Witness protection not a guarantee;
Police can’t always watch informants
By JULIA REYNOLDS, Herald Salinas Bureau
May 15, 2007
The boy has a new name: Witness 1.
Salinas police said they assured him he would be given a number and the shooters would never know his real name.
The boy, whom officials would only say is younger than 15, seemed satisfied with that, an officer later testified, and pointed to a photo of the man he believed shot an 8-year-old girl in Salinas in January.
Less than two weeks later, prosecutors and police say, someone came looking for Witness 1.
Witness intimidation, whether a perceived or real threat, is not just the bane of prosecutors — it keeps Salinas families and neighborhoods in fear, living under the grip of gangs.
But even as authorities practically beg residents to come forward and report crimes, they acknowledge it isn’t always possible to protect people from harm when they do.
“There’s a perception that somehow, some way, someone’s going to find out it’s them,” said Brian Contreras, director of the gang-prevention program Second Chance. “We don’t have a witness protection program.”
Protection, it seems, is a difficult promise to keep.
According to court testimony, days after speaking with police, Witness 1 was standing outside his apartment. A shooter opened fire just as his mother’s boyfriend walked out the front door. The boyfriend, who was not identified by police, was struck by a bullet and flown to a San Jose hospital. He survived.
Juan Cabrera, 20, was arrested the next day. He has been charged with attempted murder on behalf of the Norteno gang and dissuading a witness against his brother Abraham Cabrera, 18, who was arrested for the shooting of the 8-year-old girl.
Five cases prosecuted|
Gang prosecutor Chuck Olvis says that the District Attorney’s office filed five witness-intimidation cases in 2006 and 2007.
“That doesn’t include all the ones — attempts made, assaults — where we don’t catch the guy,” Olvis said. “In most intimidation cases, we don’t find the guys. If we can prove it, we’re going to go for it.
“I had one where a witness reported (an armed robbery), and they came up and stabbed him,” Olvis said. “Or there have been phone calls from the jail.”
Contreras said he tells it straight to threatened families: “The worst is they could come by and do a drive-by. I have to share the real.
“I would seriously hate to tell people to come forward and then something happens to them.”
But with all the risks involved, Contreras said he would speak out if he witnessed a crime and has encouraged his children to do so. “People need to step up and take control if they want to stop the violence,” he said.
Melanie Rodgers administers the Witness Relocation and Assistance Program out of the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office. It’s part of a state-funded project that until recently was known as the Witness Protection Program.
“It’s a misnomer when you say witness protection,” Rodgers said, “because we’re not on them 24-seven,”
California’s Department of Justice recently conceded that “witness protection” was a misleading term, after a man in the program was killed in San Francisco last year.
Senate Bill 594, which would officially change the program’s name and also double its funding to $6 million, is now in the state Senate’s appropriations committee.
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris was also in Washington last week to testify before the U.S. Senate, where she lobbied for more federal funding for California’s witness relocation programs.
In Monterey County, the focus is on moving witnesses and victims away from their “danger zone” –usually their own neighborhoods.
In one case, the county spent $29,000 to help a woman who was a witness to a gang murder move away from the area and find a new job, said court documents. The money is reimbursed by the state, Rodgers said. No Monterey County request to the program has been turned down.
“We relocate and keep their identity and location confidential while they’re awaiting trial,” Rodgers said. “Anytime someone expresses concern for their safety, we sit them down and talk to them about the California program.”
Police and other law enforcement agencies refer witnesses and victims to her office, Rodgers said. Though she had no hard numbers available, Rodgers said that over a year’s time, she may average one or two such cases per month, though it generally comes in spurts.
“My personal opinion is that the majority of our protection issues are gang cases,” she said.
No one will argue that agreeing to testify in court is an easy choice. Taking part in the program can involve dramatic life changes for witnesses and their families, especially in gang cases.
“There’s things they have to agree to do,” Rodgers said. “In a hypothetical case, a witness who lives and works in East Salinas with kids in school, well, they’ve got to go. They’ve got to get out of East Salinas. We’ll help with the moving van, the settling-in period. They have to get a new job and they may need other social services.”
Relocating is not easy, she said. “Some think just moving to North Salinas from East Salinas is enough. Their family, their friends, their whole life is there.”
One mother has young children in school. “She’s got a job, and she just wants to move from one side of the city to the other,” said Rodgers. She said she sometimes has to convince such a person that simply moving across town may be easier but is not necessarily safe.
“It’s a lot of stress,” she said, “in addition to being a witness in a gang case.”
Local participants in the program have remained safe, officials say.
“As long as they stay away,” Olvis said. “They have to stay away, because it doesn’t do any good to come back.”
That’s what happened in San Francisco, where program participant Terrell Rollins, 22, returned to his old neighborhood last May and was shot and killed almost immediately.
Salinas city officials acknowledge it’s not easy to face parents and tell them they should willingly put their children in harm’s way.
“Being a parent and family man myself, I absolutely understand that and I empathize with that,” said Police Chief Dan Ortega. “I don’t have a good response to that.”
Asking for a lot|
Yet, after a moment’s pause, he added, “Other than to say we have to turn this tide some way, somehow. And it’s going to take a lot of courage to do that. I know we are asking an awful lot, that’s a given.”
Ortega described the case involving Witness 1 and praised the young man’s courage.
Contreras agrees it is no easy choice for parents. “I was approached one time by a family and they said ‘My son was a victim and my son knows who it is. So what about retaliation?’
“That’s something I can never give an answer to.”
Still, Salinas officials are encouraged when they do see residents speaking up, something they say is happening more and more.
Several years ago, a man who will be referred to in this story as ”Witness 12” decided he wanted out of the gang life. He testified in court about the feared Nuestra Familia.
It was a decision that changed his life — for the better, he said, even though his name has landed on a hit list.
“They use fear. It’s like the terrorists do, try to instill fear in people,” he said in a jailhouse interview. “I’m just tired of it.”
Despite giving up his gang membership, Witness 12 landed back in jail on drug charges and is serving a six-year sentence. Before being sent off to prison, he said he was using his time to shake his addiction and rebuild his life.
He was also openly campaigning to steer younger inmates away from gangs. For his protection, Witness 12 was housed in a gang drop-out pod at the jail, but his “green light” status with the gang didn’t stop him from speaking up.
Gangs, he argued, have a double standard when it comes to “ratting.”
It’s a point he tries to hammer into young kids sensitive about the issue of snitching.
“When I was part of the gang, you had to report everything,” he said. “But oh — only because it benefits them, it’s not ratting? If I’m selling dope over here and I’m not giving a percentage to the house and someone finds out, well, that person is going to go tell.”
“(But) if you’re ratting against them?” he said, “Oh, you’re a rat, you’re a snitch.”
Witness 12 has paid a price for his position on the issue.
He was fortunate to suffer fairly minor wounds when he was shot by a gang associate two years ago.
A stiffer price|
The gang’s retaliation against Witness 12 reinforces the fears of those who see cooperating with law enforcement as simply too dangerous. But he argues that not standing up exacts a much stiffer price from communities.
“I try to tell people… what if they end up shooting your little brother, your cousin, your sister? Or who knows, your mom could get caught up in a drive-by,” he said. “Then how are you going to feel?”
Constantly looking over his shoulder has made him wonder whether he wants to come back to Salinas when he eventually gets out of prison. But he said he has no regrets about testifying or speaking out.
“If they kill me, well, man, I was willing to get killed for you guys in prison,” he said. “I was willing to get killed for you out in the streets when I was a part of your gang.”
Communities must be willing to take that chance, he said.
“What do we do, just keep on running and hiding from it? When does it stop?”
Herald staff writer Virginia Hennessey contributed to this report.
Posted with permission. All rights reserved. Copyright (c) 2007, The Monterey County Herald, Calif.