A prosecutor told a federal jury in San Francisco today that a former Contra Costa County sheriff’s deputy metaphorically “sold his badge” when he allegedly arranged so-called “dirty DUI” arrests for a private investigator.
Today was the first day of trial for Stephen Tanabe, 50, of Alamo, on seven federal charges related to his role in the drunken driving arrests of three husbands of clients of former investigator Christopher Butler in Danville in late 2010 and early 2011.
Tanabe allegedly received cocaine and an expensive Glock gun from Butler in exchange for the arrests, which were intended to strengthen the wives’ positions in divorce and custody cases and which came after employees of Butler enticed the men to get drunk.
“To put it more bluntly, he sold his badge,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Kearney told the jury during his opening statement in the court of U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer.
“In selling his badge, he let loose intoxicated drivers on the street of Danville, a town he was sworn to protect,” Kearney said.
“He violated his duty to provide honest services,” the prosecutor charged.
Butler’s driving-under-the-influence operations were part of a wide-ranging Contra Costa County police corruption scandal centered on Butler and former drug squad commander Norman Wielsch.
Both Butler, who is slated to be a key prosecution witness against Tanabe, and Wielsch have pleaded guilty to an array of charges including drug offenses, conspiracy and civil rights violations.
Butler was sentenced to eight years in prison and Wielsch, the former commander of the now-disbanded Central Contra Costa County Narcotics Enforcement Team, was sentenced to 14 years.
Among other crimes, Butler admitted to staging drunken driving arrests and extorting protection money from employees of an illegal massage parlor that he and Wielsch founded.
Both men admitted to selling marijuana and methamphetamine that Wielsch stole from CNET evidence lockers; conducting phony stings in which they stole property and cash from prostitutes who were rivals of the massage parlor employees; and staging a phony arrest of a teenager whose mother wanted him to stop selling drugs.
Tanabe’s trial is expected to last about two weeks.
Defense attorney Tim Pori told the jury during his opening statement that he plans to attack the credibility of Butler and other prosecution witnesses, including Carl Marino, a top Butler aide.
“The evidence will show this case is based on lies, lies, and more lies,” Pori said.
“These are people who built their careers on lies, deception and destroying people,” the defense attorney said.
“Chris Butler is a masterful manipulator and one of his favorite things to do was to frame people,” said Pori, who charged that Butler will be seeking to aid prosecutors when on the stand in a bid to have his prison term reduced.
Pori said he didn’t dispute that Tanabe participated in the three arrests, but said officers in the low-crime town had performance objectives that included making DUI arrests, and said it was normal for them to wait outside bars to watch for intoxicated drivers.
He said the alleged cocaine payment was never found and that while a Glock gun was found in Tanabe’s home, there was no proof he received it in exchange for the arrests.
Pori said Butler admitted to staging a total of 12 dirty DUI arrests in various Bay Area locations, and contended Butler didn’t need to pay Tanabe because he didn’t pay the officers in the other cities.
The three arrests in which Tanabe participated occurred after the targets left bars and drove off in their cars in Danville on Nov. 2, 2010, and Jan. 9 and 14, 2011.
Tanabe summoned a fellow officer to make the first arrest because he was off duty that night and made the second and third arrests himself, Kearney told the jury.
Although he was a sheriff’s deputy, Tanabe was working as a Danville police officer under an arrangement in which the town contracted with the sheriff to provide officers.
The federal charges against Tanabe include one count of conspiring to deprive others of his honest services and use wire fraud to do so.
He is also accused of three counts of wire fraud and three counts of engaging in extortion under color of official right when he allegedly received cocaine and the Glock gun in payment.
The alleged wire fraud took the form of text messages Tanabe sent to or received from Butler, according to revised federal charges filed against Tanabe by prosecutors in June.
In one of the messages cited in the charges, Butler allegedly texted Tanabe from inside The Vine and Bridges wine bar on Jan. 9, 2011, “They are up + heading for the door.”
On the night of the third arrest on Jan. 14, Butler allegedly texted Tanabe from inside The Vine, “He’s wasted.”
Tanabe and Butler met in the late 1990s when both were working as Antioch police officers, Kearney said.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News