered him eight months in county jail. “It’s a case that happens eight million times a day here in the Central Valley — some guy cooking meth in his garage,” said his attorney, San Joaquin County Deputy Public Defender Eric Taylor. With good behavior, Chris would have been out of jail in as little as four months; his mom and stepfather had offered to pay the mortgage while he was away, so he and Sativa could keep their house. The only hang-up was that Chris was reluctant to plead guilty to the child-endangerment charge. Still, it looked as if the deal would work out, and Sativa thought to herself that calling the cops hadn’t been such a bad idea after all.
Then at 9 p.m. on March 10, there was a knock at their door. Ten CHP officers were outside. “Chris, we want to talk to you about the 580 sniper shootings,” Sativa recalled them saying. “Can you come down to the station?” She said she learned the next morning on the news that her husband had been arrested as the sniper. “I stayed up all night long waiting for a call,” she said. “Then, all of the sudden, all these news reporters were on my front lawn.”
Sativa had no clue that she had put her husband on a collision course with the ambitions of the California Highway Patrol.
Dwight “Spike” Helmick had been commissioner of the CHP since then-Governor Pete Wilson appointed him to head the agency in 1995. But by December 2003, new Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped strong hints that he wanted his own person at the helm.
With its spit-and-polish image, the CHP has always attracted military veterans to its ranks. But unlike other state police agencies, the CHP has never been considered the crème de la crème of California law enforcement. Since its inception 75 years ago, the CHP’s primary mission has been to keep the highways safe and the traffic flowing smoothly. Investigating murders and solving high-profile crimes was the domain of city police departments and county sheriff’s offices.
But Helmick was intent on transforming the CHP into a top-notch state police department, several law-enforcement insiders said. Under Helmick, the CHP’s role had expanded dramatically. After 9/11, he became California’s chief of homeland security, and promptly dispatched CHP officers to patrol the state’s high-profile bridges and guard nuclear power plants. He also managed for the first time in department history to deploy highway patrol officers on the streets of some of the state’s largest cities. He did it by offering to help cash-strapped police departments fight gang and gun violence in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland.
But with the increased exposure came increased criticism. Civil-rights advocates accused the CHP of systemic racial profiling, and a high-ranking highway patrol official sued the agency, alleging it maintained a culture of discrimination by denying promotions to minorities. Helmick was accused of calling black Assistant Chief Greg Manuel “boy,” and of slipping white officers the answers to promotion exams. Helmick took the stand in September 2003 and denied the charges, and the CHP ultimately won the case.
But in early 2004, the CHP was back in court. This time a Southern California man, Steve Grassilli of Ramona, accused a group of CHP officers of harassing him for five years after he filed a complaint against one of them. He had a strong case. Grassilli’s attorney, Gregory Garrison, said two CHP officers broke ranks and substantiated the claims, saying they had been pressured to lie. But instead of disciplining the harassers, the highway patrol investigated one of these whistleblowers. The jury ultimately ruled in Grassilli’s favor and ordered the CHP to pay him $4.5 million. The San Diego Union-Tribune quoted a juror as saying, “We caught them in so many lies. I hope this shakes up the CHP like you can’t believe.” But Helmick was defiant. According to the paper, he responded to the verdict by saying, “I am extremely disappointed and amazed at this decision. I disagree entirely with it. We will look at every way humanly possible to appeal it.”
A $4.5 million hit was the last thing Helmick needed. His department already was so stretched financially that he had halted all recruiting efforts in May 2003. At the same time, the war in Iraq was taking a toll upon its ranks: Many officers were military reservists who were suddenly being called up.
Perhaps most significantly for Gafford, the CHP also was engaged in a turf war with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office in the months prior to the sniper case. In 2003, the two departments sparred over the patrol of unincorporated back roads from Dublin to Castro Valley. Under state law, it was CHP territory, but Alameda County Sheriff Charlie Plummer claimed that the CHP’s extra post-9/11 responsibilities had left it unable to perform its core duties. Plummer further angered Helmick when he proposed that the sheriff’s office step in with its own patrol crew. Helmick responded by beefing up the CHP presence in the area to more than forty officers, even as the department cut back on patrols elsewhere.
Finally, in late July of 2003, a deadly squabble between gay lovers escalated the turf battle. According to court documents, the CHP was first on the scene after Oakdale resident Ronald Paul allegedly murdered his partner Craig Robertson just off Interstate 580 on the Altamont Pass. Paul allegedly ran over Robertson after they appeared to have gotten in an argument. Anxious to prove that it could do more than write speeding tickets and investigate accidents, the CHP made noises about being the lead agency on the case, law-enforcement sources said. But the sheriff’s office pulled rank, reminding the highway patrol that it was the agency that investigates murders. In fact, other law-enforcement sources said they could not remember the CHP having ever handled a shooting case in Alameda County.
The CHP relented, but when someone started shooting up I-580 in late February 2004, the highway patrol was determined to run the investigation. “He really wanted to do it,” Plummer said in a recent interview. “Spike was basically trying to save his job.”
Helmick bristled at Plummer’s comments. He said his department took the case because the shootings occurred on an interstate highway, which is its normal jurisdiction. “Mr. Plummer, as usual, hasn’t got a clue as to what he is talking about,” Helmick said. The CHP had no need to prove itself, he said, because his department had handled shooting cases before — although he would not provide specifics.
But interviews and crime reports show that from the moment the CHP took control of the sniper case, it was apparent that the agency was in over its head.
First off, the highway patrol had no investigators who specialized in shootings, so it was forced to deploy the closest thing it had — stolen-car investigators from its Alameda County Regional Auto Theft Task Force. And unlike local police agencies, the CHP also had no ballistics experts, so it had to call in the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
The investigation also was marred by interagency communication snafus and the loss of possible evidence, according to interviews and copies of crime reports. For example, one of the victims, George Walker Jr. of Oakland, didn’t discover the bullet hole in his Toyota Camry until he finished a tennis match in Piedmont two hours after the shooting. Walker said he went to the Piedmont Police Department, but that no one would take his report. So he called 911, and a CHP officer was dispatched to his Oakland home two hours later. The officer took a brief statement and told Walker the bullet likely disintegrated on impact, but didn’t examine his car closely. “A couple of days went past and I didn’t hear anything from anyone,” Walker said. Finally, after repeatedly hearing about the sniper shootings on the news, he called the CHP. “I was told my original report was lost,” he said. “That really, really ticked me off.”
Another aspect of the investigation that calls its competence into question was the assertion by CHP officials about a week after the shootings that they believed a .22-caliber weapon had been used in all eight cases. A CHP investigators’ summary in early March shows that the ATF did find .22-caliber slugs in at least three vehicles and one partial slug consistent with a .22-caliber in a fourth. But the crime reports reveal that some officers believed bullets from a .380-caliber or a 9mm handgun had struck two of the other four vehicles.
CHP officials also were adamant that they were after a single shooter, but the official statements of the eight victims in the case raise serious questions about that conclusion. It was a key problem that the CHP never revealed publicly: How was it that the sniper could have been in more than one place at the same time on February 23? For instance, Miguel Rangel of Oakland told CHP officers he heard a loud noise at 6:30 p.m. while he was traveling west on 580 near the Chabot pedestrian overcrossing in Castro Valley, according to a CHP crime report. But Statner said that he heard four loud bangs at the same time about five miles away while driving in the opposite direction.
In fact, it would have been impossible for one shooter to have been in all eight locations during the single hour — 6:15 to 7:15 p.m. — that the victims reported hearing loud sounds. Two attempts by this newspaper to re-create the sequence of events at the same times as reported by the victims were unsuccessful. The only way one shooter could have been in all eight places was if some of the victims had their times wrong. That’s a distinct possibility, but it’s one that likely would have created problems for prosecutors at a trial.
Perhaps the biggest issue for the highway patrol was that no one got a clear look at the sniper. Occupants in only three of the eight vehicles saw anything at all — and they basically told the CHP that they noticed a pickup truck to the right of them when they heard loud sounds. None saw anyone with a gun.
Those three victims also gave differing descriptions of both the pickup and the driver they saw, crime reports show. Rangel said it was a newer dark-gray Ford Ranger driven by a white man with short light-colored hair. A sixteen-year-old from Castro Valley described a black Ford or Dodge pickup with a bald, clean-shaven white man in his early thirties, wearing a black sweatshirt. And Joel Wells of Oakland said he saw “an old beater truck,” possibly a ’70s or ’80s model, driven by a white man with frizzy balding hair like the comedian Gallagher.
From these descriptions, a police artist created a composite sketch of a short-haired white man with no facial hair. The CHP then distributed it to the media; it was published widely in newspapers and on television as being a sketch of the sniper, whom the highway patrol said was driving a late-model black or charcoal-gray Ford Ranger-style pickup. Police clearly discounted the account of Wells, whose description was at odds with those of the other two witnesses and might have even suggested the existence of a second shooter. But news reporters didn’t know about the differing descriptions given by Rangel, Wells, and the sixteen-year-old; nor did they know that all three clearly told highway patrol officers that they didn’t get a good look at the driver and would be unable to identify him.
Like many other area residents, Chris and Sativa had watched the sniper case unfold on TV. Sativa said an acquaintance even joked, “Hey, that looks like Chris.” But the two ignored the comment. They didn’t think the sketch resembled Chris. After all, he had had a dark goatee for years, and drove a blue Mazda pickup with a big tool chest in the bed. “I saw the sketch in the paper, and I thought, ‘That’s not him,'” his attorney Taylor said. “My first thought originally was, ‘That sketch looks like me.'”
But CHP officers thought otherwise. When they appeared on the Gaffords’ doorstep on March 10, they went on about how Chris resembled the sketch and that his Mazda was similar to a Ford Ranger, Sativa said. They also noted that Chris commuted on 580 to his job at the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. And they said two people had called in tips about him in connection with the case. “They questioned me until midnight or one o’clock in the morning,” she said. They kept saying, ‘If you know something, you need to tell us.’ I kept saying, ‘How many Ford pickups are out there?’ A guy across the street had a dark pickup.”
The CHP took Gafford to its Stockton offices, where he repeatedly denied he was involved in the shootings. “They kept saying, ‘We know that you did it,'” he said “And I was like, ‘You’re out of your fucking minds.'” Chris provided them with an alibi — he was with his work buddy Richard Velador of Modesto.
So highway patrol officers immediately picked up Velador, brought him in, and put him in an interview room next to Gafford. “They said to me, ‘Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wants somebody arrested, and Chris is going to go down for this,'” Velador later recalled. “They told me that three or four times.”
Gafford’s meth case clearly was pivotal to the investigators’ belief that he was the shooter. Gafford said they referred to him as some sort of crazed drug dealer. And CHP investigators believed they had a possible motive — noting that Gafford and Velador both had recently quit their jobs on the bridge, and positing that they were disgruntled workers out on a bender. “It was so far from the truth, it wasn’t funny,” Velador said. Both men had indeed just quit their jobs prior to the interrogation session, Velador noted, but both made a point of telling their questioners that they were still employed at the time of the shootings. Gafford said the two had quit out of sympathy with how their foreman had been treated by his superiors, but weren’t disgruntled or desperate. As union tradesmen, they noted, all they had to do was go down to the local union hall to get another job.
Gafford said the CHP investigators then began acting as if they were detectives on NYPD Blue, force-feeding lies to him in an attempt to trick him into confessing. They told him Velador had given him up as the sniper, and that victims had picked him out of a photo array. “I said, ‘You guys are such liars,'” Gafford said.
But the CHP investigators continued to harp on the evidence they had. They knew, for example, that on the day of the shooting Gafford and Velador had been at the Castro Valley home of Chris’ old boss, Wayne Silva. Gafford admitted that when he and Velador got off work that afternoon, they drove to Silva’s house. But Gafford said they left the house and were sitting in a Tracy bar by 5:30. He said they stayed at the bar for about a half-hour and then went their separate ways to Stockton and Modesto.
But Gafford uttered one admission that CHP investigators believed made their case. He acknowledged that he had gone to far fewer Narcotics Anonymous meetings than the five a week required in his Stockton drug case, and admitted he had forged documents to make it look otherwise. He said he had been to only four to six meetings total in the prior three weeks. He later told the Express that he thought the NA meetings were depressing, and that he dummied attendance slips to avoid violating the conditions of his bail. He also later admitted that he had secretly started smoking meth again in the first week of March.
But CHP investigators concluded that Gafford had made the forgeries to establish an alibi for the shootings. On the night of February 23, Gafford had scribbled on a piece of paper to make it look as if he had been in a NA meeting in San Pablo. “The CHP just ran with it as proof,” he said.
A little more than three hours after the CHP showed up at Gafford’s door that night, they cuffed him and arrested him on suspicion of eight counts of attempted murder. They then drove him to Santa Rita Jail in Dublin to await formal charges. “They told us he was going to be put away for a long, long time,” said his mom, Margo Geyer. “They were so sure of themselves.” Velador said investigators twice searched his home and found nothing; he was ultimately released.
Gafford, meanwhile, continued to declare his innocence and even consented to a lineup without asking for an attorney. “I was just trying to be cooperative,” he said. “I had nothing to hide.” Officers put him in with a bunch of men who didn’t look like him, he said. “Still, nobody picked me out of the lineup,” he said. “That should have been their first clue that I wasn’t the guy.”
The ATF, meanwhile, couldn’t match his guns to the bullets found in the sniper case. Gafford owned a .22-caliber rifle, but it was in the custody of the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office at the time of the shootings. All his ammunition and his other three guns, which he had kept trigger-locked in his bedroom closet, had been confiscated when he was arrested in November.
After reviewing the CHP’s evidence and interrogating Gafford himself, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Tom Rogers refused to file charges against him. He told the Express he was unpersuaded that the forged NA documents proved Gafford was trying to concoct an alibi for the shootings; it was just as likely that Gafford was attempting to avoid trouble in his drug case. Rogers added that investigators checked Gafford and Velador’s story and the other evidence in the case — after all, Sativa said CHP officers told her they’d gotten two tips about Chris. Rogers said some of this evidence pointed toward guilt, but some toward innocence. “None of it was going to be anywhere near close enough to charge him with a crime,” Rogers said. Gafford’s mother and stepfather believe the tips were simply calls from people who thought Chris resembled the dubious police sketch.
CHP Sergeant Bob O’Keefe, one of the lead investigators on the case, said he heard no mention of Schwarzenegger applying pressure, and said he never told that to Velador during his interview. O’Keefe also said he did not lie to Gafford, but would not say whether other CHP investigators had questioned the two ironworkers. O’Keefe, who is assigned to the stolen-car task force, said that he and the other CHP officers on the sniper case had investigated “numerous” shootings but, like Commissioner Helmick, would not provide any details. Helmick also said he never heard a word from Schwarzenegger’s office about the 580 shootings, and downplayed the case’s significance, saying that he was not closely monitoring it.
But Sheriff Plummer, whose jurisdiction includes all the unincorporated areas of Alameda County and whose experienced investigators normally would have handled such a case, was blunt. If his agency had been in charge rather than Helmick’s CHP, they would have never arrested Gafford. “I don’t know any cop who thought he was the shooter,” Plummer said. “Only Spike thought he was the shooter.”
When Rogers announced on March 12 that he was not filing charges, it seemed for a moment that Gafford’s bad dream had ended and he would be sent home to his family. But the CHP wasn’t about to let him go. And Rogers perhaps inadvertently allowed the agency to save face when he informed San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Mary Aguirre that Gafford had violated his bail requirement on NA meetings.
Aguirre, who was prosecuting Gafford in his drug case, immediately requested a hearing with San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Richard Mallett, who then convened a hearing and issued a ruling that allowed the CHP to keep Gafford in custody. Mallett raised Gafford’s bail from $25,000 to $150,000 — a sum far larger than his friends and family could raise.
But the March 12 hearing appears to have been illegal. Mallett had convened it without either Gafford or his attorney present. Gafford was still in custody in Alameda County, and neither Mallett nor Aguirre called Taylor until more than two hours after the hearing was over, Taylor later declared in court. The California Code of Judicial Ethics prohibits such “ex parte” proceedings in which one of the parties to the case is absent. “It shouldn’t have been done without the defendant or the defense attorney present,” said one California judge who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The whole matter soon became academic when sniper-case investigators turned to some powerful friends. The ATF requested that Gafford’s small-time drug case be transferred to federal court, where sentences for drug crimes dwarf those meted out in state court. On April 1, a federal grand jury handed up a four-count drug indictment against Gafford, and he was transferred to Sacramento for trial.
Almost overnight, Gafford had gone from facing eight months in county jail to a potential ten to 51 years in federal prison. “It was devastating,” Sativa said. “These are the people you are supposed to trust. I know my husband didn’t go out and shoot at people. I kept thinking, eventually, he was going to come home. And they were going to say: ‘I’m sorry, Mrs. Gafford. We made a mistake.’ But they never did.”
Unable to keep up with the mortgage payments, Sativa sold their house in June, and she and Savannah moved in with her parents in Milpitas. “It was hard,” she said as tears streamed down her face. “My daughter still asks me today, ‘Mommy, when are we going home?'”
All the while, the highway patrol continued to reassure the public that it had the shooter behind bars. In an April 25 story, the San Jose Mercury News quoted CHP spokesman Ziese as saying that Gafford remained their prime suspect.
On the surface, the transfer of Gafford’s drug case from state to federal court seemed routine. The practice, known as poaching, has been on the rise in recent years. Typically, prosecutors poach a case so they can slap a harsh sentence on a major drug-lab operator or a big-time marijuana grower, or use the tough federal sentencing guidelines to take down career bad guys caught with small amounts of dope. But more and more often, the decisions about which cases to poach are based on arbitrary criteria, according to four veteran criminal defense attorneys interviewed for this story. “It has to do with the desires of an agency or individual law-enforcement officers and their relationship with prosecutors,” said Assistant Federal Defender John Paul Reichmuth, who is assigned to Oakland federal court.
Federal prosecutors poached Gafford’s case because the CHP and the ATF believed he was the East Bay Sniper, interviews and court records show. “If the highway patrol said ‘This is what we want,’ a prosecutor probably would do it as a courtesy,” said one former federal prosecutor who asked not to be named. “Oftentimes, prosecutors will try to get the right results for the wrong reasons.” Assistant US Attorney Richard Bender, who prosecuted Gafford in federal court, would not comment on the case, citing his office’s longstanding policy. But Bender admitted in court documents that Gafford’s small-time meth bust was “outside the heartland” of typical federal drug cases. And Gafford was not some known bad guy whom police had long wanted off the streets — he had no criminal record. “Bender told me in the hall that the only reason they indicted him was because they thought he was the East Bay shooter,” said Gafford’s federal court lawyer, Assistant Federal Defender Matthew Bockmon.
Interviews and court records reveal, however, that at some point Bender and the ATF began to have second thoughts. It likely happened shortly after Gafford took a lie-detector test in mid-May. Gafford had repeatedly suggested the idea, and the ATF finally agreed to fly in a specialist from Washington state. The specialist ultimately ruled the polygraph results inconclusive, but Gafford did well enough that ATF Special Agent Ronald Humphries, who was in now assigned to the case, was crestfallen, Bockmon said. Gafford said Humphries even needed his help when time came to put his handcuffs and body chains back on.
On July 20, the CHP announced that it was no longer actively pursuing Gafford. Nevertheless, the highway patrol refused to back down from its prior pronouncements. “We are confident Mr. Gafford is responsible,” The Contra Costa Times quoted Ziese as saying.
But the feds apparently were not so sure. Weeks earlier, Bender and Bockmon had ironed out a favorable deal for Gafford. He would agree to plead guilty to manufacturing and attempting to manufacture methamphetamine, and being a drug addict in possession of a firearm. In exchange, Bender would recommend Gafford receive no more than thirty months in federal prison. If the judge balked at the relatively light sentence, then Gafford could retract his plea. “I would call that deal somewhat extraordinary,” said a former federal prosecutor after reviewing a copy of the nine-page plea agreement supplied by this newspaper. “The prosecutor was extraordinarily reasonable.”
Bender revealed why during Gafford’s October 1 sentencing hearing. Court transcripts show that the prosecutor said that while there was some evidence in the 580 shootings that pointed toward Gafford, he told the judge that it “is very possible or more probable, I think, that he wasn’t involved.” Neither Humphries nor an ATF spokeswoman would comment for this story. But Bender told the judge that Humphries also believed Gafford was “probably not involved” in the 580 shootings. Gafford could not suppress his continuing anger at the CHP. “They have slandered my name in print,” he said in court. “They are leaving people to believe that I’m still involved in these shootings.”
US District Court Judge Edward Garcia sympathized with Gafford and quickly assured him that he would not object to the prearranged sentencing deal. In fact, Garcia lowered Gafford’s sentence to 23 months, and even asked Gafford if he had talked to a lawyer about suing the CHP. When Gafford said no, the judge told him he needed to take some action: “You’ve got to get this anger out of you if you are ever going to straighten yourself out: Do you understand that?”
Twenty-three months is a lot better than ten to 51 years behind bars, but it’s still nearly three times the sentence Gafford originally would have received for his drug offense. “It gave me a little bit of relief,” Sativa said. “But it’s still a long time. Two years is a long time to be away from my husband and for him to be away from his child.”
At least Gafford can take some solace in what happened to Spike Helmick. On June 1, Helmick announced his resignation from office, saying he would retire September 15. He later admitted that Governor Schwarzenegger forced him out, several newspapers reported.
Helmick’s final months on the job were far from smooth. Less than a month after the CHP arrested Gafford, the highway patrol turned a standoff with a suicidal man on the Bay Bridge into a fourteen-hour fiasco that backed up traffic for more than one hundred miles. Helmick’s investigation of the incident, demanded by the governor, revealed that it took the highway patrol six hours to call in its SWAT team from Sacramento, and because of the hellish traffic, it took the team another four hours to reach the bridge.
And before Helmick cleaned out his desk, the CHP was caught in one final scandal. The Sacramento Bee reported in a September 10 investigation that 80 percent of top-ranking highway patrol officials in the past few years had aggressively pursued injury claims at the end of their careers in order to boost their retirement incomes. Helmick decried the practice, known as “chief’s disease,” in a June interview with the Bee. But then in July Helmick came down with chief’s disease himself, the Bee reported, adding that Helmick had filed five injury claims in the past three years, including one for falling out of his chair in 2000. Helmick dropped his medical claim after the Bee’s story. Sheriff Plummer said he believes the CHP’s new commissioner, Michael Brown, will correct the agency’s problems and steer the highway patrol in the right direction.
The CHP has since toned down its rhetoric about Gafford and now seems unsure of his status in the sniper case. Ziese recently refused to label Gafford as the prime suspect. But then he quickly added: “There is nothing to suggest that somebody else is responsible.” When told of what Ziese said, O’Keefe responded: “Wayne Ziese is not an investigator. He deals with the media. As of right now, the case is ongoing. And as far the highway patrol goes, Gafford is still a suspect.” Though O’Keefe and Ziese said the case remains “active,” O’Keefe acknowledged that he and his fellow officers have returned to their normal duties and are not spending much time on it.
Still, some Northern California law-enforcement officials remain quietly peeved about how the CHP handled the sniper case. They also believe the criminal justice system was manipulated wrongly, and that 23 months is an unfair sentence for Gafford. “It was a pooh-butt lab,” one of them said. “It should have gotten him no more than probation. There are much worse cases out there. He got screwed. He ended up doing federal time, because these guys fucked up.”
Gafford’s mom, Margo Geyer, and her husband, Brian, are just as furious. Brian Geyer calls the highway patrol “arrogant cowboys” for labeling Chris as the sniper when they had such little evidence to back it up. “I was enraged — I still am,” he said of the arrest of his stepson in the shooting case. “Any public agency that behaved as bad as the CHP doesn’t deserve the public trust.”
Under his federal plea agreement, Gafford surrendered any right to appeal. He is now housed at a federal prison camp at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, where he spends his days toiling in the prison kitchen and lifting weights after work. At night, he calls his family collect. Sativa hasn’t yet been down to see him; Las Vegas is a long drive, and she just landed a new dental-assistant job. Her new job came as a relief, because the couple lost medical insurance when Chris was arrested in the sniper case and Savannah, now five years old, has a chronic illness. He will get credit for time served since his arrest and is scheduled to be released in October.
Although Chris loves his wife and says he harbors no animosity toward her, Sativa is still racked with guilt that she caused the whole ordeal by first calling the police on her husband fourteen months ago. She and her parents also remain deathly afraid of the CHP, even with Helmick gone. They’re scared of angering the highway patrol or doing anything that could put Chris at further risk. “Will they harass him when he gets out?” Sativa said worriedly. “We’re afraid of them. Look at what they’ve done to this family.”