Four years ago then California Highway Patrol Commissioner Joe Farrow stood before TV cameras and announced an investigation into three cops accused of participating in a murder-for-hire scheme orchestrated by a prominent Modesto defense attorney.
Today, the main targets of that investigation are free men, acquitted by a Stanislaus County jury late last month of charges they ordered the 2012 killing of a man who was believed to be stealing scrap metal.
And, Eduardo Quintanar, one of the three officers sanctioned by the CHP, has been exonerated in court and ordered back on to the force by a state administrative body.
The jury verdict finding Modesto defense attorney Frank Carson and two liquor store owners not guilty in the killing of Korey Kaufman are cause for optimism for the remaining two CHP officers who still face criminal charges, said a defense attorney involved in the sprawling case.
“They’d be crazy to try those cases,” said Jai Gohel, who represented one of the primary defendants in the case. “They took these officers’ careers.”
The decisions stacking up against prosecutors who brought charges against Carson are a stark reversal from Farrow’s 2015 press conference, where he called the investigation a stain on the department.
The arrests “rip at the soul of our organization,” Farrow said in 2015. “It’s not what we stand for. It’s not what any organization stands for.”
The State Personnel Board, which oversees California government human resources practices, found in May that “the CHP’s discipline was far too heavy-handed and that Officer Quintanar should return as an officer with the CHP,” Quintanar’s attorney said.
“After so much negative and false information about Officer Quintanar, I am so proud to provide this wonderful news and continue to zealously fight for my client,” said Terry Leoni, who is representing Quintanar on behalf of the California Association of Highway Patrolmen.
CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader said the department respected the personnel board’s decision but declined to comment further.
The California State Personnel Board will not confirm that it issued a decision in Quintanar’s favor because of laws that prevent disclosure of records involving law enforcement officers.
Quintanar, a 12-year CHP veteran, was one of the officers held up as an accomplice in the murder-for-hire scheme when the department accused him of passing information on to Carson and his alleged co-conspirators. Stanislaus County prosecutors alleged that Quintanar advised Carson’s associates on how to determine whether they were being tracked.
It took more than two years for a Stainslaus court to clear Quintanar of the charges in 2017 and he has since filed a federal lawsuit against Stanislaus County law enforcement leaders who he said destroyed his reputation and sidelined his career.
“He has become overwhelmed with paranoia, depression, and anxiety because of the defendants’ witch hunt against him and the continued efforts to violate his rights,” attorneys argued in their lawsuit. “Quintanar lives in fear of the defendants’ further misuse of power against him.”
Two other CHP officers were arrested and charged in August 2015 when Farrow and Stanislaus County leaders announced their case against Carson.
Walter Wells was accused of murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice in Kauffman’s death. Scott McFarlane was accused of conspiracy to obstruct justice and being an accessory.
After spending 16 months in the Stanislaus County Jail, Wells was released from custody in December 2016 when Judge Barbara Zuniga reduced his bail amount of $10 million to $50,000.
At the end of an 18-month preliminary hearing in April 2017, the judge dropped a murder charge against Wells but upheld of charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and acting as an accessory after Kauffman was killed.
Even if Wells was convicted of conspiracy and accessory, his attorney at the time, Timothy Rien, said Wells would have already served his sentence while awaiting prosecution in jail.
Wells is scheduled to return to court July 18 for a pretrial hearing, and his trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 13.
Judge Zuniga on Oct. 24, 2017, dropped the obstruction charge against McFarlane but ordered him to stand trial on the accessory charge. McFarlane has a preliminary hearing scheduled to begin Aug. 12.
When Quintanar can return to duty remains unclear. The CHP is refusing the State Personnel Board’s order, Leoni said.
J. Gary Gwilliam, Quintanar’s attorney in his federal lawsuit said last week, “There was never any evidence to connect Quintanar to the murder of Korey Kauffman.”
Gwilliam’s law firm also represents Carson’s wife and his stepdaughter in a federal lawsuit against local authorities. Both cases are pending and have not reached trial.
Quintanar “doesn’t even know Frank. Why did (prosecutors) drag him in?,” Gwilliam said. “He loved his job. He didn’t do anything wrong. He was entirely vindicated at trial,” Gwilliam continued. “There was no probable cause to arrest him and the CHP was wrong to terminate him.”