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."
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?
Informants going rogue is a long-standing problem for law enforcement. A 2004 congressional report on the culpability of the Massachusetts FBI and U.S. Attorney in allowing Boston gangsters Whitey Bulger — the inspiration for Jack Nicholson's character in The Departed — and Stephen Flemmi to commit more than a dozen murders while cooperating with the feds found that: "Democracy succeeds in the United States when the rule of law is respected. When the government strays from the rule of law, the harm outweighs the benefit." Bulger and Flemmi's crimes, the report stated, "happened because informants were being protected and some members of the FBI adopted an 'ends justifies the means' approach to law enforcement."