Fresno Detective Acquitted

Posted on Wednesday, July 01, 2009 at 08:00PM
Posted by Terry Lynn Bowman

Paul Cervantes knows what it is like to chase crooks, make felony car stops, and work undercover narcotics. He also knows what it is like to be falsely accused and criminally prosecuted.

Decorated Officer: Cervantes’ career as a police officer began in Dinuba, where he was named “Latino Police Officer of the Year.” He then worked for Salinas P.D., where he was awarded the Meritorious Lifesaving honor.

The last eight years have been spent with Fresno P.D., where his hard work and dedication are reflected in outstanding evaluations and over 30 letters of commendation. Cervantes was placed on the SWAT team and assigned to the Crime Suppression Team before being selected for the Major Narcotics Unit, where he was soon named the “Narcotics Officer of the Year” in 2005.

Cervantes also married a beautiful woman named Maria and started a family. Cervantes was living the American dream, and it was unfathomable that his career and life would be turned upside down, but that is exactly what happened. On January 30, 2009, Cervantes was arrested for a felony violation of Vehicle Code section 10851 (vehicle theft), based on an allegation made by a long-time confidential informant (CI), named Jesus “Chuy” Valles.

Major Narcotics Unit: The Fresno Police Department’s Major Narcotics Unit was extremely busy, and it was not unusual for the unit to conduct multiple buy-busts in a single day. The members of the unit were supervised by Sergeants Walter Boston and Steven Williams, who worked with their officers to successfully seize hundreds of pounds of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.

Countless crooks were arrested and prosecuted, and the unit stood out as being one of the most prolific narcotics units in the state. Numerous CIs were utilized, and the sergeants kept meticulous records of vouchers and contacts with the informants.

In the Fall of 2007, Cervantes became the “handler” of a CI named Jesus “Chuy” Valles. Valles had been working as a CI since the mid-1990s and previously worked with a well-respected Fresno narcotics detective named Pete Santellano. Valles had the gift of gab and was able to lure lots of dealers to undercover officers and the waiting handcuffs of the bust team.

Valles also had no compunction about setting up neighbors, friends, and family members, which made him one of the top producers in the narcotics unit, as well as a wealthy man. Between the Fall of 2007 and January 2009, Valles was paid over $140,000 cash for his work as a CI for the Fresno Police Department (FPD) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

January 7, 2008 Buy-Bust: On January 7, 2008, Valles went to Richmond to make contact with a dealer later identified as Humberto Quintero. Valles was acquainted with Quintero through his family and initially brought Quintero to Cervantes’ attention. Valles called Detective Cervantes and informed him that Quintero would be driving down to Fresno with two pounds of methamphetamine for an agreed upon price of $18,000 per pound.

Valles then told Cervantes, “Oh, by the way, I bought a car.” Valles told Cervantes that Quintero was selling a green 2001 Ford Explorer and that he had paid $3,000 and owed another $1,000. Valles also told Cervantes that he had the pink slip. Cervantes was aggravated that Valles did personal business while working for FPD and told him so, but remained focused on gathering information related to the scheduled buy-bust with Quintero.

During briefing, Cervantes advised his sergeants (Boston and Williams), as well as the other unit members, of what Valles told him about the car. The sergeants were also irritated with Valles’ car deal because they did not want anything “muddying” the water, but they decided to go forward with the buy-bust.

Later that night, Quintero showed up at the designated spot in the 2001 Ford Explorer. Cervantes was working undercover and wearing a wire, which was being listened to by another detective. After a money flash, Quintero called in a Ford Expedition containing two other suspects, two pounds of methamphetamine, and a loaded firearm.

After the suspects were taken into custody, Cervantes left the scene to interview the suspects, book the dope into evidence, and start the police report. The other detectives left at the scene were completing their tasks when Sergeant Boston saw Valles driving away in the 2001 Ford Explorer.

Valles was stopped and a request to see the pink slip was made. Cervantes recalls getting a call from Sergeant Williams, and he reminded Williams of what was said at briefing. Williams told Cervantes that he’d take care of it, and Cervantes never gave it another thought.

Both sergeants examined the pink slip and determined that whatever deal there was between Quintero and Valles regarding the car was a civil matter and Valles was allowed to leave with the Explorer.

Cervantes completed his police report, referencing that the CI had bought a car from Quintero and noting that the Explorer was not seized into evidence or impounded since no dope was found in the Explorer. Selecting from a drop-down menu in the computer system, Cervantes selected “SCN” (secured and left at scene) in noting what happened to the Explorer.

Cervantes advised Valles that he needed to register the vehicle with the DMV and Valles did so. Valles filled out the necessary DMV paperwork, under penalty of perjury, and noted that he had paid $3,000 for the vehicle.

Cervantes continued to be Valles’ “handler” for the remainder of 2008. Being Valles’ handler meant that Cervantes and Valles spoke to and saw each other frequently. They had an excellent rapport and worked well together, orchestrating about 15 buy-busts during 2008, involving cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana.

Cervantes knew Valles’ wife (and girlfriends), and Valles often called Cervantes for advice on personal matters. In March 2008, Valles called Cervantes to say that the Ford Explorer was missing and that he suspected his girlfriend had taken it after an argument. Cervantes advised Valles to report it stolen and Valles did so.

When Valles located the car himself a few days later, Cervantes took the car out of the system so that Valles would not be stopped for violation of 10851. Having previously earned three 10851 awards, Cervantes knew it was important to avoid being stopped in a “stolen” car.

Pointing Fingers – “He Gave It To Me:” While Cervantes continued to work with Valles to pull in drug dealers, Quintero was in custody facing federal charges stemming from the January 7, 2008 buy-bust and started making noise through his attorney about his missing Explorer.

The attorney filed some motions in federal court which caused the assistant United States attorney (AUSA) to contact Cervantes. Cervantes relayed his recollection of the car deal, even calling Valles to get additional details.

Ultimately, Quintero’s attorney called the HEAT (Help Eliminate Auto Theft) task force and spoke with CHP Officer Randy Royal in December 2008. Quintero’s name was not on the bill of sale, nor was he ever listed as a registered owner of the car, but Royal declared Quintero the victim of a 10851.

Royal ultimately interviewed Chuy Valles, who admitted taking the car on January 7, 2008, but claimed that he did so only at the direction of Cervantes —“He gave it to me.” Armed with those five words from a known liar, the investigators looked at Cervantes’ police report with suspicion.

The fact that the Explorer was not towed or impounded, but was instead noted to have been “SCN” – secured at the scene – was viewed as evidence of a cover up. The fact that Cervantes did not note the specific terms of Valles’ car deal in the report was deemed deceptive.

The fact that the AUSA handling the federal prosecution of Valles recalled Cervantes telling her the car deal was concluded before the buy-bust (as opposed to Valles having made partial payment) was considered intentionally misleading. The fact that Cervantes pulled the stolen car report made by Valles in March 2008 was not only seen as evidence of corruption, it was ultimately used to augment the Information to allege a violation of Penal Code Section 496 (receiving stolen property).

Ugly Allegations at Trial: The case proceeded time-not-waived to trial, and although Cervantes had known countless stressful situations as a peace officer, being on trial for a crime he did not commit was the most nerve-wracking position he had ever encountered. He was no longer Detective Paul Cervantes—he was Defendant Paul Cervantes—and the idea that twelve people he did not know would decide his fate was terrifying.

The concern for his career and family was compounded when, days before jury selection, Cervantes’ third child, Natalia, was born. Cervantes, however, was buoyed by the birth of his healthy daughter and considered it a blessing to hold his newborn during those sleepless trial nights.

The prosecution’s star witness, Chuy Valles, was initially a co-defendant but was offered a dismissal in exchange for testifying against Cervantes. What’s a paid CI going to do? Naturally, he sang the tune the prosecution wanted to hear.

As promised, Valles testified that Cervantes “gave him the car.” Valles, however, was an easy mark for cross-examination because there were multiple prior inconsistent statements. Recorded jail conversations Valles had with one of his girlfriends included admissions that Valles had made a deal with Quintero and that “no one gave [the car] to me as a gift.”

Another jail call that was important to the defense was a call Valles made to Cervantes on January 30, 2009, after Valles’ arrest for 10851, but before Cervantes was arrested. In that call, Valles talks about the deal with Quintero and never says that Cervantes gave him the car. Cervantes’ comments to Valles are focused on security concerns because many of the dealers Valles set up are also in custody.

As part of the discovery process, we received copies of taped jail calls – every call Valles made from custody – with the exception of the call he made to Cervantes. Despite numerous requests, the call was not provided to us until days before trial.

Most people would agree that a recorded telephone call between suspects is usually a very important piece of evidence, but the investigating officer incredibly testified that he had never even listened to it.

Another significant witness to the prosecution was Espy Espinosa. Espinosa was a manager of an apartment complex that was no stranger to search warrants. Consequently, she was acquainted with Cervantes and knew him to be respectful and professional.

Espinosa also became friends with Valles after Valles became a tenant in the complex, and Espinosa visited Valles in jail several times after his 10851 arrest. Following Cervantes’ arrest, he spoke with Espinosa and asked her to tell Valles “to tell the truth.”

The investigators accused her of lying about Cervantes saying to “tell the truth.” Didn’t he really say, “Don’t say anything?” Espinosa endured five to six visits from the investigators, only two of which were documented.

The interviews that are documented make no mention of the fact that Espinosa began to cry during the questioning. Scared and intimidated, Espinosa ultimately gave in and said that Cervantes wanted her to tell Valles, “Don’t say anything.” The investigators then left her alone.

When Sergeant Williams was interviewed about this case nearly 14 months after the January 2007 buy-bust, he was not given an opportunity to review the police report. He explained that he “wanted to say” Cervantes had given him the pink slip at the scene, but that was because Cervantes was Valles’ handler and Cervantes had talked about the car.

This statement was interpreted, however, as confirmation that Cervantes was at the scene when Valles left and gave Valles the Explorer. The fact that several other people stated Cervantes was not present when Valles left the scene was irrelevant to the investigators.

It became clear that once Valles pointed the finger at Cervantes, the investigators and the prosecution began to salivate at the idea of convicting a cop. They were quick to brand Cervantes as “dirty” and seemingly gave no consideration to his reputation, the fact that Valles was a “lying snake,” and the fact that Cervantes’ supervisors reviewed the pink slip and let Valles leave the scene.

They never even offered Cervantes an opportunity to speak with them before he was arrested. The investigators viewed every statement already assuming that Cervantes was guilty, which violates rule number one of conducting investigations – never assume anything.

At trial, Cervantes testified and his credibility was palpable. We also called several witnesses to testify as to Cervantes’ character, so the jury would have an understanding of who Cervantes is as a person and as a cop. Sergeants Boston and Williams were truly pained by the unjust prosecution of Cervantes, and both testified as character witnesses on behalf of Cervantes. Boston, a near 30-year veteran of the department, testified that he “would bank his career on Paul’s words.”

Sergeant Dave Ramos, one of Cervantes’ earlier supervisors, testified as to Cervantes’ trustworthiness, hard work, and dedication. Captain Randy Dobbins also testified as to Cervantes’ credibility, and he made it clear that he believed in Cervantes and that the investigation and prosecution were terribly flawed.

Quintero and Valles, both known “dirt bags,” were labeled “victims” and treated with kid gloves by the prosecution when they testified. The character witnesses for Cervantes, however, were basically called liars by the prosecutor. The prosecution’s closing argument was riddled with allegations that “The Blue Wall” had gone up, and the department was basically accused of lying to stave off the shame of having a crooked cop. Cervantes saw his wife cry as he was called a liar and a disgrace to the uniform.

If these ugly allegations were meant to distract the jury from the evidence, it did not work. The jury was out less than three hours before returning a verdict of not guilty as to all counts. After the verdict, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer told the media that the prosecutor owed Cervantes an apology. Cervantes is still waiting.

Support of the POA and the Department: It is not uncommon that when an officer is facing serious administrative or criminal allegations, friends scatter and supporters seek to stay underground. Here, however, I was amazed at the number of on-the-record supporters. Not only did Cervantes have the unwavering support of the Fresno POA, but members of the administration of the department were vocal about their belief in Cervantes’ innocence.

The courtroom was packed with members of the police department, including Cervantes’ former narcotics teammates. Fresno POA President Jacky Parks was a regular attendee at the trial, and the universal support and belief in Paul Cervantes was remarkable. When it was time to read the verdict, Chief Dyer showed up in uniform and shook Cervantes’ hand before the verdict was read.

These aren’t people who were quietly waiting to see what the jury decided, or otherwise hedging their bets out of a desire to protect their own careers. These are people who know that integrity and character operate independently of political correctness and self-preservation. Indeed, the “back-up” Cervantes received from his arrest to his verdict, and the attitude and actions of the Fresno POA and police department serve as an example to other organizations.

As many may know, the Fresno POA has teamed up with the PORAC Legal Defense Fund to assist in the defense of its members. LDF provided invaluable assistance and support throughout the entire process. LDF’s resources and strength were the foundation of the legal defense effort.

Call Him Detective Cervantes: The day after his acquittal, Paul Cervantes was given back his badge and gun. He was assigned to the Robbery Unit and began work on Monday, May 11th.

Cervantes returned to work without any bitterness, just the raw enthusiasm that made him such an outstanding peace officer in the first place. After all, he knows more than anyone that while false allegations do occur, truth and justice ultimately prevail.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.