Cover of Darkness: S.F. Police Turned a Blind Eye to Some of the City's Most Dangerous Criminals — Who Were Also Some of Their Most Trusted Sources

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Photo illustration by Audrey Fukuman


On March 24, 2011, a veteran San Francisco Police Department officer sat down at an undisclosed location in the city with a 40-year-old career criminal named Jorge Luis Sandoval. Sandoval wasn't under arrest, even though at the time he had felony charges pending in San Francisco, Contra Costa, and Monterey counties that could have returned him to prison for life. Sandoval wasn't under arrest because he was helping out; he was a confidential informant.

This unstable relationship is typical: Informants are essential law enforcement sources for intelligence about criminal activity, but many of the most valuable informants are career criminals themselves. Sandoval fit that bill. A two-strike felon with a rap sheet stretching back to the 1980s, he rose through the ranks of the notorious prison gang Nuestra Familia to become the leader of its San Francisco "street regiment."

Abraham “Spanky” Guerra, a Norteno lieutenant and SFPD informant, was killed in a shootout on July 27, 2007.
Abraham “Spanky” Guerra, a Norteno lieutenant and SFPD informant, was killed in a shootout on July 27, 2007.
Liri Lesku was murdered inside 406 Kansas Street on Feb. 25, 2008 in a robbery-gone-wrong.
Photograph by Mike Koozmin
Liri Lesku was murdered inside 406 Kansas Street on Feb. 25, 2008 in a robbery-gone-wrong.

As Sandoval and the officer made to leave, they were confronted by a team of U.S. Marshals and FBI agents from Stockton. Unbeknownst to the Familiano or his SFPD contact, the feds had an arrest warrant from the Eastern District of California for Sandoval's role in a massive methamphetamine trafficking ring based out of Nuestra Familia's Salinas heartland — part of a sprawling, multi-year federal operation called Operation Valley Star aimed at dismantling the prison gang. SFPD had no knowledge of this operation, according to sources at the office of the U.S. Attorney for Eastern California. But SFPD had known for years about Sandoval's drug trafficking activities, and did nothing about it.

There was confusion all around. Because what the feds didn't know as they put Sandoval into cuffs and watched the confused SFPD officer walk out of the room was that Sandoval had been providing information to the police since at least since 2010, when he gave up his stepson Tomas Gutierrez for a 2007 shooting in Potrero Hill which left a woman dead and two men wounded. Sandoval wasn't just playing the Good Samaritan here: Court records reveal Sandoval provided his stepson with the .40-caliber pistol used in the robbery-turned-murder — and that Gutierrez and two others committed the robbery to repay a methamphetamine debt owed to Sandoval.

In Sacramento, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gregory G. Hollows ordered Sandoval held without bail. In the detention order, Hollows made several notes explaining his rationale to keep Sandoval in custody; most damningly, that "no condition excuses the safety of the community because of his demonstrated criminal record."

SFPD and the federal authorities in Sacramento had very different ideas about acceptable conduct for the Familiano. Sandoval's case illustrates the thornier problems involved in using confidential informants.

"CI's are a necessary evil," says Chuck Drago, a Florida private investigator who spent more than three decades in law enforcement. An exchange of information for leniency between criminals and police is part and parcel of law enforcement work. But when does this give-and-take go too far? And who decides that? Sandoval's extensive criminal record and history of violent and drug-related crimes did not escape the notice of federal authorities in Sacramento; even within SFPD there were some who noticed this dangerous oversight.

Three years and a day before he was arrested by the feds, Sandoval and an associate were pulled over and found in possession of large amounts of cocaine, crack, and methamphetamine. A scale and .40 caliber ammunition (the same caliber as the bullets that killed Liri Lesku in the robbery a month earlier) were found at Sandoval's Pacifica home, prompting SFPD narcotics Inspector Martin Halloran to request that Sandoval be held without bail, because he was in all likelihood "a major street narcotics trafficker in San Francisco and possibly the East Bay."

Yet San Francisco authorities declined to prosecute Sandoval for the 2008 drug charge — or for a 2006 arrest for weapons and drug possession, or for a 2007 multi-agency bust in Richmond where Sandoval was packaging almost 9 ounces of cocaine for sale. All three arrests could have sent Sandoval away for life. But nothing happened. Sandoval remained free to keep committing crimes.

The federal case against Sandoval proved Halloran's suspicions, and then some: Sandoval was an integral part of Nuestra Familia's drug trafficking operation — ferrying cocaine, methamphetamine, and cash between the Bay and Salinas.

The leniency shown toward him in San Francisco and Contra Costa County astonished a senior member of the Public Defender's felony unit. "There's no way that sort of charge drags on for five years," the attorney says on condition of anonymity. "Not for that weight and that many offenses — it's an open and shut case almost." Sandoval's high-level involvement with Nuestra Familia's crimes and drug trafficking posed such a threat that federal authorities from Sacramento indicted him, something the San Francisco-based U.S. Attorney for Northern California failed to do.

The lack of oversight for SFPD's use of confidential informants, the police department's refusal to act, and the recognition by other authorities that these CI's were out of control point to a culture of impunity within certain branches of San Francisco law enforcement that cries out for scrutiny and reform, experts say.

Peter Keane is one of these. "When you get in bed with characters like these and give them a pass on crimes they're committing, it's a form of corruption," says Keane, dean emeritus and professor of law at Golden Gate University, and a former San Francisco public defender and police commissioner. So how did local law enforcement in San Francisco let this situation get so out of control?


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16 comments
janetruffino
janetruffino

Liri Lesku, who was known to her friends as Leedy, was regrettably in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her presence in a place where a violent and brutal act took place cost her her life. I want to remind the author of this article, Ali Winston, that Miss Lesku's death was a tragedy. I found it very disheartening and distasteful that you can mention that Liri Lesku was a victim of a robbery gone wrong and in that same exact sentence call her a meth addict. Leedy was a human being. She has family, a child and friends who continue to love her and pray that she gets the justice she deserves. Leedy had her demons and struggles like so many people I know but that does not mean her addiction defined who she truly was or made her death somewhat understandable. 

wheelchairpimpin
wheelchairpimpin

Leedee was murdered on February13'th 2008...why are they saying it was the 25th, are they deliberately saying the wrong dates or are they just inept?

wheelchairpimpin
wheelchairpimpin

Leedee was murdered on February13'th 2008...why are they saying it was the 25th, are they deliberately saying the wrong dates or are they just inept?

fourfifteen
fourfifteen

The Story told here are Facts they are police INFORMANT. personally i think all you people who left a comment are Fucking Idiot

Keep.It.Street
Keep.It.Street

The Proof  is there, Face the Fact he's a police Informant get the paper work its there

Keep.It.Street
Keep.It.Street

The Proof  is there, Face the Fact he's a police Informant get the paper work its there

dontlikebullshitters
dontlikebullshitters

I don't understand how SF weekly can write so much bull shit and to write with out facts were do you get your information from its obvious you needed to write a story and fabricated a lot of your facts. dont you understand these people are deceased now they have families I think you need to write a story with true facts there is so much going on out there you could have written about. Dont you understand families have buried there loved ones what gives you the right to keep hashing out from the past I really feel that you owe these families an appology why dont you write about that. go make your self special on someone elses behalf and stop using deceased people to benefit from.

unmpressed
unmpressed

Liri Lesku May have had a drug addiction , but what gives  Sf weekly the right to label her as a "methamphetamine addict" and omit that she was also a daughter, mother and friend , and fail to mention she was a bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time, she was not even in the apartment where the alledged "robbery gone bad"  has been reported to have taken place.when she was murdered. SF Weekly you ought to apologize to Ms. Lesku's family and friends, for being so quick to label and failing to be respectful of the victims memory.

jchrist761
jchrist761

Sf weekly , you need proof , paper work on all this nonsense your accusing a dead man. Their was no proof of him being an informant! That Jaime making fake alagations . Get facts and show proof. Thats something you cant provide cause its all false. 

itneverends
itneverends

Just as many nazi war crimunals went "free" and were harbored by anti semetic  countries  we have "criminals  ( police) that are paid and "sworn to uphold the law!  NO one should be above the law..for any reason!! Our criminal justice system benefits the "best of the worst." And we pay "lawyers/public defenders" with our tax dollars  to make sure that the "best of the worst" get a fair trial!!  "The decline and fall of America is here!!" Forget jail and  fair trials --do as is done in China and some other countries:  "behead them!!" I  would be  most happy  to "drop the blade!!" WE HAVE TO TAKE  AMERICA BACK!!  I will join or  start any  movement to  stop  our decline!!

Mannstein
Mannstein

This is a good, solid piece of investigative reporting.  It's also just the tip of the rotten iceberg.

arunigrace
arunigrace

This has been happening for decades.The cops let the most violent offenders go free so they can benefit from them financially or politically to get perks inside their precincts. Then they go after low threat"criminals" in waves allowing violent crime to grow exponentially and misdemeanor issues to fill up the jails and court system, wasting valuable resources. Eric Holder orders the cops to go after bedridden grandmas using mmj with a vengeance while being in bed with the major meth, coke, heroin, and gun dealers all day, every day. This is our tax dollars at work people.


Lik Roper
Lik Roper

yes but some conservative out of it federal person can also say "my CI smokes pot in violation of federal law blah blah blah"...it depends upon who you talk to about it and what they think severe crime is...not all federal people think the same...there are occasional nazis...

Lik Roper
Lik Roper

yup...i called the FBI tip hotline today...i must be a career criminal...no doubt...that's right...me...yup...for shame...

Keep.It.Street
Keep.It.Street

@jchrist761 The proof is there he was an informant for the police get the paper work its there.  u need to Face Facts

TRUE_KNOWLEDGE
TRUE_KNOWLEDGE

@Keep.It.Street don't believe everything you read, there's always 3 sides to a story, the reporters, the defendants, and THE TRUTH. and exactly how the reporter LIED about the whole "SHOOT OUT" with Abraham Guerra, no it was A MURDER, the only shots fired were the defendants. and he had ran across to his house to retrieve the weapon. It was not self defense. As @jchrist761 stated Jaime was the one with the false accusations. I find it relatively hilarious how they did not mention Jaime or his witness "SNITCHING" during the trial ON Mr. Guerra during the trial. I think their should be a follow up story published about it, or maybe they won't release it until he's deceased as well. #FACTS from someone that sat through the trial.

 
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