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Informant sues Calif. police, claims he was shot after being outed

A decade ago, Jose Hernandez got a DUI in Richmond. He cut a deal with police to dismiss his case if he worked as an informant

By Matthias Gafni
Contra Costa Times

RICHMOND, Calif. — A decade ago, Jose Hernandez got a DUI in Richmond. He cut a deal with police to dismiss his case if he worked as an informant, setting up drug deals and introducing the dealers to undercover officers, his attorney said.

Hernandez’s identity was supposed to be protected. Instead, he was outed by a “dirty” cop and nearly died after he was shot by a drug trafficker, according to court documents.

Now, armed with newly emerged evidence, Hernandez has sued the department and the officers he claims put his life at risk. The alleged role of Richmond Sgt. Michael Wang in betraying Hernandez became public last year, but the new lawsuit offers the first public glimpse into Hernandez’s harrowing years working for law enforcement, the human wreckage being blamed on Wang and the sordid, secretive world of confidential informants.

“He’s scared to death, he’s very frightened,” said attorney Michael Brown, who represents Hernandez. “How would you feel if members of the Mexican drug cartel tried to kill you?”

On June 13, Hernandez sued the Richmond Police Department, Wang — who is on administrative leave and under investigation — officers Chuck Whitney and Mario Chesney, and former police Chief Terry Hudson, claiming the exposure of his name led to him being shot.

“You have to have internal policies to protect informants,” Brown said. “These are bad people, cartel people, people involved in major, major drug trafficking, murder. It’s a huge risk for an informant.”

This newspaper last year first reported on the 2005 shooting of Hernandez after it obtained a video of a Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office interrogation of drug trafficker Sergio Vega-Robles.

In the February 2013 video, the drug trafficker detailed his own relationship with Wang, alleging the officer took $120,000 in bribes in 2004, set up a drug deal, tipped him off to a federal drug agency’s tracking device on his brother’s car and even dated his cousin.

Wang, a 19-year police veteran, was subsequently placed on paid administrative leave pending criminal and administrative investigations, said Richmond police Capt. Mark Gagan.

“The charges are very serious and could diminish the community’s confidence in the department, and that’s something we strive to preserve,” he said. “Officers involved in such misconduct do so at their own peril.”

Hernandez initially worked with Wang but started working with officers Whitney and Chesney after Wang received a promotion.

In his lawsuit, Hernandez alleges those officers told Wang about a gun sting targeting Vega-Robles’ brother, Jose. Wang passed the information along, and on Feb. 21, 2005, Jose Vega-Robles shot Hernandez three times, according to prosecutors.

Jose Vega-Robles was not charged with the attempted murder until a grand jury indictment three years later.

By that time, he was in prison, serving a 75 years-to-life sentence for operating a major Bay Area methamphetamine ring and the 2004 murders of two drug associates in West Contra Costa. He’ll stand trial for the Hernandez shooting in September.

“Mr. Hernandez never knew why he got shot; he knew it was likely because he was an informant, but he never knew who exposed him until last year when Sergio Vega-Robles gave that statement to the DA’s office and it was leaked to the press,” Brown said.

The lawsuit and pending criminal trial have exposed other kinks in the investigation.

“Most of the critical discovery from the Jose Hernandez shooting is missing,” wrote attorney Dan Horowitz in a court declaration on behalf of a Hernandez shooting defendant. “I mean MOST, not a lot, most. There is a major appearance of a cover-up and there is amazing contagion of lapsed police officer memories relating to the shooting.”

Attorneys for the men accused in the shooting have asked a judge to release documents and transcripts of the police department’s internal investigation, but the city said it would jeopardize their probe.

Jim Dudley, a 32-year San Francisco Police Department veteran and San Francisco State criminal justice lecturer, said he’d never heard of an officer outing an informant to a criminal. Most departments have tight, formal rules and assign fake names or numbers to conceal informants’ identities in police reports, he said.

“Officers are pretty proprietary about who their informants are and not openly dealt with as far as naming or trading them,” Dudley said.

In the 2008 grand jury testimony, Contra Costa district attorney inspector Shawn Pate testified about the implications of outing a law enforcement informant.

“If somebody is labeled as an informant in West Contra Costa County, they suffer grave consequences,” Pate said.

Copyright 2014 the Contra Costa Times