Contra Costa Times, Bay Area News Group, www.mercurynews.com
BYLINE: Robert Salonga and Malaika Fraley
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Contra Costa County, CA
MARTINEZ -- Public defenders on Thursday quickly moved to re-examine cases against their clients after the arrests of a Contra Costa County drug task force chief and a private investigator accused of running a narcotics-selling scheme, possibly with confiscated drugs.
The arrest of Norman Wielsch, commander of the state's Central Contra Costa Narcotics Enforcement Team, or CNET, could have far-reaching ramifications in superior and appellate courts, said Contra Costa County Public Defender Robin Lipetzky. The arrest not only calls into question the credibility and integrity of Wielsch as an individual, she said, but also that of the task force as an investigative body and the guardian of prosecution evidence.
"Was he motivated by a desire to confiscate as much drugs as he could so he could turn around and sell them? Was he writing false police reports? Was he exaggerating in police reports? You have to question everything in a CNET investigation," Lipetzky said. "You also have to wonder when it's the top cop of the investigation that's a crooked cop, what did others in CNET know?"
Wielsch and Chris Butler, who runs the investigative firm Butler and Associates, were arrested together in Benicia by federal agents Wednesday morning after an undercover investigation that began in January, said Department of Justice special agent Michelle Gregory.
Both men were booked into County Jail in Martinez on as many as 25 suspected felony offenses, including possessing, transporting and selling marijuana, methamphetamine and steroids, and embezzlement, second-degree burglary and conspiracy. District Attorney Mark Peterson said his office will likely decide whether to file charges Friday.
Deputy public defenders on Thursday began requesting police reports surrounding Wielsch's arrest during court appearances for clients arrested by CNET.
"At this point, this is material we are entitled to because it could impact the integrity of the investigation of any open case," Lipetzky said.
She said she is waiting to hear details about the allegations against Wielsch before assessing how his arrest would affect past CNET cases. The further back criminal activity is alleged to have occurred, the more cases would be affected. The public defender said she is prepared to have the office revisit cases from years back at a time when staff time and resources are already scarce.
"It could lead to any number of motions, appeals, requests to resentence," Lipetzky said. "Until we know what we are talking about, it's difficult to say.
"These are the more serious drug cases in the county," she said. "We are not talking about individual users or small-time dealers."
Gregory said it appears that Wielsch and Butler were the only ones involved in the alleged operation, and that this is the first time a DOJ narcotics agent has been arrested for selling drugs.
While Wielsch awaits prosecution, Gregory said a special agent-in-charge will temporarily oversee CNET. In the meantime, Wielsch is on paid administrative leave.
The arrests have also spurred sentiments from police around the county urging the public not to distrust law enforcement for the actions of the few.
"Every once in a while (officers) make mistakes, some of them big and some of them small. But when they do they have to pay for it just like everyone else. People should have the utmost confidence in their police officers and department," said Walnut Creek police Chief Joel Bryden.
Wielsch, a 49-year-old Antioch resident, is being held on $660,000 bail. Butler, 49, of Concord, is being held on $840,000 bail. They are both former veteran Antioch police officers who worked in the narcotics division and left that agency in the late 1990s. Several sources say Butler resigned after facing termination for insubordination.
DOJ agents began investigating Wielsch and Butler in January after receiving a tip about potential drug sales, Gregory said.
Reaction from several former colleagues of Wielsch's from his days as an Antioch officer were generally critical of the CNET head and what they called his brash and reckless style of police work. Wielsch's attorney took exception to them speaking anonymously.
"This is an officer with a stellar reputation and a stellar career," said Walnut Creek-based attorney Michael Cardoza. "This is horribly sad for everybody involved."
A man and woman at Wielsch's Antioch home Thursday declined to comment to a reporter and slammed the door.
Since news of the arrests surfaced, the website for Butler and Associates, which Butler has led since 2002, has been taken down.
Butler made a name for himself as the head of his private investigations firm, recently for shepherding a group of mothers-turned-investigators dubbed "PI Moms" that made the national talk show circuit last year.
"He built his business on lies and deception," said Carl Marino, an investigator who answered an ad and joined Butler's firm two years ago after 17 years as a deputy sheriff in Monroe County, N.Y.
Butler had once unsuccessfully tried to develop a reality television show based on his firm, Marino said, and then aroused a producer's interest with the concept of the "PI Moms." A show about them was set to air in the spring, according to their website, but Butler's arrest could scuttle it.
"He set up elaborate stings to catch subjects in (bad) behavior," Marino said. "Some of that was created for the media."
Pacheco resident Tom Cudd turned to Butler and Associates for help finding his missing daughter and liked Marino, but said Butler was there strictly for glad-handing. The "PI Moms" actually got involved in his case, a move both Cudd and Marino believe was made to bolster their prospective reality show.
"I got the feeling he was a used-car dealer sales guy," Cudd said. "Quick talker, smooth talker, flashy guy. I wouldn't play poker with him."
Marino said though he disagreed with Butler's methods, he continued working for him because he liked the investigative work and found certain cases, such as his role in finding Tom Cudd's missing daughter, rewarding enough to stay on. And even though he is now out of a job -- at least he thinks so -- he does not sympathize with his soon-to-be-ex-boss.
"He was a master of deception," Marino said. "I felt like his whole business was deception, and he didn't care who he hurt in the process, and ended up hurting a lot of people.
"He kind of got what he deserved."
Staff writer Elisabeth Nardi contributed to this report. Contact Robert Salonga at 925-943-8013 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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