Politics & Government

High-Ranking Gang Leader Was Placed in Witness Protection

Jorge Sandoval was a known drug trafficker, former prison gang leader, and thief. But that didn't stop San Francisco law enforcement officers from doing business with him.

Details of that relationship came to light last week, during a November 19th preliminary hearing for a murder trial, in which Sandoval is a witness. During his testimony, he indicated that in exchange for cooperating testimony and full immunity in a murder trial case stemming from a 2008 drug robbery gone bad in Potrero Hill, the San Francisco District Attorney placed former prison gang leader Jorge Sandoval into witness protection, postponed drug and gun charges against him in four Bay Area counties, and paid the gangster $43,773.03 in taxpayer money over the course of two years.

As I reported in my May 8th article for San Francisco Weekly and The Investigative Fund, Sandoval was a key member of Nuestra Familia, a powerful Latino prison gang that allegedly controls much of the narcotics trade in Northern California. Sandoval, 43, who has a rap sheet dating back to the 1980s and served time in state prison for two “strike” felonies, was placed in charge of Nuestra Familia's operations in San Francisco during the mid 2000s. During this time, he oversaw a methamphetamine and cocaine trafficking ring that netted hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes funding drug purchases through robberies. Given the seriousness of Sandoval's past crimes and his rank in Nuestra Familia, the decision of the San Francisco District Attorney's office to place him into witness protection at the taxpayer's expense raises questions about the integrity of San Francisco's criminal justice system.

Dressed in a black hooded track jacket and blue jeans with his black hair cropped close, Sandoval took the witness stand with his hands manacled for the hearing related to the trial of Tomas Gutierrez, who is accused of fatally shooting 34-year-old Liri Lesku and wounding two other men in a botched stickup of a methamphetamine dealer on February 13, 2008. A gray-suited federal agent watched over him from the back of Superior Court Judge Charles Haines's third floor courtroom.

The testimony of his former associate Jason Treas in the federal indictment out of Sacramento supports Sandoval's history of planning and committing robberies — the San Francisco regiment of Nuestra Familia routinely knocked over drug dealers to furnish themselves with profit and narcotics during the mid-2000s, when Sandoval was in charge of NF's San Francisco regiment.

According to his testimony, Sandoval was in county jail after being arrested by SFPD for drug charges — until he agreed to give information on the Lesku murder. After serving 15 months, he was released in June of 2009 and placed in witness protection by the San Francisco DA's office. But in March 2011, while meeting with his SFPD handler, Sandoval was arrested by federal agents from Stockton on narcotics charges for his role in the gang's massive methamphetamine and cocaine trafficking operations from 2003 through 2007.

At the time of his arrest by federal authorities in March 2011, Sandoval had open gun and drug cases in San Francisco and Monterey counties, and had seen charges for possession of a quarter kilogram of cocaine in Richmond dropped, to the bemusement of local police. All these offenses were committed before the botched Potrero Hill robbery in February 2008.

Aside from receiving immunity for his testimony, Sandoval revealed that in exchange for his cooperation, he would get credit for time served for the San Francisco cases, and the San Francisco DA's office would lobby on his behalf to get his gun charge in Monterey mitigated. Since his release from state prison in May 2005 , Sandoval risked returning to state custody for life for his “third strike” on any of the state charges filed against him in the Bay Area.

At the end of his testimony on Wednesday afternoon, Assistant DA Michael Swart produced a document detailing the monetary benefits Sandoval received while in witness protection. While under state protection until his 2009 arrest, Sandoval and his girlfriend Carmen Rojas were relocated by authorities to a safe apartment. According to Swart, the DA's office paid $13,725 for meals and Sandoval's rent, $2,342 for his utilities, and $1,185 for moving and storage. During this time, Sandoval told the court that he was attending community college and that the SFDA helped pay for his books. He claims he did not commit any crimes during this period.

The decision to place Sandoval in witness protection was made while California Attorney General Kamala Harris was in the final years of her term as San Francisco DA. Her successor, former San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón, kept Sandoval in the witness protection program until the 2011 arrest by federal authorities from the Eastern District of California on narcotics conspiracy charges.

Neither the San Francisco District Attorney's office nor the California Attorney General responded to requests for comment about the decision to put Sandoval in custody or the terms of his cooperation.

Sandoval told the court he is facing 18 years in federal prison, according to what he claims the terms of a plea agreement he signed with the United States Attorney in Sacramento. The United States Attorney for Eastern California would not comment on Sandoval's case or his plea agreement, noting he has yet to be convicted in federal court. His next court date is on December 30th in Sacramento.

About the reporter

Ali Winston

Ali Winston

Ali Winston is an investigative reporter at The New York Times and a former reporting fellow at The Nation Institute.

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