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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 

Wednesday, May 8 2013
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In San Francisco, a 2011 federal case against MS-13 in the Mission District was tarnished by the violent activities of the government's key informant, who continued to order and commit assaults while cooperating. The government's key informant in Operation Black Widow, another federal investigation into Nuestra Familia conducted during the late '90s and early '00s, committed and ordered assaults and at least one murder while cooperating with the FBI. Federal prosecutors looked the other way.

While informants have been a staple of information-gathering, former Florida cop Drago, who supervised organized crime and narcotics units, says that most informants are usually low-level offenders who are shown leniency for petty crimes in exchange for reporting on more serious criminals. Police regulate the conduct of informants through internal guidelines, which generally prohibit officers from using individuals involved in serious crimes such as murder, rape, and drug trafficking.

According to SFPD's own Informant Manual, officers are supposed to cut loose confidential informants if they engage in violent activity: "Individuals with serious crimes of violence, sexual misconduct (other than prostitution), weapons violations and/or perjury convictions should not be considered as potential informants." Such people can only be used with the approval of the unit's officer-in-charge, the commanding officer of the Investigations Bureau, and a member of the District Attorney's Office.

Drago says that although guidelines for acceptable conduct are "stretched" in police departments, going so far as to turn a blind eye to violent offenses like Sandoval's crimes crosses the line.

"No informant is that good that a police department should compromise themselves where a dangerous criminal goes around committing these crimes," says Drago. Aside from being dangerous, he believes that CI's like Sandoval aren't reliable because, by continuing to commit crimes, they violate their agreement with the police.

"These cases tell you that, at a minimum, SFPD has become very irresponsible," says Keane. Rather than the informant being beholden to the police for allowing him to stay on the street in exchange for keeping them in the know, Keane says that when authorities turn a blind eye to serious crimes, it "gives the criminal a view of himself that he's untouchable — and he is."

Drago and Keane both believe that the existence of rogue informants for SFPD's specialized Gang Task Force and Narcotics Bureau indicates serious flaws in the department's internal checks and balances. (The SFPD's Narcotics Bureau, Gang Task Force, and Media Relations Office wouldn't comment on the department's handling of violent informants for this story.) "Somebody is dropping the ball in management," says Drago. "SFPD have let loose an unguided missile on the public" by allowing dangerous men like Sandoval (and, as we'll see, at least one other) to stay at large in spite of their offenses, says Keane. "No modern police force with any professionalism engages in that sort of practice anymore."


Sandoval rose quickly in Nuestra Familia's ranks after he was discharged from state prison in May 2005, serving nine years for first-degree robbery. Once outside, Sandoval played a critical role in N.F.'s drug trafficking operation, moving cash, cocaine, and dozens of pounds of methamphetamine between Salinas, the Bay Area, and elsewhere. He soon took over cocaine trafficking for N.F.'s Salinas regiment, and also rose to become the head of the San Francisco regiment.

According to the testimony of N.F. "associate" Jason Treas, Sandoval and several other high-ranking Familianos would hold regular "juntas" about their drug operations, robberies, and "whatever criminal activities that we could be involved in that would financially benefit the regiments." The mid-2000s were fat years for N.F.: At its peak, the San Francisco regiment took in roughly $500,000 per month and $150,000 in profit after paying tribute to Salinas. N.F. had a direct line to the Jalisco cartel for methamphetamine. Drops were often made at Metro PCS franchises, which N.F. favored as a means for laundering money.

Though Sandoval was on parole, he made no attempt to stay out of trouble. On Feb. 10, 2006, he was arrested in Salinas by the local gang task force after trying to evade cops first in a van, then on foot. Police saw Sandoval toss a pair of gloves from the passenger side of the van, and a loaded .38-caliber revolver with a spent casing was found in the van's passenger door. Sandoval was charged with firearms offenses by the Monterey County District Attorney, but made bail twice. His bench warrants are still open. Less than four months later, in May, SFPD arrested and charged Sandoval with a DUI and possession of a loaded gun. Sandoval bailed out on this case as well, and moved to Richmond with Treas.

But a new city didn't mean a new start: On Feb. 27, 2007, the Richmond Police Department, SFPD, and Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided the apartment complex where Treas and Sandoval lived. Richmond Police Sgt. Aaron Pomeroy's police report notes that SFPD narcotics Inspector Britt Elmore wrote the search warrants; Elmore would help Sandoval negotiate his cooperation with SFPD years later.

Five SFPD officers and two from Richmond broke in the door to Sandoval's apartment at 2601 Hilltop Drive, while 17 other officers burst into nearby apartments where Treas and a woman were living. Sandoval and his girlfriend were also detained. Pomeroy searched Treas' apartment and garage, turning up a digital scale, 27.8 grams of methamphetamine, cocaine, and 9 mm ammunition. The apartment had been set up as a drug mill. Sandoval took responsibility for the drugs and was booked for alleged possession of cocaine with intent to sell.

Sitting in his office at the Richmond Police Station that afternoon, Pomeroy got a shock when he glanced out the window and saw Sandoval walking away from the building. After checking with the Richmond City Jail and realizing Sandoval had made bail, Pomeroy had Treas' bail raised. The Contra Costa DA's office filed charges against Sandoval, which, had he been convicted, would have been his third strike. But the DA's office sent the case back to law enforcement for "further investigation," and charges were never pursued. Luis Marin, the supervisor of the Contra Costa County DA's drug unit, says he returned Sandoval's arrest to Richmond police because the bench warrant was issued by a San Francisco judge, but SFPD never provided information that would have allowed the Contra Costa DA to charge the case. "We only know what they tell us," says Marin. "There was ... something needed for prosecution that we didn't have at the time."

About The Author

Ali Winston

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