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Former Rohnert Park police officers charged with extortion in drug and cash seizures from motorists

Two former Rohnert Park police officers were indicted Friday morning on federal charges of extortion, a stunning revelation following years of allegations that highway drivers were being robbed of cash and marijuana during traffic stops by some of the city’s public safety officers.

Former Sgt. Brendan Tatum and his drug enforcement partner, former Officer Joseph Huffaker, appeared in separate back-to-back hearings held virtually before U.S. District Court Judge Sallie Kim to unseal the felony indictments against them.

Tatum, 38, who goes by his middle name, Jacy, faces a maximum of 45 years in federal prison if convicted of the charges, which include falsifying records and tax fraud. Huffaker, 36, could face up to 20 years in federal prison, Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Frey said during the hearing.

Both men were out of custody and allowed to remain free.

Friday’s indictment was validation of claims that have dogged the city for several years that some of its officers were engaged in criminal activity far outside city limits.

City officials Friday said in a statement they had cooperated fully with federal investigators and emphasized the case involved past activity and a “now defunct marijuana interdiction program.”

“The City of Rohnert Park does not tolerate corrupt and unethical practices within the ranks of its employees, particularly its sworn peace officers, and those officers involved in today’s charges are no longer employed by the City,” according to the statement issued by Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz.

Early last year, Rohnert Park paid $1.5 million to settle federal civil rights lawsuits from eight drivers who said the Public Safety Department’s officers — including Tatum and Huffaker — robbed them of money and marijuana after they were pulled over on Highway 101 near the Mendocino County border.

Tatum was once a celebrated officer. He was brought before the City Council in 2015 and commended for his passion for combating illegal drug activity. Tatum thanked city officials “for giving me the opportunity to work the highway to fight the war on drugs.”

An honor bestowed on the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety for its seizure of illicit bulk cash at a national conference hosted by the private interdiction training company Desert Snow in March 2016 in Reno, Nev. (Rohnert Park Police and Fire Facebook)
An honor bestowed on the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety for its seizure of illicit bulk cash at a national conference hosted by the private interdiction training company Desert Snow in March 2016 in Reno, Nev. (Rohnert Park Police and Fire Facebook)

Tatum’s attorney Stuart Hanlon called the indictment “an overreach of government.”

“He believes he’s innocent and we’re going to defend against these charges,” Hanlon said. “He’s also done a lot of arresting of guilty people and has been involved in taking a lot of drugs off the illegal market. Whether he overstepped the bounds, which is what people say, you can’t forget the flip side: He was involved in police work that people wanted.”

Huffaker couldn’t be reached through his attorney.

Federal prosecutors claim body cameras worn by Tatum and Huffaker recorded traffic stops on Highway 101 in 2016 and 2017 when they seized cash and marijuana from drivers — but never reported the alleged contraband to the department or booked it into evidence.

The officers “extorted marijuana and cash from drivers on Highway 101 under color of official right, threatening to arrest drivers if they contested his seizures of their property, which he then kept for himself without reporting or checking into evidence,” the complaint says.

In one instance, Tatum and another officer found about $3,700 and 14 pounds of marijuana in a vehicle they stopped Aug. 25, 2016, on Highway 101 near Cloverdale, according to the indictment. Federal investigators found no records about this stop or the contraband seized, apart from body camera video.

The man told Tatum he was hauling the marijuana for someone else and the money was from his work as a taxi driver. After asking about the type of marijuana in the vehicle, Tatum said he was seizing the contraband but “you can have your freedom today,” the complaint said.

Tatum gave the man no citation or record of the cash and cannabis taken and the department had no record of the contraband, federal officials said.

When the man complained about the officers taking his money, saying it was a gift for his wife, Tatum had a reply.

“There is no such thing as easy money,” Tatum said in the video, according to the indictment.

Federal prosecutors claim Tatum falsified police documents to cover up his activities after his actions came under scrutiny. Financial records show a trail of nearly $450,000 in cash Tatum never reported for tax year 2016, according to prosecutors. He allegedly deposited the money in small amounts — under the threshold that might trigger an audit — into family members’ bank accounts and in cashier’s checks to buy a costly fishing boat.

“At the same time Tatum was extorting marijuana from drivers along Highway 101, he made hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash deposits into his own accounts, as well as his wife’s bank account,” the complaint states.

The allegations started in 2018 with one highway driver’s complaints that he was unlawfully stopped and his marijuana taken by suspicious officers.

Zeke Flatten has pressed multiple law enforcement agencies to name the unidentified officers who pulled him over in December 2017 in Mendocino County and seized 3 pounds of his marijuana. His name later appeared on a Rohnert Park police report. Flatten, a former Texas school district police officer, is shown here in San Antonio on Thursday, June 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
Zeke Flatten has pressed multiple law enforcement agencies to name the unidentified officers who pulled him over in December 2017 in Mendocino County and seized 3 pounds of his marijuana. His name later appeared on a Rohnert Park police report. Flatten, a former Texas school district police officer, is shown here in San Antonio on Thursday, June 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

Zeke Flatten was pulled over in December 2017 near Cloverdale by officers in generic “police” vests who had no badges and at one point claimed to be with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They took three pounds of marijuana from the back of Flatten’s vehicle and left without citing him for any crime or leaving him with documentation of the stop.

Flatten, who has since moved from California to Texas, started contacting law enforcement agencies and media, trying to determine if he had been robbed by individuals posing as officers.

Flatten’s complaints unleashed a flurry of similar claims from other drivers that Rohnert Park’s officers had targeted them unfairly in missions to seize marijuana.

A Press Democrat investigation revealed Rohnert Park officers seized far more cash and valuable assets from motorists and others suspected of breaking the law than any other local agency.

In 2016 alone, Rohnert Park reported its officers seized $1.4 million in assets — 25 times more than the amount confiscated by the Santa Rosa Police Department, the county’s largest city police force, which has two and half times more officers than Rohnert Park.

The department reported seizing more than $2.4 million between 2015 and 2017 through asset forfeiture. Some of those proceeds helped boost Rohnert Park’s public safety budget, some went to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office and the remainder to state law enforcement programs.

The indictment reveals federal investigators uncovered evidence showing Tatum and Huffaker brought in more marijuana and cash than the amount reported in official documents.

Motorists drive along Highway 101 around Frog Woman Rock near Hopland, California, on Thursday, June 28, 2018. The stretch of freeway was part of a bottleneck known as “the gauntlet” to people who transported marijuana. (ALVIN JORNADA/ PD)
Motorists drive along Highway 101 around Frog Woman Rock near Hopland, California, on Thursday, June 28, 2018. The stretch of freeway was part of a bottleneck known as “the gauntlet” to people who transported marijuana. (ALVIN JORNADA/ PD)

Tatum was a lead officer awarded for his aggressive missions to stop the flow of illegal marijuana and black market cash on Highway 101. They often staged along the stretch of highway called “the gauntlet” near Cloverdale and the Sonoma-Mendocino county border, 40 miles north of city limits. The area was well known by people in the medical and black market marijuana trades as a bottleneck for traffic stops by officers looking to intercept the flow of pot and cash.

When the allegations first surfaced, city officials deflected responsibility. Then-Mayor Pam Stafford said the City Council oversees the Public Safety Department budget but had no say in how the agency is run, adding that she remained “extremely proud” of Rohnert Park’s Public Safety Department.

The city has since gone through a cascade of changes. Tatum resigned in June 2018, followed closely by the abrupt departure of longtime Public Safety Director Brian Masterson.

Rohnert Park paid $75,000 for Huffaker to resign in 2019 after an internal investigation found he “engaged in misconduct that warrants termination.”

The city hired an independent auditor and on those recommendations, overhauled its evidence booking process and strengthened its methods for supervising officers.

Flatten called Friday’s federal indictment “a long time in the making.”

“I knew they were using the black market of cannabis as a smoke screen for the scheme they had going,” Flatten said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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