It was the early morning hours of June 17, 2014. Oakland Police Department homicide investigators Mike Gantt and Caesar Basa sat across a table from rookie officer Brendan O’Brien in an interview room known as “the box.” Located deep inside OPD’s downtown headquarters, this is where detectives interrogate murder suspects.
Hours earlier, O’Brien had called OPD’s emergency-dispatch number to report that his wife, Irma Huerta Lopez, shot herself in the head at his Oakland hills apartment. But several details pertaining to the alleged suicide bothered Gantt. He was suspicious about the gun and ammunition forensics at the crime scene, and he thought O’Brien’s alibi didn’t add up.
Gantt also says Basa was pitching O’Brien softball questions. When it was his turn to interrogate, he zeroed in on inconsistencies in O’Brien’s story. Gantt intended to press the rookie just as he would any suspect.
However, while questioning O’Brien about the holes in the young officer’s account, Gantt says he felt a sharp jolt to his leg. “Basa was kicking me under the table,” he explained in a recent interview. The two investigators stepped out of the box. “Basa told me, ‘He’s a cop, you need to ease up,'” Gantt recalled.
“‘Basa, I think the guy killed his wife,'” he replied.
Gantt would never get to ask O’Brien any more questions. According to the veteran investigator, the lieutenant overseeing OPD’s homicide unit at the time, John Lois, yanked him from the interrogation and eventually took him off the case. O’Brien was subsequently cleared as a suspect, and Huerta Lopez’s death was classified as a suicide.
The fact that an Oakland cop was the prime suspect in a murder investigation never hit the news. Eventually, O’Brien returned to work as a patrol officer. Eight months later on the streets of East Oakland, he would meet and exploit a seventeen-year-old girl, who went by the name “Celeste Guap”: the victim at the center of the OPD’s sex-crime scandal.
News of the Guap case made national headlines earlier this summer. But there has been little, if any, discussion of Huerta Lopez. That is, until last week, when Gantt broke what he referred to as the OPD’s “blue wall of silence.”[pullquote-2]
Gantt is currently on administrative leave, but says he is speaking out now because Oakland’s police chief, mayor, and city administrator all retaliated against him: at first because he tried to investigate O’Brien, and later to distract the public from the scandalous sexual exploitation of Guap by dozens of East Bay cops.
Now, his shocking accusations call into question the official story of Huerta Lopez’s death. But he’s not alone in doubting the conclusions reached by OPD and the Alameda County district attorney.
Huerta Lopez’s family also believed from the start that O’Brien was the killer. They say that OPD ignored their concerns and didn’t sufficiently follow through on the case.
And even Guap, who says she was “dating” O’Brien before he committed suicide last year, told the Express that she thinks O’Brien was capable of shooting his wife — and that he once threatened to kill her, too.
Gantt, who filed a claim of retaliation against the City of Oakland last week, stands by his intuition even two years later:
“I believe he killed her.”
A Suspicious Death
Officer Brendan O’Brien called OPD’s non-911 emergency number at 9:52 p.m. on the night of his wife’s death, according to police-dispatch records. Oakland officers Brandon Perry and Brandon Taylor were the first on scene. Perry said they encountered O’Brien, who they recognized as a fellow cop, standing in the front doorway of his apartment. He was wearing “a gray t-shirt, gray basketball shorts, and no shoes or socks,” he wrote in a report. Perry added that O’Brien had a “distant stare in his eyes.”
O’Brien told them about an argument he had with his wife earlier that evening, and her suspicions that he was having an affair. Perry and Taylor wrote in their reports that O’Brien stated he “left” the apartment and “went” to a gas station on Mountain Boulevard and 98th Avenue to buy cigarettes. He claimed that, when he returned, he found his wife dead from a gunshot wound. Neither officer recorded whether O’Brien drove or walked to the station.
In fact, none of the incident reports released by OPD make it clear how O’Brien traveled to the store. But an evidence technician, who put her hand on the hood and grill of O’Brien’s car two hours after he claimed to have bought the cigarettes, wrote that it “did not feel any warmer to me than the temperature inside the garage.”
There were several hints at the apartment that the marriage was near its end. Perry observed “a female’s wedding ring” atop a paper towel on the coffee table in the living room. Police-evidence technician Julie Jaecksch later noticed a “small, plain band ring,” similar to a man’s wedding band, on the dresser in the bedroom. When police searched Huerta Lopez’s car that was parked across the street, they found “a large quantity of clothing in the trunk.” On the dining room table, they saw O’Brien and Huerta Lopez’s marriage certificate, placed next to “neat piles of papers.” Next to this was an envelope marked “do not open.”
Under the direction of Lt. Roland Holmgren and Sgt. Sylvia Rodriguez, who were supervising the scene, other officers took statements from residents in the building’s other three units. One of O’Brien’s neighbors signed a written statement that, at about 10 p.m., they were inside their apartment when they “heard a noise that sounded like ‘thump.'” It wasn’t loud, but it wasn’t faint. They opened their balcony door, which faces the building’s only driveway and the lone staircase leading to the entrance, and stepped out into the night. They didn’t see or hear anything, including gunfire, and they didn’t report hearing or seeing O’Brien return home, either on foot or by car.
Two neighbors who live on the same street told police they heard three to four gunshots around 10 p.m. OPD requested Shotspotter data, but the department never released records indicating if the system’s microphones picked up any gunshots in that area. According to department sources, it is all but impossible for Shotspotter’s microphones to detect the sound of gunfire from inside buildings.
Police records also indicate that O’Brien fully cooperated with the investigation. He verbally consented to a search of his apartment and car, and agreed to hand over clothing, phones, a computer, and other evidence. Multiple officers reported that they observed no signs of struggle — no bruises, scratches, or torn clothing — on either O’Brien or Huerta Lopez’s bodies. There was no damaged or knocked-over furniture.
Homicide investigator Basa arrived at the scene at 11:09 p.m. Gantt came within the next half-hour. Basa led the investigation, directing technicians to gather evidence.
Gantt told the Express last week that several details at the crime scene troubled him.
For instance, two rounds had been fired from the pistol that killed Huerta Lopez. He said that he’d never seen a suicide-by-gun where the victim fires a test shot before turning the weapon on themselves.
OPD later discovered that the first shot went through the bedroom floor. The bullet was recovered from a crawl space next to the garage, underneath the apartment. The other bullet, the one that killed Huerta Lopez, was found outside: It had exited her skull and punched through the bedroom wall before landing on the ground next to the building.
The pistol, a .45 caliber Glock 21, had fallen to the floor just six inches from Huerta Lopez’s feet, which dangled from the edge of the bed, where her body was found in the supine position. One shell casing lay four inches from the gun. The other casing was four-feet away.
Gantt thought the gun and casings were suspiciously positioned in the room, given the fact that a Glock 21 fires with significant recoil and ejects its casings with substantial force.
He suspected their placement could have been staged.[pullquote-1]
Another key piece of evidence that experts say casts doubt on O’Brien’s story is the gunshot-residue test results. Both O’Brien and Huerta Lopez’s hands were swabbed, and the tests, which were completed four days later, showed that they both may have recently fired a gun.
OPD officials claim that O’Brien had residue on his hands because, as an officer, he frequently handles and shoots a firearm. It’s not clear, though, when O’Brien last fired his weapon: in the line of duty, or during a firearms training. It’s also unclear whether investigators ever asked O’Brien if he had recently gone to a gun range to practice.
For Huerta Lopez to have gunshot residue on her hands, she either would have had to fire a gun, or touch a gun that had been recently fired. But O’Brien also could have rubbed his hands on hers after he shot a gun.
OPD did not conduct a gunshot-residue test on clothing worn by O’Brien and Huerta Lopez, or other clothing in the house that O’Brien might have been wearing earlier that night.
Another unusual feature of O’Brien’s apartment was the ammunition, both loose and also loaded into magazines, that investigators found scattered about several rooms. They found a box of .40 caliber handgun ammunition on the dresser in the bedroom.
In the closet, they came across additional live ammo for a .45 caliber handgun. They located two Glock pistol magazines under the coffee table in the living room. And in the pockets of a pair of black tactical pants on the living room floor, they recovered another 25 rounds of handgun ammo.
Later, when they searched O’Brien’s Mazda, which was parked below his apartment in one of the building’s four garages, they found a .40 caliber Glock Model 23 handgun with a loaded magazine and a live round in the chamber. Under the driver’s seat they also found a live loose handgun round, as well as several blank rounds.
O’Brien, an ex-Marine, was no stranger to guns. He told his fellow officers the pistol that killed Huerta Lopez was personally registered to him, as was the gun they found in his car.
But it’s unclear whether anyone asked O’Brien why so much ammunition was found lying around his home.
One key to determining if Huerta Lopez’s death was murder or suicide would be verifying O’Brien’s story. That’s why, at 11:23 p.m. on the night of her death, patrol officers Jeryme Stine and Danny Cheng drove to the Shell gas station near his apartment, where O’Brien claimed to have bought a pack of cigarettes. With the help of the store clerk, they reviewed the station’s video surveillance footage from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. They should have seen O’Brien arrive, buy cigarettes, and leave.
But O’Brien didn’t appear anywhere in the tape, according to a police report. However, investigators say they found a receipt for a pack of cigarettes from the gas station, with a time stamp of 9:45 p.m., inside O’Brien’s car.
Two days later, this discrepancy was solved: Basa had another sergeant, Inez Ramirez, visit the Shell station and review the video again. Ramirez reported that its time stamp was approximately one hour and two minutes delayed. She burned the new footage on a DVD and turned it into OPD’s evidence unit. Ramirez also copied surveillance-camera footage taken by a homeowner who lives on Keller Avenue, near O’Brien’s apartment.
Despite multiple requests, OPD hasn’t released the Shell station surveillance footage to the Express. In addition, the department has body-camera footage taken by officers Stine and Cheng, from the night they reviewed the footage, but this also hasn’t been released. According to Huerta Lopez’s family, police told them the footage confirmed O’Brien’s story. They said OPD officers even showed them parts of the video of O’Brien at the gas station.
The owner of the Shell station, Shah Muhammad, told the Express in a recent interview that he has used the same DVR surveillance system for about eight years. He said it usually records up to three days of material before purging footage. According to Muhammad, multiple cameras capture video of the parking lot, gas pumps, and inside the store. He said it’s possible the system’s time stamp wasn’t updated when daylight savings changed.
But Gantt said last week that he never bought O’Brien’s gas-station alibi.
O’Brien claimed he and his wife had an argument, because she suspected he was having an affair. As Gantt remembers it, O’Brien said he left the apartment and walked barefoot almost two miles away to the Shell station. When he returned, O’Brien said he found his wife on their blood-soaked bed with a bullet wound to her head.
“O’Brien told us he walked ten blocks, barefoot, to buy a pack of cigarettes,” Gantt recalled during a recent interview. But “he wasn’t a smoker,” Gantt added.
And to walk, or even sprint, 1.8 miles back from the gas station at 9:45 at night, and arrive at his apartment at 9:52, when he called the police, would have been impossible. So, he had to have driven. Yet, according to Gantt, his original story was that he walked.
It’s also difficult to verify O’Brien’s alibi, because OPD and the coroner never established an exact time of death for Huerta Lopez. It’s also forensically impossible to know exactly what time she died.
What is known is that OPD claims to possess surveillance footage showing O’Brien at the Shell station before or around 9:45 p.m., which the receipt in his car seems to confirm. OPD dispatch records show that he called the department’s emergency line at 9:52 p.m., presumably from his apartment, and one of his neighbors saw him there shortly after he made that call.
But none of this establishes an air-tight alibi. To speculate: O’Brien could have shot Huerta Lopez before he walked or drove to the station. Or, she could even have been shot after. It only takes three minutes to drive from the gas station to the apartment. O’Brien might have left his wife in the apartment, drove to store, purchased the cigarettes at 9:45 p.m., gone back up the hill to his apartment, immediately shot Huerta Lopez in the bedroom, then called to report her death by 9:52 p.m.
The cigarette explanation is odd in another respect. Again, O’Brien reportedly wasn’t a smoker, yet he went to buy a pack. And, despite the stress of the situation, he didn’t immediately smoke one. Instead, according to police records, he went back to his apartment and discovered his wife. He called the cops and waited for them to arrive, but even then he didn’t light up.
According to police technician Astra Goddard, who arrived after multiple OPD officers and firefighters were already on scene, there was “an unopened package of cigarettes on the round table in the living room north of the front door.”
She later noticed the package had been moved, and other officers saw O’Brien eventually smoking the cigarettes just outside of the back door of his apartment.
‘Covering for Him’
Back at OPD headquarters, after Gantt and Basa’s argument outside the box, the two investigators took a short break from interrogating O’Brien. Gantt went to the bathroom, and Basa, according to Gantt, went into the office of Lt. John Lois.
“When I came out of the bathroom, Lois called me into his office and told me to shut the door,” Gantt recalled. He claims that Lois immediately took him off the case. “Give Basa your notes,” Gantt says Lois told him. The lieutenant allegedly offered no further explanation.
O’Brien was subsequently cleared of any official suspicion, and OPD and the Sheriff-Coroner classified Huerta Lopez’s death as a suicide.
Deputy District Attorney Matthew Beltramo and Inspector Tom Milner from the district attorney’s office, who watched Basa and Gantt’s interview with O’Brien via a satellite office that night, didn’t even take notes or file reports.
It’s unclear how long O’Brien was on leave, but he eventually went back to work as a patrol officer. He also continued to live in the same apartment. And local media never reported Huerta Lopez’s death, or OPD’s brief investigation of O’Brien.
But that wasn’t the end of it. A year later, a bomb went off that would engulf the entire OPD.
O’Brien shot himself in the head on September 25, 2015, in the same apartment where Huerta Lopez died. The officer had been struggling with alcoholism, depression, and insomnia. He left a two-page, typewritten suicide note that, according to department sources, contained shocking information. In it, O’Brien addressed, and denied, allegations that he and several other Oakland cops were sexually exploiting a Richmond teenager, Celeste Guap, when she was a sexually trafficked child on the streets of East Oakland. (Guap is now nineteen-years-old, but the Express is not using her real name because she was a minor when she was abused, and because she has not personally consented to being identified.)
Last week at a press conference, Gantt said that he feels O’Brien was never suitably interviewed because he was one of OPD’s own. When asked why the department mishandled and buried the case, he said simply, “bad press.”
In fact, Huerta Lopez’s death came at a time when OPD and other Oakland officials were pushing hard to end thirteen years of oversight by a court-appointed monitor and federal judge. Officials, including then-Police Chief Sean Whent, were hopeful that the court would declare OPD’s problems — all stemming from a previous corruption and misconduct scandal in the early 2000s — fixed, and that this would return full control of OPD back to the chief and city administrator.
But O’Brien’s suicide note forced the department to open an internal-affairs investigation into the Guap case. And this investigation, according to U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, was botched.
Sources close to the department told the Express that Guap’s exploitation at the hands of multiple cops, including O’Brien, was a matter that top police brass wanted to bury, because it could imperil their chances of getting out from under federal court oversight.
During the past several months, multiple former homicide investigators from Bay Area agencies have spoken with the Express about the apparent gaps and shortcomings in the Huerta Lopez case. They also questioned the homicide division’s leadership, and Lois’ role in both the Huerta Lopez case and investigating the Guap sex-crime scandal.
Lois — whose rapid rise from lieutenant to deputy chief in less than a year is unprecedented at OPD — was in charge during the O’Brien investigation. Prior to his arrival in the unit, Lois had never investigated a murder. Instead, he spent the bulk of his career in the internal-affairs division, where he established a close relationship with Whent.
Past homicide investigators told the Express that Lois’ leadership resulted in bad police work. They specifically criticized Lois’ alleged decisions to take Gantt off the O’Brien case, to not order a test of O’Brien’s clothing for gunshot residue, and to not call O’Brien in for a second interview.
Gantt’s account of his removal from the Huerta Lopez investigation is difficult to verify. Both Lois, who is now a deputy chief, and Basa, who now works for the Alameda County DA as an inspector, did not respond to requests to discuss the Huerta Lopez case or Gantt’s accusations. OPD and Mayor Libby Schaaf released only a three-sentence statement, which said that they are “legally prohibited” from discussing Gantt’s claims because they involve “personnel” matters. Furthermore, both OPD and the district attorney have refused to release the bulk of records in the Huerta Lopez case file, despite multiple requests from the Express and other media organizations.
But Gantt isn’t the only person who thinks O’Brien killed his wife.
Huerta Lopez’s family members believe to this day that it was homicide, and that police covered for the rookie officer. Two of her relatives declined requests to be interviewed for this story, but Huerta Lopez’s sister Paulina told the Express in a previous interview that Irma and O’Brien met online, briefly dated, and then got married. Their relationship was rocky. The two occasionally fought, but not physically.
Paulina also said that O’Brien “was always weird,” and that she was worried about her sister when she married him.
“They were all covering for him,” was how she described the way Oakland police treated her family after her sister died.
Police records and the coroner’s reports all note that the Huerta family was suspicious of O’Brien and contacted OPD multiple times for updates on the case. At one point, Basa even encouraged the family to maintain contact with O’Brien, on the belief that he might disclose “something of evidentiary value,” according to the district attorney’s review.
Guap also thinks O’Brien was capable of murder. She met him in February 2015, while he was patrolling East Oakland. He “saved” her from a pimp, she says, and claims they later met up on multiple occasions, and that she “dated” him.
“This one time, he and I got in an argument, and he got angry,” Guap told the Express in a recent interview about an interaction with O’Brien in mid-2015. “And he said, ‘I’ll kill you, too.'” Guap said she believes he was capable of violence.
She wasn’t aware at the time, though, that O’Brien was once suspected by his own department of killing his wife. She only knew that O’Brien was formerly married, and that his spouse died from what O’Brien told her was a “sickness.”
Thin Blue Line
Gantt, a 27-year OPD veteran and Bronx native, has a decorated, but also contentious, history with the department.
He has won the National Association of Police Organizations’ Top Cop award, four OPD Medals of Merit, and a Captain’s Certificate of Commendation, among other honors.
However, Gantt says that, about a month after he was removed from the Huerta Lopez investigation, several homicide unit inspectors improperly accessed and viewed his personnel records as part of an effort to harass and harm. Gantt filed a complaint, but claims the department took no action. So, as a result, he transferred out of what he described as a “hostile environment,” and ended up in the patrol section.
Six months ago, he was suspended from his duties after a domestic dispute with his wife. An internal-affairs case was opened because of the incident.
Gantt was also recently named by sources in the department as being the subject of investigation concerning the alleged mishandling of evidence during his time in the homicide unit. Gantt had a girlfriend transcribe audio interviews of a person suspected of the 2013 murder of Maxwell Park resident Judy Salamon. But the Alameda County DA cleared him of any criminal misconduct in June. Last week, Gantt said he was unaware of any department policy that forbids third party transcriptions of interviews. OPD didn’t respond to a request by the Express to provide copies of any department policies barring third party transcriptions.
He was also previously fired by the department, in 2004, for allegedly meddling in a rape case against a former friend from the military. But Gantt won his job back in arbitration after his attorney, Michael Rains, revealed than an unnamed deputy chief was playing favorites, and inconsistently punishing others, including Gantt.
He says he decided to come forward about OPD’s handling of the Huerta Lopez case as a result of alleged retaliation and harassment directed at him by senior officers in the police department, and Oakland city officials, including City Administrator Sabrina Landreth and Schaaf.
In a claim Gantt filed against the city last week, his attorney, Dan Siegel, alleged that actions by city officials are “part of the campaign of retaliation and stigmatism against him” that result from Gantt’s “efforts to investigate Officer O’Brien for the death of his wife and for filing complaints against other members of the Homicide Unit.”
He also accused the city of leaking dirt about him to the media to “deflect attention from allegations that multiple Oakland police officers had engaged in the sexual exploitation of a young woman.”
“The thin blue line is alive and well,” Gantt said. “If you step over that line, you’re an outcast.
“I’ve stepped over that line.”
But Siegel says there’s also something bigger at stake: Did OPD cover-up an investigation of one of its own? As he put it during a press conference last week:
“We may never know if O’Brien killed his wife — the truth died with him.”