Former private investigator Christopher Butler, wearing red jail garb, matter-of-factly told a federal jury in San Francisco today about how he set up drunken driving stings and carried out an array of other crimes.
Butler, 52, of Concord, testified at the trial of former Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Deputy Stephen Tanabe, 50, of Alamo.
Tanabe is accused of conspiracy, extortion and wire fraud for his role in aiding Butler by allegedly arranging the arrests of three men in stings in Danville in 2010 and 2011.
The arrests were known as “dirty DUIs” because the men, who were husbands of Butler’s female clients in divorce cases, were allegedly enticed by Butler employees to become intoxicated at Danville bars and then arrested after Butler alerted Tanabe the men were driving away.
“Mr. Tanabe promised me he would perform all the DUI stops I would ever want if he could have a Glock firearm,” Butler told the jury in the court of U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer.
Butler testified he paid Tanabe with a Glock handgun for making two arrests on Jan. 9 and 14, 2011, and gave him $200 worth of cocaine for summoning a fellow officer to make an earlier arrest on Nov. 2, 2010.
He said Tanabe collected the cocaine a few days later by driving his patrol car closely past Butler’s moving car in a parking lot.
“I reached out the window and handed him the baggie,” Butler told the jury.
Butler was one of two masterminds, along with former state narcotics squad commander Norman Wielsch, of a wide-ranging police corruption scandal in Contra Costa County.
He pleaded guilty last year to seven federal charges, including conspiring to sell methamphetamine and marijuana Wielsch stole from evidence lockers; violating the civil rights of a teenager and prostitutes in fake arrests; extorting protection money from workers in a massage parlor he and Wielsch established; and illegal wiretapping.
Butler was sentenced to eight years in prison and as part of his plea bargain agreed to aid in the prosecution of Wielsch, Tanabe and others.
Wielsch, the former commander of the now-disbanded Central Contra Costa County Narcotics Enforcement Team, pleaded later in 2012 to five charges and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Tanabe is accused only in connection with three DUI arrests.
He is the only person in the scandal to go to trial thus far, with the result that Butler’s appearance today was his first public testimony in any of the cases other than statements during his guilty plea.
The formerly hirsute Butler, who now appears fully bald as result of being partly bald and shaving the remainder of his hair, wore black-rimmed glasses and red Alameda County Jail clothing on the stand.
Under questioning from prosecutor Hartley West, he acknowledged that his eight-year sentence was already decreased from a mandatory 10-year minimum in exchange for his cooperation and could be reduced further if he testifies truthfully.
Defense attorney Tim Pori, who will cross-examine Butler tomorrow, charged during his opening statement last week that Butler is a “prolific con man” and “master manipulator” who has an incentive to incriminate Tanabe to obtain a sentence reduction.
Pori maintained that Tanabe was carrying out his duties in arranging the arrests and that there is no proof he received a gun and cocaine in payment.
Tanabe faces one count of conspiring to deprive others of honest services, three counts of wire fraud and three counts of extortion related to the alleged payments. The wire fraud charges refer to text messages he and Butler allegedly exchanged the evenings of the arrests.
West methodically took Butler through the events of the three incidents by referring to a list of phone calls and text messages among Butler, Tanabe and Carl Marino, a top Butler aide who had invited the three targets to meetings inside Danville bars.
Butler testified that before Livermore winery owner Mitchell Katz was arrested on Jan. 14, 2011, Butler was waiting in a car outside The Vine, a wine tasting bar, while Marino and several women working as decoys were inside with Katz.
Butler said that after Marino reported that Katz appeared to be intoxicated, Butler texted to Tanabe, “He’s wasted.”
When Tanabe arrested Katz as he drove off from the bar, Butler followed and videotaped the incident through the windshield of his own car, he testified.
An hour later, Butler told the jury, he received a text from Tanabe saying, “I’m getting good at these. Already 10-8.”
Butler said he interpreted Tanabe’s comment to refer to dirty DUIs and said the “10-8” meant Tanabe was back on patrol.
Although Tanabe was a sheriff’s deputy, he was working as a Danville police officer under an arrangement in which the town contracted with the sheriff to provide officers.
Butler said he chose Danville for the stings “because Mr. Tanabe was working there.”
The two men met when both were Antioch police officers in the late 1990s.
West also went over the seven crimes to which Butler pleaded guilty.
In connection with one of the counts, Butler said, “I conspired with the commander of a drug task force in taking drugs out of the evidence and trying to sell them.”
Butler said the workers in the massage parlor he and Wielsch founded “engaged in sex acts as well as massage” and the protection money he and Wielsch extorted was “to make sure law enforcement would not raid it without their knowledge.”
He said he installed “probably a couple of hundred” wiretapping devices in cars used by his clients’ husbands.
Butler will be back on the stand on Tuesday for an expected half-day of cross-examination. West told Breyer today that prosecutors expect to wrap up their case Tuesday afternoon, clearing the way for the defense to begin presenting witnesses on Wednesday.
Pori conducted about 10 minutes of cross-examination before the trial recessed for the day.
He asked Butler, “You made your living by setting people up, isn’t that right?”
“I think that was one of the services, yes,” Butler answered.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News