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Records reveal theft and lies by the head of an elite California drug task force

Newly released records show that task force members faced allegations of theft and questionable overtime, all under the watch of a commander later fired for lying as the misconduct was investigated.

Records reveal theft and lies by the head of an elite California drug task force
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra [Photo: JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images]

This story was reported by The Appeal, a nonprofit criminal justice news outlet.

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A California Department of Justice narcotics task force commander was fired for misconduct that included property thefts in recent years by her team members during warrant searches.

The task force’s malfeasance is only now coming to light after state Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office lost a lawsuit brought by journalists seeking police misconduct records from state agencies, including its Department of Justice, which employs about 500 special agents. Using an argument advanced by police unions, Becerra said Senate Bill 1421, which went into effect Jan. 1 and made police misconduct records public for the first time, wasn’t retroactive. Becerra also argued that disclosing the records would be too burdensome on his department. But on May 17, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer ruled against Becerra, calling his arguments “unavailing.” After the judge’s ruling, the DOJ immediately released older case files.

One newly released record includes a 601-page file related to a major Bay Area law enforcement task force that now appears to have been in disarray for years due to poor management, low morale, accusations of favoritism, drinking on the job, and recurring allegations of embezzlement and other crimes.

Over the 2013-14 period, the task force carried out numerous investigations including raids on cannabis grow houses, medical marijuana dispensaries, and methamphetamine labs. Agents with the task force also confiscated millions in property, money, vehicles, and drugs from suspects, and its cases were forwarded to the Santa Clara district attorney’s office for prosecution. It’s unclear whether the misconduct and dishonesty of the task force’s commander and at least four of its agents tainted any cases. Similar widespread misconduct has affected nearly 2,000 cases in Baltimore and more than 21,000 cases in Massachusetts. The Santa Clara district attorney’s office did not respond to questions about the task force’s cases.

Missing money and thefts

From 2010 to 2014, DOJ Special Agent Danielle Ayers was commander of the Santa Clara County Specialized Enforcement Team, an elite narcotics unit that included deputized local police working alongside state DOJ agents. In 2013 and 2014, officers under Ayers’s command stole copper mugs and other property from several Bay Area and Southern California restaurants as part of an ongoing “prank,” according to previously confidential records. When confronted by restaurant employees in a parking lot after one heist, an agent flashed a badge to deny the thefts and diffuse the situation. Ayers’s agents later displayed the stolen mugs on their desks and joked about “keistering” the items. In prison and law enforcement circles, “keistering” is slang for the act of smuggling contraband into jails and prisons. This seemingly petty crime was the basis for DOJ investigations into much more serious misconduct allegations against Ayers’s unit.

In 2015, DOJ internal affairs investigators learned that members of Ayers’s task force stole items from houses and other locations while executing search warrants. For instance, one agent stole a radio scanner from a suspect’s bedroom in San Jose in May 2014. Another task force agent later noticed the scanner in the office and reported it to supervisors because it wasn’t listed on any inventory of items seized during the operation.

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During another San Jose warrant search, in March 2014, a task force agent stole a “slim jim” tool used to gain entry into vehicles by wrapping it in a towel and hiding it in their car. The officer who stole the tool told another officer that it might “come in handy on patrol.”

In the midst of a search of a facility where stolen metals and recyclables were believed to be stored, a task force member told other officers, “Hey, guys, you know, if you—if you see stuff that you need or whatever, take it. Like, feel free to take it,” referring to tools.

Ayers then suggested to her team that they confiscate the recyclables, which included valuable copper, and convert it to cash, keeping the receipt as evidence. Another officer at the scene thought her suggestion was potentially illegal and might result in the improper destruction of property if the case wasn’t charged by the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office, so the officer called the prosecutor in charge of the case. The prosecutor advised them not to destroy the metals. According to the DOJ’s investigation, Ayers then become irate. One former task force member told investigators that Ayers blocked the officer’s car with her vehicle and screamed, “What the fuck’s wrong with you? You’re an asshole.”

In another case, a person whose home was searched by the task force later alleged that $20,000 hidden in a sunglasses case in a dresser went missing. The money was never recovered.

Ayers was also accused of approving questionable overtime for her staff and herself, and she allegedly used a task force credit card to make personal purchases for her subordinates, including baby diapers and a car seat.

One of her subordinates wrote a memo detailing an incident in which she suggested that he commit fraud by claiming overtime for days he wasn’t actually going to work.

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The Appeal was unable to reach Ayers for comment.

Sometime in 2014, the California Highway Patrol initiated an investigation into thefts by the task force. The highway patrol did not respond to a request for comment.

Task force troubles

In 2014, the Department of Justice opened an internal affairs investigation into the task force and Ayers, but the allegations against Ayers weren’t sustained. In 2015, the agency reopened the case, and this time, multiple law enforcement agents who had left the task force told investigators that Ayers knew about and participated in the misconduct.

In August 2015, Ayers was fired for lying during the first investigationIn response to an email from The Appeal seeking more information about the case, the attorney general’s press office wrote that Ayers appealed her termination but ultimately resigned as part of a settlement and that she no longer works for the Department of Justice.

Among the more serious allegations against Ayers was that in 2013, without a court order, she destroyed 10 pounds of marijuana taken into evidence. The sack of marijuana was held in storage in the same building as the task force’s offices for a pending case led by one of her agents against a gang called the Viet Mafia.

When confronted by the task force agent who had booked the marijuana into evidence, Ayers told him that it smelled, “and there was flies” and mold on it. According to several subordinates later interviewed by DOJ investigators, Ayers then suggested that he replace the destroyed evidence with marijuana confiscated in a separate case.

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In an interview with investigators, the former task force agent whose marijuana evidence was destroyed said he was “concerned, obviously, for the integrity of the case.” He told investigators that Ayers’s suggestion that he swap evidence from a different case concerned other task force members. “When she said, ‘Hey, don’t we have some marijuana from somewhere else? Why don’t you just grab some from there for your sample?’ basically, the whole group of people, myself included, we all basically just stopped what we were doing and just stared at her, like, I can’t really believe you just said that,” the former task force agent told investigators. He said he had known and worked with Ayers for more than six years.

Ayers led the Santa Clara County Specialized Enforcement Team during a controversial period when the task force raided medical marijuana clubs across Silicon Valley. Advocates decried the crackdown and accused Ayers’s team of intimidating otherwise legal businesses operating under the state’s medical marijuana laws. In 2010, Ayers told the San Jose Mercury News that her task force was acting on request from several police chiefs and that the medical marijuana clubs were at risk of being taken over by organized crime.

A San Jose couple affiliated with one of the clubs raided in 2010 filed a civil rights lawsuit against Ayers and the task force alleging that they “burst into” the business wielding automatic weapons, causing one woman to soil herself and hyperventilate.

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