At Large 

The East Bay sniper is still free. At least, so say some of the people who jailed the wrong man.

Page 2 of 9

Meanwhile, in all likelihood, the real sniper or snipers are still out there.

It all started when Gafford's wife reached out to help him. Chris and Sativa Gafford were an unlikely couple to be caught in the harsh glare of media scrutiny. They were a typical working-class American pair eking out a living on the fringes of the Bay Area. High-school sweethearts who grew up along the Milpitas-San Jose border, neither went to college. She is a dental assistant; he is a burly but gentle ironworker who followed her father into the building trades.

Gafford's parents split when he was six, and he and his mom, Margo, bounced around until they landed at the Casa del Lago mobile home park in San Jose when he was in the fifth grade. Family and friends describe him as a good kid. "Our definition of trouble was riding our bikes out late," said his childhood best friend Paul Carbone, who still lives there. Chris loved radio-controlled cars, and when he was old enough, he bought a souped-up Chevy Vega that he street-raced in Milpitas. He had smarts, too, but chafed in the classroom and couldn't wait to join the working world.

One of Chris' first career aspirations was to become a police officer. So his mother bought him a rifle and two handguns. She let him use them at the firing range, and then gave him the guns when he turned old enough to own them legally. But after a friend took Chris on a behind-the-scenes tour of San Francisco County Jail, his mother said, he lost his desire to join the ranks of law enforcement.

In 1994, Chris met Sativa Tidwell through a mutual friend during her last year at Milpitas High. They dated for two years, then got engaged and moved in together. They found an apartment in San Jose, and later moved in with her parents in Milpitas to save money. Sativa's dad, Dennis Tidwell, introduced Chris to welding, and he soon began picking up jobs throughout the Bay Area. After they married, Chris and Sativa packed up and moved to Stockton in 1999 in search of a home they could afford. Shortly thereafter, she gave birth to their daughter, Savannah, and the following spring, they purchased a cute beige-and-white Craftsman-style bungalow for $82,500 just north of the city limits.

The Gaffords settled into a suburban life. They joined a local church, while he rose each day at 4 a.m. for his four-hour round-trip commute to construction sites around the Bay Area. But then in the fall of 2002, Chris' dad, Harold Gafford, died of pancreatic cancer. "I never really saw him cry," Sativa said of her husband. "I knew that it hurt him, but he just stayed to himself about it."

Job stress also was getting to Chris. Long commutes, long hours, and difficult working conditions required him to be almost constantly alert. He later recalled that it was about this time that a colleague turned him on to methamphetamine -- the drug of choice for ironworkers. He soon got hooked, and was doing speed up to three times a week. "It just snowballed," he said.

At first, Chris managed to hide his growing problem from his family. Sativa said she didn't notice him acting differently until several months later. "Drugs were the last thing I ever thought," she said. "He was always against drugs. I never did drugs. If we knew somebody in high school who was doing drugs, we stayed away from them."

But by the spring of 2003, it was apparent Chris had changed. Instead of playing with Savannah in the evenings, he would hole up alone inside their locked garage, refusing to let Sativa in. When she asked why, he once responded angrily: "Because I can."

Sativa noticed that Chris had developed sores on his arms, but forgot all about it after he explained that he sometimes neglected to wear his leathers while welding. There were no other signs of drug use as far as she could tell; it wasn't as if people were traipsing through their house at all hours. But bills were piling up, and Sativa suspected Chris was getting high in the garage. So she went to Longs and bought a drug-test kit. He agreed to take the test and it came back clean, but she didn't know the kit detected only marijuana and cocaine, not methamphetamine.


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