At Large 

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

Page 3 of 9

Still frustrated that Chris wouldn't let her in the garage, Sativa drilled three holes in the walls to sneak a peek. But before she saw anything, he filled them up. So on November 12, 2003, after Chris stormed off following another argument about the garage, Sativa decided to break in. She's a shy woman, but she was determined. She grabbed a piece of the garage's siding, ripped it back, and reached inside to unlock the door handle. When she realized there was a deadbolt that could be opened only with a key, she jammed a screwdriver into the lock and jimmied it open. Then she took a black marker and scrawled in big letters on the inside of the wall: "Because I Can."

Sativa said she immediately ran back inside the house. She had no intention of actually searching the garage, and was just mad that Chris wouldn't let her in. But once she calmed down, she realized that she was curious, so she returned to the garage and started poking around. At first, she saw nothing out of the ordinary, but then she noticed that his small toolbox was locked, so she pried it open. Inside were several glass pipes specked with trace amounts of white powder. "I was hysterical -- crying," she said. "I didn't know what to do. I was scared."

Sativa called her mom, who told her to call the police. "I panicked," recalled Sativa's mother, Linda Tidwell. "I didn't know what was involved in drugs. I was afraid. I said: 'You need to think about Savannah.'" Sativa also thought police would get her husband help. A few minutes later, two San Joaquin County sheriff's deputies arrived, at about the same time that Chris came home. He immediately admitted that the drug paraphernalia was his and that he had been smoking meth. "They said: 'Do you want to press charges? Do you want Chris to be arrested?'" Sativa said of the deputies. "I said: 'No.' But they said: 'We're sorry, we have to arrest Chris.'"

After the deputies took him away, Sativa's parents arrived. Still curious, they all decided to look around the garage. Inside a cabinet, they found more paraphernalia, so they called the sheriff's department again. "I just wanted to get the stuff away from the house," Sativa's mother said. This time, narcotics investigators returned and found flammable chemicals used to make methamphetamine; they deduced that Chris had been operating a small makeshift lab. He later told investigators he couldn't afford his $300-a-month habit, so he had been trying to cook crank for himself. Instead of facing a minor drug-possession charge, Chris was now ensnared in a felony manufacturing case. And because the detached garage was kitty-corner to Savannah's bedroom, prosecutors added a felony charge of child endangerment to his rap sheet. "Police told us he could blow up the garage and it could hurt Savannah," Sativa said.

Although there was no history of violence in their marriage, Sativa also obtained a temporary restraining order against her husband on the advice of sheriff's investigators. But she soon changed her mind, and never had it enforced. Just before Thanksgiving, Gafford's childhood friend Carbone gave Chris' mother enough money to bail him out, and he came home.

Gradually, the Gaffords' lives returned to normal. One of the conditions of Chris' bail was that he attend meetings of Narcotics Anonymous. He worked each day on the retrofit of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, went to NA meetings, played with Savannah, and was in bed by nine each night, Sativa said. "We were working things out," she said. "Our relationship was better. No more secrets. No more locked garage."

Chris was hopeful about a plea deal with prosecutors, who had offered him eight months in county jail. "It's a case that happens eight million times a day here in the Central Valley -- some guy cooking meth in his garage," said his attorney, San Joaquin County Deputy Public Defender Eric Taylor. With good behavior, Chris would have been out of jail in as little as four months; his mom and stepfather had offered to pay the mortgage while he was away, so he and Sativa could keep their house. The only hang-up was that Chris was reluctant to plead guilty to the child-endangerment charge. Still, it looked as if the deal would work out, and Sativa thought to herself that calling the cops hadn't been such a bad idea after all.

Then at 9 p.m. on March 10, there was a knock at their door. Ten CHP officers were outside. "Chris, we want to talk to you about the 580 sniper shootings," Sativa recalled them saying. "Can you come down to the station?" She said she learned the next morning on the news that her husband had been arrested as the sniper. "I stayed up all night long waiting for a call," she said. "Then, all of the sudden, all these news reporters were on my front lawn."

Sativa had no clue that she had put her husband on a collision course with the ambitions of the California Highway Patrol.

Dwight "Spike" Helmick had been commissioner of the CHP since then-Governor Pete Wilson appointed him to head the agency in 1995. But by December 2003, new Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped strong hints that he wanted his own person at the helm.


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