At Large 

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

Page 8 of 9

Interviews and court records reveal, however, that at some point Bender and the ATF began to have second thoughts. It likely happened shortly after Gafford took a lie-detector test in mid-May. Gafford had repeatedly suggested the idea, and the ATF finally agreed to fly in a specialist from Washington state. The specialist ultimately ruled the polygraph results inconclusive, but Gafford did well enough that ATF Special Agent Ronald Humphries, who was in now assigned to the case, was crestfallen, Bockmon said. Gafford said Humphries even needed his help when time came to put his handcuffs and body chains back on.

On July 20, the CHP announced that it was no longer actively pursuing Gafford. Nevertheless, the highway patrol refused to back down from its prior pronouncements. "We are confident Mr. Gafford is responsible," The Contra Costa Times quoted Ziese as saying.

But the feds apparently were not so sure. Weeks earlier, Bender and Bockmon had ironed out a favorable deal for Gafford. He would agree to plead guilty to manufacturing and attempting to manufacture methamphetamine, and being a drug addict in possession of a firearm. In exchange, Bender would recommend Gafford receive no more than thirty months in federal prison. If the judge balked at the relatively light sentence, then Gafford could retract his plea. "I would call that deal somewhat extraordinary," said a former federal prosecutor after reviewing a copy of the nine-page plea agreement supplied by this newspaper. "The prosecutor was extraordinarily reasonable."

Bender revealed why during Gafford's October 1 sentencing hearing. Court transcripts show that the prosecutor said that while there was some evidence in the 580 shootings that pointed toward Gafford, he told the judge that it "is very possible or more probable, I think, that he wasn't involved." Neither Humphries nor an ATF spokeswoman would comment for this story. But Bender told the judge that Humphries also believed Gafford was "probably not involved" in the 580 shootings. Gafford could not suppress his continuing anger at the CHP. "They have slandered my name in print," he said in court. "They are leaving people to believe that I'm still involved in these shootings."

US District Court Judge Edward Garcia sympathized with Gafford and quickly assured him that he would not object to the prearranged sentencing deal. In fact, Garcia lowered Gafford's sentence to 23 months, and even asked Gafford if he had talked to a lawyer about suing the CHP. When Gafford said no, the judge told him he needed to take some action: "You've got to get this anger out of you if you are ever going to straighten yourself out: Do you understand that?"

Twenty-three months is a lot better than ten to 51 years behind bars, but it's still nearly three times the sentence Gafford originally would have received for his drug offense. "It gave me a little bit of relief," Sativa said. "But it's still a long time. Two years is a long time to be away from my husband and for him to be away from his child."

At least Gafford can take some solace in what happened to Spike Helmick. On June 1, Helmick announced his resignation from office, saying he would retire September 15. He later admitted that Governor Schwarzenegger forced him out, several newspapers reported.

Helmick's final months on the job were far from smooth. Less than a month after the CHP arrested Gafford, the highway patrol turned a standoff with a suicidal man on the Bay Bridge into a fourteen-hour fiasco that backed up traffic for more than one hundred miles. Helmick's investigation of the incident, demanded by the governor, revealed that it took the highway patrol six hours to call in its SWAT team from Sacramento, and because of the hellish traffic, it took the team another four hours to reach the bridge.

And before Helmick cleaned out his desk, the CHP was caught in one final scandal. The Sacramento Bee reported in a September 10 investigation that 80 percent of top-ranking highway patrol officials in the past few years had aggressively pursued injury claims at the end of their careers in order to boost their retirement incomes. Helmick decried the practice, known as "chief's disease," in a June interview with the Bee. But then in July Helmick came down with chief's disease himself, the Bee reported, adding that Helmick had filed five injury claims in the past three years, including one for falling out of his chair in 2000. Helmick dropped his medical claim after the Bee's story. Sheriff Plummer said he believes the CHP's new commissioner, Michael Brown, will correct the agency's problems and steer the highway patrol in the right direction.

The CHP has since toned down its rhetoric about Gafford and now seems unsure of his status in the sniper case. Ziese recently refused to label Gafford as the prime suspect. But then he quickly added: "There is nothing to suggest that somebody else is responsible." When told of what Ziese said, O'Keefe responded: "Wayne Ziese is not an investigator. He deals with the media. As of right now, the case is ongoing. And as far the highway patrol goes, Gafford is still a suspect." Though O'Keefe and Ziese said the case remains "active," O'Keefe acknowledged that he and his fellow officers have returned to their normal duties and are not spending much time on it.


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