It was the early morning hours of June 17, 2014. Oakland Police Department homicide investigators Mike Gantt and Caesar Basa sat across a table from rookie officer Brendan O'Brien in an interview room known as "the box." Located deep inside OPD's downtown headquarters, this is where detectives interrogate murder suspects.
Hours earlier, O'Brien had called OPD's emergency-dispatch number to report that his wife, Irma Huerta Lopez, shot herself in the head at his Oakland hills apartment. But several details pertaining to the alleged suicide bothered Gantt. He was suspicious about the gun and ammunition forensics at the crime scene, and he thought O'Brien's alibi didn't add up.
Gantt also says Basa was pitching O'Brien softball questions. When it was his turn to interrogate, he zeroed in on inconsistencies in O'Brien's story. Gantt intended to press the rookie just as he would any suspect.
However, while questioning O'Brien about the holes in the young officer's account, Gantt says he felt a sharp jolt to his leg. "Basa was kicking me under the table," he explained in a recent interview. The two investigators stepped out of the box. "Basa told me, 'He's a cop, you need to ease up,'" Gantt recalled.
"'Basa, I think the guy killed his wife,'" he replied.
Gantt would never get to ask O'Brien any more questions. According to the veteran investigator, the lieutenant overseeing OPD's homicide unit at the time, John Lois, yanked him from the interrogation and eventually took him off the case. O'Brien was subsequently cleared as a suspect, and Huerta Lopez's death was classified as a suicide.
The fact that an Oakland cop was the prime suspect in a murder investigation never hit the news. Eventually, O'Brien returned to work as a patrol officer. Eight months later on the streets of East Oakland, he would meet and exploit a seventeen-year-old girl, who went by the name "Celeste Guap": the victim at the center of the OPD's sex-crime scandal.
News of the Guap case made national headlines earlier this summer. But there has been little, if any, discussion of Huerta Lopez. That is, until last week, when Gantt broke what he referred to as the OPD's "blue wall of silence."
Gantt is currently on administrative leave, but says he is speaking out now because Oakland's police chief, mayor, and city administrator all retaliated against him: at first because he tried to investigate O'Brien, and later to distract the public from the scandalous sexual exploitation of Guap by dozens of East Bay cops.
Now, his shocking accusations call into question the official story of Huerta Lopez's death. But he's not alone in doubting the conclusions reached by OPD and the Alameda County district attorney.
Huerta Lopez's family also believed from the start that O'Brien was the killer. They say that OPD ignored their concerns and didn't sufficiently follow through on the case.
And even Guap, who says she was "dating" O'Brien before he committed suicide last year, told the Express that she thinks O'Brien was capable of shooting his wife — and that he once threatened to kill her, too.
Gantt, who filed a claim of retaliation against the City of Oakland last week, stands by his intuition even two years later:
"I believe he killed her."
A Suspicious Death
Officer Brendan O'Brien called OPD's non-911 emergency number at 9:52 p.m. on the night of his wife's death, according to police-dispatch records. Oakland officers Brandon Perry and Brandon Taylor were the first on scene. Perry said they encountered O'Brien, who they recognized as a fellow cop, standing in the front doorway of his apartment. He was wearing "a gray t-shirt, gray basketball shorts, and no shoes or socks," he wrote in a report. Perry added that O'Brien had a "distant stare in his eyes."
O'Brien told them about an argument he had with his wife earlier that evening, and her suspicions that he was having an affair. Perry and Taylor wrote in their reports that O'Brien stated he "left" the apartment and "went" to a gas station on Mountain Boulevard and 98th Avenue to buy cigarettes. He claimed that, when he returned, he found his wife dead from a gunshot wound. Neither officer recorded whether O'Brien drove or walked to the station.
In fact, none of the incident reports released by OPD make it clear how O'Brien traveled to the store. But an evidence technician, who put her hand on the hood and grill of O'Brien's car two hours after he claimed to have bought the cigarettes, wrote that it "did not feel any warmer to me than the temperature inside the garage."
There were several hints at the apartment that the marriage was near its end. Perry observed "a female's wedding ring" atop a paper towel on the coffee table in the living room. Police-evidence technician Julie Jaecksch later noticed a "small, plain band ring," similar to a man's wedding band, on the dresser in the bedroom. When police searched Huerta Lopez's car that was parked across the street, they found "a large quantity of clothing in the trunk." On the dining room table, they saw O'Brien and Huerta Lopez's marriage certificate, placed next to "neat piles of papers." Next to this was an envelope marked "do not open."
Under the direction of Lt. Roland Holmgren and Sgt. Sylvia Rodriguez, who were supervising the scene, other officers took statements from residents in the building's other three units. One of O'Brien's neighbors signed a written statement that, at about 10 p.m., they were inside their apartment when they "heard a noise that sounded like 'thump.'" It wasn't loud, but it wasn't faint. They opened their balcony door, which faces the building's only driveway and the lone staircase leading to the entrance, and stepped out into the night. They didn't see or hear anything, including gunfire, and they didn't report hearing or seeing O'Brien return home, either on foot or by car.
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