At Large 

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

Page 5 of 9

First off, the highway patrol had no investigators who specialized in shootings, so it was forced to deploy the closest thing it had -- stolen-car investigators from its Alameda County Regional Auto Theft Task Force. And unlike local police agencies, the CHP also had no ballistics experts, so it had to call in the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

The investigation also was marred by interagency communication snafus and the loss of possible evidence, according to interviews and copies of crime reports. For example, one of the victims, George Walker Jr. of Oakland, didn't discover the bullet hole in his Toyota Camry until he finished a tennis match in Piedmont two hours after the shooting. Walker said he went to the Piedmont Police Department, but that no one would take his report. So he called 911, and a CHP officer was dispatched to his Oakland home two hours later. The officer took a brief statement and told Walker the bullet likely disintegrated on impact, but didn't examine his car closely. "A couple of days went past and I didn't hear anything from anyone," Walker said. Finally, after repeatedly hearing about the sniper shootings on the news, he called the CHP. "I was told my original report was lost," he said. "That really, really ticked me off."

Another aspect of the investigation that calls its competence into question was the assertion by CHP officials about a week after the shootings that they believed a .22-caliber weapon had been used in all eight cases. A CHP investigators' summary in early March shows that the ATF did find .22-caliber slugs in at least three vehicles and one partial slug consistent with a .22-caliber in a fourth. But the crime reports reveal that some officers believed bullets from a .380-caliber or a 9mm handgun had struck two of the other four vehicles.

CHP officials also were adamant that they were after a single shooter, but the official statements of the eight victims in the case raise serious questions about that conclusion. It was a key problem that the CHP never revealed publicly: How was it that the sniper could have been in more than one place at the same time on February 23? For instance, Miguel Rangel of Oakland told CHP officers he heard a loud noise at 6:30 p.m. while he was traveling west on 580 near the Chabot pedestrian overcrossing in Castro Valley, according to a CHP crime report. But Statner said that he heard four loud bangs at the same time about five miles away while driving in the opposite direction.

In fact, it would have been impossible for one shooter to have been in all eight locations during the single hour -- 6:15 to 7:15 p.m. -- that the victims reported hearing loud sounds. Two attempts by this newspaper to re-create the sequence of events at the same times as reported by the victims were unsuccessful. The only way one shooter could have been in all eight places was if some of the victims had their times wrong. That's a distinct possibility, but it's one that likely would have created problems for prosecutors at a trial.

Perhaps the biggest issue for the highway patrol was that no one got a clear look at the sniper. Occupants in only three of the eight vehicles saw anything at all -- and they basically told the CHP that they noticed a pickup truck to the right of them when they heard loud sounds. None saw anyone with a gun.

Those three victims also gave differing descriptions of both the pickup and the driver they saw, crime reports show. Rangel said it was a newer dark-gray Ford Ranger driven by a white man with short light-colored hair. A sixteen-year-old from Castro Valley described a black Ford or Dodge pickup with a bald, clean-shaven white man in his early thirties, wearing a black sweatshirt. And Joel Wells of Oakland said he saw "an old beater truck," possibly a '70s or '80s model, driven by a white man with frizzy balding hair like the comedian Gallagher.

From these descriptions, a police artist created a composite sketch of a short-haired white man with no facial hair. The CHP then distributed it to the media; it was published widely in newspapers and on television as being a sketch of the sniper, whom the highway patrol said was driving a late-model black or charcoal-gray Ford Ranger-style pickup. Police clearly discounted the account of Wells, whose description was at odds with those of the other two witnesses and might have even suggested the existence of a second shooter. But news reporters didn't know about the differing descriptions given by Rangel, Wells, and the sixteen-year-old; nor did they know that all three clearly told highway patrol officers that they didn't get a good look at the driver and would be unable to identify him.

Like many other area residents, Chris and Sativa had watched the sniper case unfold on TV. Sativa said an acquaintance even joked, "Hey, that looks like Chris." But the two ignored the comment. They didn't think the sketch resembled Chris. After all, he had had a dark goatee for years, and drove a blue Mazda pickup with a big tool chest in the bed. "I saw the sketch in the paper, and I thought, 'That's not him,'" his attorney Taylor said. "My first thought originally was, 'That sketch looks like me.'"

But CHP officers thought otherwise. When they appeared on the Gaffords' doorstep on March 10, they went on about how Chris resembled the sketch and that his Mazda was similar to a Ford Ranger, Sativa said. They also noted that Chris commuted on 580 to his job at the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. And they said two people had called in tips about him in connection with the case. "They questioned me until midnight or one o'clock in the morning," she said. They kept saying, 'If you know something, you need to tell us.' I kept saying, 'How many Ford pickups are out there?' A guy across the street had a dark pickup."

The CHP took Gafford to its Stockton offices, where he repeatedly denied he was involved in the shootings. "They kept saying, 'We know that you did it,'" he said "And I was like, 'You're out of your fucking minds.'" Chris provided them with an alibi -- he was with his work buddy Richard Velador of Modesto.

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