At Large 

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

Page 4 of 9

With its spit-and-polish image, the CHP has always attracted military veterans to its ranks. But unlike other state police agencies, the CHP has never been considered the crème de la crème of California law enforcement. Since its inception 75 years ago, the CHP's primary mission has been to keep the highways safe and the traffic flowing smoothly. Investigating murders and solving high-profile crimes was the domain of city police departments and county sheriff's offices.

But Helmick was intent on transforming the CHP into a top-notch state police department, several law-enforcement insiders said. Under Helmick, the CHP's role had expanded dramatically. After 9/11, he became California's chief of homeland security, and promptly dispatched CHP officers to patrol the state's high-profile bridges and guard nuclear power plants. He also managed for the first time in department history to deploy highway patrol officers on the streets of some of the state's largest cities. He did it by offering to help cash-strapped police departments fight gang and gun violence in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland.

But with the increased exposure came increased criticism. Civil-rights advocates accused the CHP of systemic racial profiling, and a high-ranking highway patrol official sued the agency, alleging it maintained a culture of discrimination by denying promotions to minorities. Helmick was accused of calling black Assistant Chief Greg Manuel "boy," and of slipping white officers the answers to promotion exams. Helmick took the stand in September 2003 and denied the charges, and the CHP ultimately won the case.

But in early 2004, the CHP was back in court. This time a Southern California man, Steve Grassilli of Ramona, accused a group of CHP officers of harassing him for five years after he filed a complaint against one of them. He had a strong case. Grassilli's attorney, Gregory Garrison, said two CHP officers broke ranks and substantiated the claims, saying they had been pressured to lie. But instead of disciplining the harassers, the highway patrol investigated one of these whistleblowers. The jury ultimately ruled in Grassilli's favor and ordered the CHP to pay him $4.5 million. The San Diego Union-Tribune quoted a juror as saying, "We caught them in so many lies. I hope this shakes up the CHP like you can't believe." But Helmick was defiant. According to the paper, he responded to the verdict by saying, "I am extremely disappointed and amazed at this decision. I disagree entirely with it. We will look at every way humanly possible to appeal it."

A $4.5 million hit was the last thing Helmick needed. His department already was so stretched financially that he had halted all recruiting efforts in May 2003. At the same time, the war in Iraq was taking a toll upon its ranks: Many officers were military reservists who were suddenly being called up.

Perhaps most significantly for Gafford, the CHP also was engaged in a turf war with the Alameda County Sheriff's Office in the months prior to the sniper case. In 2003, the two departments sparred over the patrol of unincorporated back roads from Dublin to Castro Valley. Under state law, it was CHP territory, but Alameda County Sheriff Charlie Plummer claimed that the CHP's extra post-9/11 responsibilities had left it unable to perform its core duties. Plummer further angered Helmick when he proposed that the sheriff's office step in with its own patrol crew. Helmick responded by beefing up the CHP presence in the area to more than forty officers, even as the department cut back on patrols elsewhere.

Finally, in late July of 2003, a deadly squabble between gay lovers escalated the turf battle. According to court documents, the CHP was first on the scene after Oakdale resident Ronald Paul allegedly murdered his partner Craig Robertson just off Interstate 580 on the Altamont Pass. Paul allegedly ran over Robertson after they appeared to have gotten in an argument. Anxious to prove that it could do more than write speeding tickets and investigate accidents, the CHP made noises about being the lead agency on the case, law-enforcement sources said. But the sheriff's office pulled rank, reminding the highway patrol that it was the agency that investigates murders. In fact, other law-enforcement sources said they could not remember the CHP having ever handled a shooting case in Alameda County.

The CHP relented, but when someone started shooting up I-580 in late February 2004, the highway patrol was determined to run the investigation. "He really wanted to do it," Plummer said in a recent interview. "Spike was basically trying to save his job."

Helmick bristled at Plummer's comments. He said his department took the case because the shootings occurred on an interstate highway, which is its normal jurisdiction. "Mr. Plummer, as usual, hasn't got a clue as to what he is talking about," Helmick said. The CHP had no need to prove itself, he said, because his department had handled shooting cases before -- although he would not provide specifics.

But interviews and crime reports show that from the moment the CHP took control of the sniper case, it was apparent that the agency was in over its head.


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