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Press Democrat files motion to unseal search warrant served on Santa Rosa council member Eddie Alvarez at City Hall

Plainclothes officers from the Santa Rosa Police Department served a search warrant on Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Eddie Alvarez in the City Hall parking garage and seized three phones, including one that was issued by the city, after a council meeting on Jan. 11.

The warrant, which remains under court seal, was related to a September shooting outside a Roseland bar. Alvarez had been at the bar, but had left before the shooting occurred, he told The Press Democrat. Both Alvarez and police said he is not currently a suspect.

The Press Democrat filed a motion in Sonoma County Superior court Wednesday to unseal the warrant after the District Attorney’s office declined to ask a judge to lift the seal.

“If there is a warrant that is sealed in a case, there is a good reason for that,” Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell wrote in a March 14 email to The Press Democrat.

Press Democrat Executive Editor Richard Green said the documents should be “unsealed and available for public view immediately.”

“This appears to be a highly unusual case involving a Santa Rose council member, and we see no reason why these records remain sealed,” Green said. “Transparency is essential in all phases of government, including the criminal justice system. That is why The Press Democrat is taking this extraordinary step.”

Alvarez, who represents southwestern Santa Rosa, has told The Press Democrat he was at the Whiskey Tip, a bar in his district that was hosting a Saturday night hip hop and rap concert, the night of Sept. 25, 2021.

Two Santa Rosa men, Fogatia Fuiava and Ednie Afamasaga, have been charged with the murder of Kenneth McDaniel, 27, of Santa Rosa and are facing preliminary hearings in June.

Alvarez is the first council member elected to represent the majority Latino Roseland and southwestern Santa Rosa areas since the city moved into district elections in 2020. His colleagues appointed Alvarez Vice Mayor in December.

He expressed frustration that he was served a search warrant in front of his colleagues but later was declared not to be a suspect. He also accused police of trying to ascribe “a narrative to who we are from the southwest (Santa Rosa) community.”

“I can’t believe that after everything I’ve done to improve my life I am still being surrounded by a bunch of cops,” Alvarez said. “I cannot allow the last two years of the advancements we’ve made to be erased because of pathetic tactics.”

The Santa Rosa Police Department declined to comment on the investigation or the reasons for the search warrant.

State law states that a search warrant should become public record after being executed, unless a judge rules on a motion to maintain the seal longer. There is no public record that such a motion was made in this case.

Santa Rosa city officials told The Press Democrat they would not release communications among council members and Police Chief Ray Navarro about the incident until the seal was lifted.

“Some of the requested emails may relate to that warrant,” city spokesperson Alexa Popplewell wrote in response to a public records request.

“We will produce any responsive documents which may relate to the search warrant upon receipt of a Court Order unsealing the subject warrant,” she wrote.

Police spokesperson Sgt. Chris Mahurin told The Press Democrat that Alvarez is not a suspect of the case. Mayor Chris Rogers said he also had been informed that Alvarez was not a suspect, and there was nothing in the investigation that should prevent him from continuing to attend meetings, Rogers told The Press Democrat.

At least two council members saw the warrant being served, and while it raised eyebrows, it has stayed out of public view for more than two months. Several council members said they were unaware why Alvarez was served.

Some questioned why officers had served the warrant following a council meeting and on the grounds of the seat of city government.

“I don’t know the circumstances but I question if it would have gone down differently for another council member,” said council member Natalie Rogers, who served as vice mayor before Alvarez and is the only other person of color on the council. “If it were not Eddie, would he have been served the warrant in that way?”

Alvarez has stopped using the parking garage where a space previously had his name reserved as an elected official, Rogers said. “That’s trauma,” she said, and “it hurts me to my core.”

Mahurin, the police spokesperson, said that in general, “our goal is to always serve a search warrant in the safest means possible. And sometimes contacting people in public places reduces the risk of safety concerns.”

Born in Santa Rosa, Alvarez has long-standing connections to the neighborhoods he represents, and his presence at community events and nightclubs is not uncommon.

Three months before the Whiskey Tip shooting, Alvarez was present at a July 4 block party in Roseland where another fatal shooting occurred. In that incident, suspected gang members unleashed a hail of bullets in a drive-by shooting the night of July 4.

Alvarez told The Press Democrat he was friends with the 35-year-old victim of that shooting and his family.

“I know what it’s like to lose people,” to gun violence, Alvarez said. A round also struck a 17-year-old girl who was hospitalized, and return fire from someone at the party struck another bystander, who was 29 at the time, according to the police.

Police sought information from Alvarez in that case “multiple times,” he said, but he “did not know the details that they were asking about.”

He said he believed the fact that he was uncooperative in that instance fueled his treatment in the Whiskey Tip case, he said. “I felt that they were very frustrated with me not having answers for them,” he said.

Mahurin would not comment on the July 4 case.

“We’re not commenting on any potential witnesses to open homicides,” he said.

Alvarez also knew the victim of the Whiskey Tip shooting. In a Sept. 27 email, three days after the event, Alvarez emailed Chief Navarro and told him he was at the bar. The Press Democrat obtained that email in a records request before city officials shut down disclosures.

“Wanted to share with you what I also shared with (a police sergeant),” Alvarez wrote to the police chief. “I did know the deceased in this case as he was involved in a break-in at my shop last year.”

Alvarez, who owns a marijuana dispensary, went on to say, “I know you are aware of what goes on within the department, including a council person being at a scene of a crime… more than once, but I felt it important to reach out myself.”

According to court records, prosecutors charged McDaniel and three other men for vandalism and felony burglary for breaking into The Hook, Alvarez’s dispensary, in June 2020.

In an interview on March 11, Alvarez declined to speak about the contents of the warrant, what detectives were looking for on his phone, or the shooting investigation itself. He reached the decision after consulting with Santa Rosa City Attorney Sue Gallagher, he said.

“I don’t want to disrespect the family that’s looking for closure,” he said, in a reference to McDaniel’s family.

But Alvarez said he was bothered that police served the warrant on the grounds of City Hall. “They should know better,” he said.

But the search warrant has not driven a wedge between him and his fellow council members, he said, or caused difficulties in his oversight of the police department. Alvarez and the rest of the council are embarking on a monthslong process to replace Navarro, who in late January announced he would step down in May.

“I do not want divisiveness in our city,” Alvarez said. He has not spoken publicly about the warrant until now.

“My energy was like OK, don’t stir the water but get things done,” Alvarez said. “That’s what’s going to make a difference to the future of Santa Rosa. It’s not going to be playing the victim card.”

Mahurin said Alvarez’s position did not influence the investigation.

“In general the department has a good relationship with the council member,” he said. “We’ve worked with him on various policy issues and never has there been much of an issue.”

At least two council members, Victoria Fleming and John Sawyer, witnessed the warrant being served. A plainclothes police officer stopped Fleming and Sawyer as they left council chambers on Jan. 11, both told The Press Democrat. The officer said they were serving a warrant and asked the two council members to wait, Fleming said.

The service of the warrant appeared to proceed calmly and took 10-15 minutes, Fleming said. “If the officers hadn’t told me they were in the process of serving a warrant I would have thought they were having a friendly conversation about something,” she said.

Sawyer said he asked one of the officers why the warrant was served at city hall. “The detective indicated that … they don’t treat elected officials differently than they do citizens and residents of Santa Rosa,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer didn’t make any assumptions about Alvarez because of the warrant, he said. But he said he understood the public interest in the case.

“We never take the council hat off,” Sawyer said. “It never leaves our head. Regardless of what might happen to one of us whether it might be something where there are no consequences or something where it is consequential… we are elected officials and held to a particular standard that tends to be higher than most.”

The Press Democrat’s motion asks the court to unseal the warrant along with the inventory of evidence seized and the supporting probable cause affidavit, which must be filed before a warrant can be issued.

“The public remains completely in the dark as to basic information about the basis for the search and seizure of this publicly elected official’s cellphone,” according to the newspaper’s motion filed by Press Democrat attorneys Thomas Burke and Sarah Burns of Davis Wright Tremaine law firm.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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