At Large 

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

Page 6 of 9

So highway patrol officers immediately picked up Velador, brought him in, and put him in an interview room next to Gafford. "They said to me, 'Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wants somebody arrested, and Chris is going to go down for this,'" Velador later recalled. "They told me that three or four times."

Gafford's meth case clearly was pivotal to the investigators' belief that he was the shooter. Gafford said they referred to him as some sort of crazed drug dealer. And CHP investigators believed they had a possible motive -- noting that Gafford and Velador both had recently quit their jobs on the bridge, and positing that they were disgruntled workers out on a bender. "It was so far from the truth, it wasn't funny," Velador said. Both men had indeed just quit their jobs prior to the interrogation session, Velador noted, but both made a point of telling their questioners that they were still employed at the time of the shootings. Gafford said the two had quit out of sympathy with how their foreman had been treated by his superiors, but weren't disgruntled or desperate. As union tradesmen, they noted, all they had to do was go down to the local union hall to get another job.

Gafford said the CHP investigators then began acting as if they were detectives on NYPD Blue, force-feeding lies to him in an attempt to trick him into confessing. They told him Velador had given him up as the sniper, and that victims had picked him out of a photo array. "I said, 'You guys are such liars,'" Gafford said.

But the CHP investigators continued to harp on the evidence they had. They knew, for example, that on the day of the shooting Gafford and Velador had been at the Castro Valley home of Chris' old boss, Wayne Silva. Gafford admitted that when he and Velador got off work that afternoon, they drove to Silva's house. But Gafford said they left the house and were sitting in a Tracy bar by 5:30. He said they stayed at the bar for about a half-hour and then went their separate ways to Stockton and Modesto.

But Gafford uttered one admission that CHP investigators believed made their case. He acknowledged that he had gone to far fewer Narcotics Anonymous meetings than the five a week required in his Stockton drug case, and admitted he had forged documents to make it look otherwise. He said he had been to only four to six meetings total in the prior three weeks. He later told the Express that he thought the NA meetings were depressing, and that he dummied attendance slips to avoid violating the conditions of his bail. He also later admitted that he had secretly started smoking meth again in the first week of March.

But CHP investigators concluded that Gafford had made the forgeries to establish an alibi for the shootings. On the night of February 23, Gafford had scribbled on a piece of paper to make it look as if he had been in a NA meeting in San Pablo. "The CHP just ran with it as proof," he said.

A little more than three hours after the CHP showed up at Gafford's door that night, they cuffed him and arrested him on suspicion of eight counts of attempted murder. They then drove him to Santa Rita Jail in Dublin to await formal charges. "They told us he was going to be put away for a long, long time," said his mom, Margo Geyer. "They were so sure of themselves." Velador said investigators twice searched his home and found nothing; he was ultimately released.

Gafford, meanwhile, continued to declare his innocence and even consented to a lineup without asking for an attorney. "I was just trying to be cooperative," he said. "I had nothing to hide." Officers put him in with a bunch of men who didn't look like him, he said. "Still, nobody picked me out of the lineup," he said. "That should have been their first clue that I wasn't the guy."

The ATF, meanwhile, couldn't match his guns to the bullets found in the sniper case. Gafford owned a .22-caliber rifle, but it was in the custody of the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office at the time of the shootings. All his ammunition and his other three guns, which he had kept trigger-locked in his bedroom closet, had been confiscated when he was arrested in November.

After reviewing the CHP's evidence and interrogating Gafford himself, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Tom Rogers refused to file charges against him. He told the Express he was unpersuaded that the forged NA documents proved Gafford was trying to concoct an alibi for the shootings; it was just as likely that Gafford was attempting to avoid trouble in his drug case. Rogers added that investigators checked Gafford and Velador's story and the other evidence in the case -- after all, Sativa said CHP officers told her they'd gotten two tips about Chris. Rogers said some of this evidence pointed toward guilt, but some toward innocence. "None of it was going to be anywhere near close enough to charge him with a crime," Rogers said. Gafford's mother and stepfather believe the tips were simply calls from people who thought Chris resembled the dubious police sketch.

CHP Sergeant Bob O'Keefe, one of the lead investigators on the case, said he heard no mention of Schwarzenegger applying pressure, and said he never told that to Velador during his interview. O'Keefe also said he did not lie to Gafford, but would not say whether other CHP investigators had questioned the two ironworkers. O'Keefe, who is assigned to the stolen-car task force, said that he and the other CHP officers on the sniper case had investigated "numerous" shootings but, like Commissioner Helmick, would not provide any details. Helmick also said he never heard a word from Schwarzenegger's office about the 580 shootings, and downplayed the case's significance, saying that he was not closely monitoring it.

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