A former San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office investigator accused of lying to a judge about a drug case was inexperienced in narcotics investigations, a sheriff’s detective testified Thursday, but was also stubborn and submitted false information to a judge in order to obtain a search warrant.
In an ongoing San Luis Obispo Superior Court trial this week, jurors heard testimony about a drug investigation gone wrong that revealed rifts between police officers and investigators in the DA’s Office and showed how much judges rely on law enforcement officers to be honest about their investigations when requesting surveillance and search warrants.
August Justino “A.J.” Santana, 47, is charged with one felony count of perjury, a crime that carries a potential three-year prison term. Because of a conflict of interest with the county, the case is being prosecuted by the California Attorney General’s Office.
Santana was a Pismo Beach police officer for 10 years before being hired as a District Attorney’s investigator in 2007, investigating financial crime cases such as that of Grover Beach financial advisor Al Moriarty.
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In September 2013, Santana was assigned to the county Sheriff’s Office narcotics unit, a multiagency task force comprised of sheriff’s deputies, probation officers, city police, DA’s investigators and representatives from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In August 2014, he was lead investigator in a case concerning a suspected meth dealer in San Miguel named Tommy Pappas. Using a confidential informant, Santana set up a “controlled buy” with Pappas.
The operation was compromised when the informant’s wife came along for the buy and surveilling officers at times lost sight of the pair.
I felt there were problems with the operation and all they had to do was get the (informant) to do another buy.
Sheriff’s Det. Gerald Giese
But instead of aborting the operation and trying again later, the state said in court this week that Santana fudged key details in an affidavit in order to secure a search warrant used to search Pappas’ home.
After the warrant was authorized, the narcotics unit raided Pappas’ home in the 8500 block of Magnalina Drive, allegedly finding a small amount of meth and paraphernalia. The DA’s Office ultimately dismissed charges against Pappas once the affidavit came under scrutiny.
Santana was placed on leave two days after the charges against Pappas were dropped.
The affidavit in question remains under seal by a court order and is not a public document.
Affidavits are statements, written by an investigating officer, that explain to a judge why probable cause exists to issue a search warrant. In this case, Santana’s affidavit is important because it persuaded Superior Court Judge Rita Federman to not only issue the warrant to search Pappas’ home and car under false pretenses, but also to seal the document from public scrutiny in order to protect the investigation.
In court Thursday, jurors heard from three officers who participated in the “controlled buy” that was used as justification to search Pappas’ home.
Sheriff’s Deputy Wade Moxley described how Santana and other officers met with the informant, called “John Doe” in court, at a cemetery in San Miguel. The informant was to purchase drugs from Pappas in a nearby park, then meet elsewhere with Santana to hand over the evidence, he testified.
But the informant arrived at the cemetery with his wife, which was not part of the plan, and the pair then stopped at a Chevron gas station on the way to the buy. In his affidavit, a portion of which Deputy Attorney General Seth McCutcheon showed jurors, Santana wrote that the wife was dropped off before the informant stopped at the gas station and then continued on to the buy. Moxley and other officers testified that she went along for the exchange.
Moxley said the informant’s wife got out of their vehicle at the gas station and returned to the vehicle before they drove to the buy, which was ultimately successful, he said. But with the wife moving temporarily out of officers’ sights and returning to the car, the integrity of the buy was compromised because she could have provided the drugs and not Pappas. Moxley also testified that the wife was not properly searched beforehand.
“You need to control as much of that controlled buy as possible,” Moxley said. “If she was going to be part of this, she needed to be searched too.”
Moxley said he had concerns about the operation, but under cross examination by Santana’s attorney, Thomas Worthington, Moxley said that he never took notes or otherwise recorded what happened and never spoke to Santana about the operation afterward.
He said he was going prove he wasn’t guilty of what was alleged.
San Luis Obispo County Probation Officer Noah Arnold
Sheriff’s Deputy Gerald Giese, who also participated in the buy, testified Thursday that it was obviously compromised but that it should have been an easy fix.
“I felt there were problems with the operation and all they had to do was get the CI to do another buy,” Giese testified. “We (would) only spend $60 — big deal — now we’ve got an in on this guy.”
Worthington questioned whether Giese had any professional disagreements with Santana, reading a transcript from an interview with a supervisor in which Giese complained that Santana had “a high opinion of himself” and that “his ego wouldn’t let him be wrong.”
“It’s not that he’s a bad investigator, it was just his personality,” Giese testified Thursday. “He came over to the narcotics unit and didn’t like to be told he was wrong.”
Asked by Worthington if he and others in the narcotics unit were resentful of Santana because he was a former cop who had moved to the DA’s Office — a move that came with a pay increase, Worthington said — Giese said no.
Probation Officer Noah Arnold, who testified that he was Santana’s second in command in the operation, said Santana also broke protocol by collecting the meth from the informant without another officer present. Furthermore, Arnold testified, it was Santana who handed him the drugs before Arnold placed them in an evidence bag, contradicting his affidavit.
Arnold testified that shortly after Santana left the DA’s Office, he called Arnold on the phone.
“I was told by my agency I was not to speak with him, but he’s a friend so I didn’t hang up on him,” Arnold said. “He said he was going to prove he wasn’t guilty of what was alleged.”
Testimony from witnesses for the prosecution resumes Monday.