UPDATE: The operations of the state-run central Contra Costa County drug task force have been suspended pending an audit into allegations that the task force's commander and a friend sold marijuana, methamphetamine and steroids that had been stolen from law-enforcement evidence lockers.
The accused commander, Norm Wielsch, 49, of Antioch, headed the Central Contra Costa Narcotics Enforcement Team, which is made up of police officers from local departments, including Walnut Creek, San Ramon, Danville, Pleasant Hill, Martinez and Clayton and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office. The task force also includes representatives from the county Probation Department and the district attorney’s office.
The task force targets mid- to high-level drug dealers in central Contra Costa. Members are trained by the Justice Department, work undercover and are available to agencies 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
San Ramon Police Chief Scott Holder, who is a board member of the task force, told the Contra Costa Times last week that a multi-agency team will conduct an audit of the allegations. The inspection team is composed of members from the Department of Justice, the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office, the Contra Costa Sheriff's Office and the San Ramon Police Department.
After the audit is complete, the inspection team will determine what to do with the task force, Holder told the Times.
Wielsch is accused, along with his private investigator friend Chris Butler, also 49, of stealing drugs from law-enforcement evidence lockers. Both were arrested Feb. 16 and arraigned Feb. 18 on a complaint alleging 28 felony counts.
The charges against the pair include conspiracy, selling methamphetamine, possession of methamphetamine for sale and multiple counts
of selling marijuana, possessing marijuana for sale, selling illegal steroids
and possessing illegal steroids for sale.
They also face enhancements on charges of being armed with handguns at the time of the crimes, police say.
The charges stem from an undercover investigation that began in November and allege illegal drug activity from Nov. 17 through Feb. 16, when the two men were arrested in Benicia.
Neither defendant entered a plea. They are scheduled to return to Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez on Wednesday.
According to William Gagen, the attorney for Butler, a Concord-based private investigator, the two men became friends about 25 years ago while they were officers in the Antioch Police Department.
Butler left law enforcement in the late 1990s.
Wielsch has worked with the state Department of Justice for the past 12 years and was the supervisor of the Central Contra Costa County Narcotic Enforcement Team, also known as CNET or CCCNET.
The team is one of dozens of drug-enforcement task forces throughout the state that are run through the Justice Department.
Contra Costa County Deputy District Attorney Jun Fernandez characterized Wielsch and Butler's activity as "a sophisticated scheme" and said Wielsch used his access as a law-enforcement officer to steal drugs from the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office evidence locker and from CNET and then gave them to Butler to sell on the streets.
"This was certainly not a sophisticated scheme," Wielsch's attorney, Michael Cardoza, said. "It was very simple."
He said it involved between $5,000 and $10,000.
According to Cardoza, Wielsch has been "extremely remorseful" and confessed to many of the crimes with which he has been charged. He has been cooperating with investigators since his arrest, Cardoza said.
He said Wielsch's cooperation "speaks to his character and to how he's going to meet these charges."
Gagen, who is representing Butler, however, said that Wielsch's cooperation with investigators seemed to be self-serving and to unfairly place more of the blame on Butler.
"Clearly there's been an abuse of trust by a high-ranking police officer," Gagen said.
He acknowledged that Butler and Wielsch knew each other and had been friends for many years, but said that Wielsch was the one who had access to the drugs, not Butler.
He said he was still reviewing the evidence in the case, and did not yet know the extent of Butler's involvement.
Cardoza said Wielsch has had health and financial problems but that he doesn't know what made him risk his career for what he characterized as such a small amount of money.
"As human beings we make mistakes," Cardoza said. "We have to face them and take responsibility for them."
There have been questions about how this case will impact the credibility of CNET and of how many CNET cases it could jeopardize.
The Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office is reviewing all the cases brought in by a drug task force commander, District Attorney Mark Peterson said Friday.
Investigators believe the criminal activity was limited to a four-month period and did not involve other police officers, Peterson said at a news conference in Martinez.
His office, however, will work with the state Department of Justice to review all the cases brought in by CNET to see if they have been compromised.
"This is very disappointing, not just for CNET, but for all of law enforcement," said Holder, San Ramon police chief and chairman of CNET's executive committee. "For now, CNET's operations have ceased. We will be evaluating next week what will happen next."
CNET is one of dozens of drug-enforcement task forces throughout the state that are run through the Justice Department.
Cardoza, however, said that the only cases that would be affected would be those from which Wielsch is accused of stealing drugs.
This case "does not affect the integrity of the whole unit," he said. "This is an individual person."
During the arraignment, Contra Costa County Judge Nancy Davis Stark reduced Wielsch's bail from $1 million to $400,000.
Gagen asked that the judge hear arguments to reduce Butler's bail, which is set at $900,000, at a later date.
--Bay City News contributed to this report.