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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

Page 4 of 5

Under SFPD's informant guidelines, Guerra's shooting of Mayorga would have placed him off-limits for use as an informant.

Guerra also was sentenced to two stretches in state prison for grand theft auto and repeated property crimes in February 2003. It was after being released, in May 2006, that his parole agent, Jeff Gil, hooked him up with SFPD's Gang Task Force as an informant. But again, this wouldn't come out until after Guerra's death.

On July 26, 2007, Jaime Gutierrez and a co-worker were working in Gutierrez's Mission garage when Guerra pulled up in a red Saab. Guerra knew Gutierrez, a one-time Norteno convicted of two shootings, and since his release had learned of Gutierrez's business. Guerra tried to extort business checks from Gutierrez, who rebuffed him. (Earlier that day, Guerra had a court date in Modesto for a similar scam.)

Guerra returned 10 minutes later with two other men. All three wore gloves. Guerra pulled out a .38-caliber pistol, asked Gutierrez "if he loved him," and pointed the weapon at the younger man, telling him that the .38 "already had a body on it." Gutierrez reached into his office and pulled out a twelve-gauge shotgun. He stepped to the Saab's passenger door and aimed at Guerra. Guerra fired once, missing Gutierrez. Gutierrez fired twice, tearing into Guerra's face and body. The other two men leaped out of the car and sprinted away.

Gutierrez jumped into Guerra's Saab and fled, Guerra's body in tow, turning himself in at Ingleside Station later that afternoon. Gutierrez told inpectors that he was acting in self-defense. One inspector joked during the interview about Gutierrez turning himself in with Guerra in tow: "How many people turn themselves in with a dead body in the front seat of the car they're driving?" he said.

When Kamala Harris, then a District Attorney, charged Gutierrez with Guerra's murder, the garage owner turned to Eric Safire, a combative defense attorney who has frequently courted controversy.

Safire and his investigator Steve Vender are well-versed in gangs; they're also acquainted with SFPD's Gang Task Force, an insular unit of 20 officers with a direct line to the FBI and limited oversight.

Safire dug into Guerra's history, filing subpoenas for the Gang Task Force files on Guerra. Specifically, Safire was looking for indications that Guerra was an informant. Guerra's criminal record was immediately suspect: "No matter what he did, he got away with it," Safire says. The DA's office rebuffed several discovery requests for such material. At one point, Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia objected to providing Guerra's 700-page rap sheet.

Vender and Safire's investigation revealed Guerra's parole agent, Jeff Gil, had unsuccessfully tried to re-incarcerate Guerra on three occasions since his 2006 release from prison. The first violation was for defrauding a Modesto woman; the second violation involved Guerra attacking two women in Fisherman's Wharf and pulling a gun on a third on July 8, 2006; the third time, Guerra was stabbed during a brawl with a rival Sureno gang member in the Mission on June 13, 2007: SFPD arrested but didn't charge him. On all three occasions, Gil recommended Guerra be sentenced.

When Vender asked Gil why Guerra wasn't sent back to prison, Gil told him that Guerra's cooperation with the Gang Task Force was "an important factor in the decision to allow Guerra to continue on parole." (This was another irony to Guerra's story: Gil was the one who helped Guerra become an informant in the first place.) Gil told Vender that after the Fisherman's Wharf incident, a member of the Gang Task Force telephoned him to ask for leniency for Guerra.

"The fact that he was arrested and cut loose for criminal conduct indicates SFPD knew he was violating his conduct for being a snitch," Safire says.

Up to this point, Assistant DA Garcia had filed motions asking the judge to restrict mention of Guerra's standing as a Norteno lieutenant and references to his gang tattoos and prior crimes. After Safire discovered Guerra's relationship with SFPD, Garcia contacted Gang Task Force Inspector Ed Yu, who "confirmed that Mr. Guerra was an informant who had worked with him and that he had a file on Mr. Guerra," according to court documents. Yu met with Garcia on June 11, 2008 and handed over copies of his file on Guerra; however, he requested Garcia withhold Guerra's file to protect ongoing investigations.

Garage owner Gutierrez was spared conviction by a hung jury in both August 2008 and a year later, in a separate retrial, when the San Francisco DA's office unsuccessfully tried to use a discredited jailhouse informant to accuse Gutierrez of admitting to Guerra's murder and plotting to kill Garcia.

In the cases of Guerra and Sandoval, outside circumstances led to both gang members' removal from society at large. Guerra was killed, and Sandoval was arrested and is currently in Sacramento County Jail while his federal narcotics conspiracy case drags on. But their protection by the San Francisco police department and DA led to a continued threat to public safety in exchange for intelligence which authorities refused to disclose.

"This story reflects some of the worst examples of informant policing, which is law enforcement ignoring informant crimes," says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who has studied confidential informants. San Francisco authorities' decision to allow Guerra and Sandoval to remain at large, Natapoff says, "shows an appalling disregard for public safety, disregard for the potential innocent bystanders, for the safety of people who would come into contact with Sandoval and Guerra, and finally disregard for the safety of the informants themselves."

About The Author

Ali Winston


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