A former San Luis Obispo County district attorney’s investigator on Wednesday blamed inexperience for misstatements he made to a judge in a written request to search a drug suspect’s home, but a state attorney claimed the investigator knew what he was doing and tailored his narrative to legitimize a shoddy sting operation that included confidential informants and blue “Breaking Bad”-style methamphetamine.
August Justino “A.J.” Santana, 47, is charged with one felony count of perjury, a crime that carries up to three years in prison. The case is being prosecuted by a California Attorney General’s Office deputy.
Santana was a Pismo Beach police officer before being hired as a district attorney’s investigator, helping with prosecutions of financial criminals such as former Grover Beach financier Al Moriarty.
In September 2013, Santana was assigned to the county Sheriff’s Office multiagency narcotics unit, and he was lead investigator in an August 2014 case regarding a suspected meth dealer in San Miguel named Tommy Pappas. Using a confidential informant as a middle man, Santana set up a “controlled buy” with Pappas, whose identity was not known to Santana at the time.
The operation was compromised when the informant’s wife came along for the buy and she wasn’t properly searched before being alone at times with the informant out of officers’ view. Instead of aborting the operation, Santana allegedly skewed details in an affidavit in order to secure a warrant used to search Pappas’ home. After the warrant was authorized, the unit raided Pappas’ home and allegedly found a small amount of meth and paraphernalia.
The District Attorney’s Office ultimately dismissed charges against Pappas once Santana’s affidavit came into question. Affidavits are statements, written by an investigating officer, that explain to a judge why probable cause exists to issue a search warrant. Santana’s affidavit remains under seal by a court order.
It was problematic, to say the least, that your lead investigator made inaccurate statements to get a search warrant.
Former SLO County Deputy District Attorney David Paxton
Santana was placed on leave two days later. The District Attorney’s Office has not disclosed whether he resigned or was terminated in February 2015. He was charged with perjury in July.
Problems with affidavit
In court Monday, jurors heard from David Paxton, a former SLO County deputy district attorney who was initially assigned to prosecute Pappas based on Santana’s investigation. Paxton, who made the call to dismiss Pappas’ charges after reviewing Santana’s affidavit, said the affidavit contained clear discrepancies.
“I didn’t think that we’re giving the magistrate the full picture,” Paxton said.
Asked whether he would have proceeded with the case if not for the inaccurate information in the affidavit coming to light, Paxton said yes, noting that in his car, Pappas had three cellphones with drug-related text message threads and that the District Attorney’s Office likely would have had enough evidence to prosecute.
“It was my analysis that the search warrant would be quashed,” Paxton said. “It was problematic, to say the least, that your lead investigator made inaccurate statements to get a search warrant.”
(The informant) reached in the center console ... and pulled out the most brilliant blue substance. The first thing that came to my mind is that show ‘Breaking Bad.’
Former district attorney investigator A.J. Santana on methamphetamine bought by an informant
On Tuesday, Santana took the stand and described his version of the buy.
He said the informant’s wife was searched visually, but not physically, before she got into the car with her husband and was dropped off at the Chevron station in San Miguel. Following the buy, the informant picked up his wife at the station before meeting Santana across the street to hand over the drugs.
“(The informant) reached in the center console ... and pulled out the most brilliant blue substance. The first thing that came to my mind is that show ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” Santana said. “It was the first time I had ever seen this meth, and I did not believe at that point that it’s real.”
The informants and officers then moved to debrief at the San Miguel District Cemetery, where the substance — known to local law enforcement as “Smurf dope,” Santana said — tested positive for meth. The informant handed over a piece of paper with Pappas’ phone number on it but wasn’t able to relate Pappas’ name, calling him something similar to “Tommy Bahama,” Santana testified.
Mistakes called unintentional
Asked by his attorney, Thomas Worthington, whether he intended to make false statements or was trying to cover up inadequacies in the buy, Santana said no. Though he had been lead investigator in about eight narcotics unit cases, Santana said he was more experienced in financial crime.
“It’s the easiest thing to do. If there’s problems you can’t overcome (with the buy operation), it’s just $60 — it’s nothing to do another buy and make sure things go better,” Santana said. “I never included anything in the warrant that I thought to be false. I wasn’t trying to be dishonest.”
Deputy Attorney General Seth McCutcheon read aloud the first half of Santana’s affidavit, known as a “hero statement,” in which officers list their professional qualifications and training. A long list of Santana’s included narcotics investigation training.
“But you’re telling the jury you’re inexperienced in narcotics?” McCutcheon asked.
“There’s a distinct difference,” Santana replied. “There’s a huge learning curve.”
I never included anything in the warrant that I thought to be false. I wasn’t trying to be dishonest.
Former District Attorney’s Office investigator A.J. Santana
Santana admitted he made errors in the affidavit and at times strayed from the standard affidavit template used by officers. He wrote, for example, that the informant’s wife was dropped off “5 miles” from the buy. Santana said he made an “honest mistake” and that the report should have read “0.5 miles.”
McCutcheon picked apart the remainder of Santana’s affidavit and compared it to the template.
In the statement, Santana wrote that he “met with the CI (confidential informant) with the stated purpose of purchasing drugs from Tommy Pappas” and that the CI “told (Santana) that the person was known to him as Tommy Pappas.” However, McCutcheon recalled Santana’s earlier testimony that the informant did not specifically know Pappas’ name following the buy.
“He did not say that name specifically; he said something close,” Santana told McCutcheon. “We figured out later it was Tommy Pappas.”
“But you didn’t write, ‘... known to him as Tommy Bahama, then we did research and found out it was Tommy Pappas’?” McCutcheon asked, to which Santana said no. “You could have said, ‘we later learned,’ but you didn’t because it looks better (to the judge) if you said that, right?”
“I don’t think your statements are correct,” Santana replied.
McCutcheon further insisted that Santana wrote in the affidavit that the informant told him that Pappas drove a red sedan, when previous testimony indicated that the wife first told him.
“Again, it looks better on a search warrant if it came from a CI. Isn’t that correct?”
“I don’t agree with your statements,” Santana said.
Testimony in the trial resumes Friday.