By Joe Vazquez, CBS 5
MARTINEZ (CBS 5) — As narcotics task force commander Norm Wielsch and private investigator Chris Butler made their first formal appearances before a judge Friday afternoon, the prosecutor made a stunning revelation in the packed courtroom — that Wielsch admitted to investigators he stole drugs from law enforcement evidence lockers and re-sold them with Butler’s help.
Each man faces more than 20 felony charges for possessing and selling marijuana, methamphetamine and steroids. Contra Costa County Judge Nancy Davis reduced Wielsch’s bail from $1 million down to $400,000. Butler’s attorney said he was still working on reducing his client’s bail, which is set at $900,000.
Why did the men allegedly do it? Wielsch’s attorney, Michael Cardoza, said there were financial reasons — including the fact that Wielsch has a daughter who needs a bone marrow transplant.
“As human beings we make mistakes,” Cardoza said. “We have to face them and take responsibility for them.”
According to Cardoza, Wielsch has been “extremely remorseful” and did confess to many of the crimes he has been charged with. He has been cooperating with investigators since his arrest, Cardoza added.
“He accepted responsibility for these charges,” Cardoza said, indicating that Wielsch’s cooperation “speaks to his character and to how he’s going to meet these charges.”
William Gagen, who is representing Butler, however, said that Wielsch’s alleged cooperation with investigators seemed to him 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 became friends about 25 years ago while they were officers in the Antioch Police Department. But he said that Wielsch was the one who had access to the drugs, not Butler.
Gagen said he was still reviewing the evidence in the case, and did not yet know the extent of Butler’s involvement in the alleged scheme.
Contra Costa County Deputy District Attorney Jun Fernandez characterized Wielsch and Butler’s alleged 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 the Central Contra Costa County Narcotic Enforcement Team (CNET) and then gave them to Butler to sell back out onto the streets.
“This was certainly not a sophisticated scheme. It was very simple,” Cardoza maintained, claiming it only involved between $5,000 and $10,000.
The charges stem from an undercover investigation that began in November and allege illegal drug activity from Nov. 17 through Wednesday when the two men, both 49, were arrested in Benicia.
Neither defendant entered a plea Friday and both were scheduled to return to Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez on March 2.
Butler left law enforcement in the late 1990s and currently has his own private investigations business, while Wielsch has been working with the state Department of Justice for the past 12 years and was the supervisor for CNET.
The team is one of dozens of drug enforcement task forces throughout the state that are run through the justice department.
Officials told CBS 5 on Friday that all of CNET’s activities had been suspended for the time being because of the charges brought against Wielsch.
“This is very disappointing, not just for CNET, but for all of law enforcement,” said Scott 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.”
Cardoza, however, claimed that the only cases that would be affected would be those from which Wielsch allegedly stole the drugs.
This case “does not affect the integrity of the whole unit,” Cardoza contended. “This is an individual person.”
While investigators believe the alleged scheme was limited to a four-month period and did not involve any other police officers, District Attorney Mark Peterson said his office would be working with the state Department of Justice to review all the cases brought in by CNET to see if they have been compromised.
(Copyright 2011 by CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Bay City News contributed to this report.)