The four loud bangs startled Richard Statner, who was driving up the Dublin Grade on east Interstate 580. "It sounded like something was banging into the sheet metal of my truck," he said of the noises, which came at one-second intervals. He glanced to his right, but it was dark and he saw nothing. The mysterious clanging soon stopped, and since his Ford Ranger was handling okay, he shrugged off the incident and headed home. Two days went by before he discovered the four bullet holes. Someone had been shooting at him.
The 48-year-old Dublin resident's pickup was one of eight vehicles struck by bullets nearly eleven months ago along a stretch of 580 between San Leandro and Castro Valley. They were all victims of the so-called East Bay Sniper.
Coming about a year and a half after the case of the infamous DC sniper, the 580 shootings drew intense media attention. Each day, it seemed, a new report surfaced about another victim. It was as if the sniper was prowling East Bay freeways every night. Lost in the din of the news coverage was that all of the shootings reportedly occurred in a single hour on the evening of February 23. It just seemed as though the sniper had gone on a weeklong rampage because several victims didn't notice the bullet holes in their vehicles for a few days.
No one was injured, but the wall-to-wall news coverage created a commuter panic. Hundreds of tips poured in as police helicopters buzzed over the Castro Valley area. It was as if every time a pebble hit a car, its driver was sure the sniper had struck again. People were afraid to drive at night.
Under fierce pressure to solve the case, the California Highway Patrol announced a major breakthrough on March 11. At a packed press conference in Dublin, the CHP identified Christopher Charles Gafford of Stockton as the East Bay Sniper. Highway patrol brass were not shy about congratulating themselves for tracking down and arresting the 27-year-old construction worker, who had a drug problem and owned several guns. The announcement made national news. East Bay freeways were once again safe to drive, CHP officials said proudly.
But less than 24 hours later, the highway patrol was dealt an embarrassing blow. The Alameda County District Attorney's office tersely announced that not only was there insufficient evidence to charge Gafford with eight counts of attempted murder, there wasn't enough evidence to charge him with any crime.
In public, highway patrol officials downplayed the DA's stunning announcement. Suspects are often rearrested and charged when investigators develop more evidence, they assured reporters. "We're positive it's him," CHP spokesman Sergeant Wayne Ziese told reporters. "He's our prime suspect."
But interviews and unpublished crime reports reveal that the CHP had little evidence to back up its boasts. Only three of the eight shooting victims had seen anyone at all, and none could identify Gafford. None properly identified his vehicle. Nor did any of his guns match the bullet fragments found in the victims' vehicles. An examination of CHP crime reports even raises questions about whether all the bullets could have been fired by a single gunman. And while there have been no reported shootings on Interstate 580 in the ten months since Gafford was arrested, there also were no additional incidents in the sixteen days leading up to his arrest.
The highway patrol's case turned out to be so flimsy that county prosecutors wouldn't take it, and many California law-enforcement officials do not believe Gafford was the sniper. But that didn't stop the CHP. Anxious to solve the crime and put the public's fears to rest, the highway patrol and some of its powerful allies found another way to make Gafford pay when they escalated a small-time drug charge into a serious offense that threatened to keep him behind bars for as long as 51 years.
Chris Gafford fell victim to the criminal justice system, despite the dearth of evidence against him. He became an easy target for an overmatched and overconfident state agency bent on broadening its authority under the leadership of a top cop hoping to avoid early retirement.
Gafford now spends his days in a federal prison. In a series of recent phone conversations in which he spoke publicly about his case for the first time, he steadfastly maintained his innocence and remains outraged about what happened to him. His wife and daughter have had to sell the family's home and move back in with her parents, and he hasn't been with them in more than ten months.
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