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'Vindicated' 

A federal indictment alleges police corruption in cannabis seizures

click to enlarge U.S. Highway 101 near Cloverdale.

Photo by Adam Grossberg

U.S. Highway 101 near Cloverdale.

After an investigation launched to determine exactly what happened to 3 pounds of Humboldt County cannabis, the FBI is alleging that the Rohnert Park police officer who headed his department's drug interdiction team was dirty. The seizure of those 3 pounds, the FBI determined, was a theft carried out by two police officers falsely impersonating agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"From August 2016 to December 2017, [Officer Brendon Jacy Tatum], acting as a uniformed police officer, 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," a criminal complaint against Tatum and fellow-former officer Joseph Huffaker reads.

The complaint charges both Tatum and Huffaker with conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right, and Tatum faces additional charges of falsifying records in a federal investigation in order to cover up the alleged theft of those 3 pounds and a count of tax evasion for allegedly failing to report at least $443,059 in cash deposits in 2016 alone, saying there is probable cause to believe the money was "derived from his extortion scheme."

Tatum resigned from the force in 2018 amid an internal investigation, while Huffaker negotiated a $75,000 payout in exchange for not contesting his termination. The city, meanwhile, has paid more than a combined $1.8 million to settle civil lawsuits brought by nine people alleging officers violated their rights by illegally seizing cash and cannabis during traffic stops.

Things began to slowly unravel for the officers — and by turn the entire Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety — at around noon on Dec. 5, 2017, when two officers driving an unmarked black SUV decided to pull over Zeke Flatten in Mendocino County, just north of the Sonoma County border. Flatten, a former cop and film producer, who had a couple films in post-production at the time, including Stark Trek: First Frontier, was researching a possible cannabis venture and traveling from Humboldt County with 3 pounds of cannabis in the trunk of his rented white KIA SUV.

Flatten said the traffic stop seemed off from the beginning. The officers identified themselves as being with the ATF, he said, but there were no nametags or anything associating them with the agency on their tactical-style clothing. The officers didn't run his name or plates through dispatch, Flatten said, and they didn't write a citation or receipt for the cannabis they seized, but said he'd be "getting a letter from Washington." Plus, Flatten said he noticed that while the officers claimed to be federal agents, their SUV had California exempt license plates, which didn't seem to fit.

"I'm not going to say I knew immediately I had been robbed by legitimate police officers but I got that feeling pretty quick," Flatten said. "I know that these guys were doing something horribly wrong. This was way beyond just sloppy police work or whatever. It was criminal."

A handful of days later, Flatten called the FBI to make a report, despite knowing he'd been violating federal law by transporting the cannabis.

"As brazen as that [traffic stop] was, when they're impersonating federal agents, the limit just doesn't stop in your mind of what they could possibly be involved in," Flatten said. "That's where my drive came from. It wasn't the loss of $3,000 worth of pot."

But while Flatten said he felt the initial agent he spoke to was very interested in his report, he wasn't convinced much was happening in the ensuing weeks in the Northern California field office. He decided to reach out to a reporter, Kym Kemp, based in Southern Humboldt.

As a part of doing due diligence on Flatten's story, Kemp called the ATF for comment and to see if the agency had anyone in the field doing interdiction work along U.S. Highway 101 that day. A spokesperson for the agency asked Kemp if they could put a special agent in touch with Flatten. He called within the hour.

Kemp published a story Feb. 11, 2018, about Flatten's allegations, noting both the FBI and ATF were looking into them. Flatten believes the story rattled some cages, and the charging document indicates that around the same time Tatum told his commander "that there was a female reporter up north" writing stories raising questions about the stop and potentially linking it to other agencies. He asked if he could write a press release.

The ensuing press release — titled, "Traffic Stop Leads to Cannabis Possession" — raised more questions than it answered. The release detailed the stop of a "white vehicle in the area of the Sonoma/Mendocino county line" sometime "during the month of December 2017," but did not include a more specific vehicle description, an exact date or time, the amount of cannabis found or the suspect's name — all information typically included in law enforcement press releases. The information presented also did not quite match Flatten's story.

According to the charging document, that's because Tatum used information from another traffic stop — one conducted Dec. 18, 2017, on a white Mercedes SUV on the same stretch of U.S. Highway 101 where Flatten had been stopped. In this case, the driver — identified only as "Victim 6" in the complaint — told federal agents he had been transporting 23 pounds of processed cannabis and four crates of hash to a dispensary lab for testing in the San Francisco Bay Area. Tatum and another unidentified officer seized the cannabis.

"When Victim 6 asked for official documentation regarding the seizure, one officer replied by asking if Victim 6 wanted to 'make a federal case out of it,' or words to that effect," the document states.

The charging document alleges that Tatum falsified a police report documenting Flatten's traffic stop and seizure using a case number and information from the Dec. 18 traffic stop. (Flatten believes he did this in order to distort the amount of cannabis Flatten was transporting and discredit him, though that's not made clear in the charging document.) But the criminal complaint further alleges that the cannabis booked into evidence in the case — loose bud in two cardboard boxes — was not the cannabis seized from either Flatten or Victim 6, as itdid not match either's description of what officers had taken from them.

Tatum allegedly wrote this falsified report on Feb. 20, 2018, more than two months after Flatten was pulled over and shortly after Kemp began publishing stories raising questions about the incident. But the charging document alleges he did not pull a new case number and instead used the one from the Dec. 18, 2017 stop, conflating facts from the two stops. For example, the report allegedly states that Flatten had a "homemade excellent spreadsheet" documenting what was in his possession, when it was, in fact, Victim 6 who had the document, and the report indicates Flatten's vehicle was a Mercedes SUV, which is actually what Victim 6 had been driving.

And while Tatum's report indicates he was present for Flatten's traffic stop, Flatten said he wasn't there and that he identified Huffaker and another officer that was not Tatum.

"Based on these facts, there is probable cause to believe that Tatum falsified a report for the undocumented stop and seizure of marijuana from [Flatten] in order to conceal his and Huffaker's actions during the stop and deflect negative media attention," the charging document states. "As a result, there is probable cause to believe the he falsified a record or document with the intent to impede, obstruct and influence the investigation and proper administration of a matter that he knew was within the jurisdiction of the FBI and ATF."

While the conspiracy charge relates solely to these two traffic stops in December of 2017, there's mounting evidence — including those $1.8 million in settlements, more than $400,000 of which went to Flatten — to indicate problems in Rohnert Park went far beyond these incidents or these officers.

As has been widely reported, Rohnert Park's interdiction team was prolific from at least 2014 through 2016, with Tatum heading it in 2016. Tatum himself personally won numerous national awards for his work, and reported personally seizing more than 4,000 pounds of cannabis, 20 firearms, a dozen vehicles and more than $4 million in cash, according to the charging document.

After a thorough investigation combing through court and police records, a KQED report in July of 2018 raised questions about what came of hundreds of pounds of cannabis the department had seized legally and documented. When police seize drugs, they typically save a sample for testing and then get a court order to destroy the rest, as it can be impractical to store huge quantities of drugs for long periods of time. But KQED found Rohnert Park was unable to document what had become of 800 pounds of cannabis the department had seized over a four-year period and the court had ordered destroyed. The department, KQED reported, had given Tatum the responsibility of destroying the seized cannabis.

But the charging document buttresses the civil lawsuits filed against the city and supports the notion that many seizures were simply never documented or reported at all.

As a part of the federal investigation, agents reviewed body-worn camera footage of traffic stops with Tatum and other Rohnert Park officers in which footage captured cannabis and cash being seized, but in which no incident reports, property seizure reports or destruction orders were written. The traffic stops, the agents found, simply went completely undocumented. The charging document details four incidents over a two-month span in 2016, in which footage documents Tatum and other officers taking at least 37 pounds of cannabis and $3,700 in cash from motorists with no paper trail to support the seizures. In each case, the complaint alleges Tatum or his accompanying officer threatened motorists with arrest or prosecution if they contested the seizures. In one case where a motorist protested that the cash in his vehicle was a gift for his wife, Tatum allegedly can be heard in the video telling him, "There's no such thing as easy money."

Ironically, the same charging document also alleges that irregularities in Tatum's financial records support the notion this was a lucrative enterprise.

From 2014 through 2018, the complaint alleges Tatum and his wife combined to deposit more than $725,000 in cash into their bank accounts and the accounts of family members. In 2016, those deposits totaled nearly $400,000.

The complaint further alleges Tatum and his wife made sure never to deposit more than $10,000 in cash at a time, knowing it would require the bank to file a Currency Transaction Report with the IRS.

"Of these cash deposits into Tatum and his wife's bank accounts in 2016, there were eight same-day or consecutive-day cash deposits not exceeding $10,000, totaling $159,900," the complaint states, adding that the following year, a Wells Fargo bank teller documented a suspicious transaction on the bank's internal system when Tatum allegedly attempted to deposit $10,380 in cash only to realize the sum was greater than $10,000 and take $1,000 back from the deposit.

The complaint also alleges Tatum purchased a fishing boat for $218,234 in November of 2016, paying in part with $46,835 in cashier's checks that could not be linked back to his bank accounts. (Property records also show Tatum living in a $2 million home.)

According to the charging document, the Tatums reported $158,714 in income to the IRS for 2016 but "based on the unreported cash receipts of $443,059, Tatum owes an additional $146,701 to the IRS." After his filing, the document notes, he'd received a refund of $2,033.

Flatten said reading through the charging document left him with a feeling of "vindication" and faith that — while slow at times — the system does work, if one is willing to speak up, document their experience and persevere. He said the two years immediately following his traffic stop, the case and investigation were all-consuming. He believes he was put under surveillance, with GPS trackers affixed to his car and his phones monitored, and that his home was broken into twice related to the case — once with files taken off his computer and once with an ominous and potentially threatening note left in his storage room that read: "Light is death police cockroach."

With charges now filed, Flatten said he feels more protected. But while not in constant fear, he also doesn't take his safety for granted.

"I really don't go anywhere without a gun," he said. "That's kind of a sad thing to say — I went 20 years without carrying a gun when I left police work. But I don't let it consume me."

Looking back on the last few years, Flatten said the criminal charges unsealed March 12 against Tatum and Huffaker are a testament to the power of the First Amendment, free speech and a free press. He said he doesn't believe any of this would have happened had Kemp not taken his story seriously and began investigating.

"That's what brought this story truly to light," he said.

And Flatten added that he doesn't think this story is over, noting the criminal complaint mentions a number of involved officers who have not been charged.

"I think there's still more to come, I guess I feel comfortable saying that there's still more to come beyond these two officers," he said. "I hope that Tatum and Huffaker cooperate with whatever future investigations are coming out of this. They know the inner workings and have the keys to unlock whatever other people were involved and hold those people accountable, too."

Flatten paused.

"They really owe that to their community," he continued. "They disgraced themselves, violated their oaths, violated the trust of their community. Maybe this is a place where they can seek a little bit of redemption."

According to the complaint, Huffaker and Tatum face 20 and 45 years in federal prison, respectively, if convicted in the case.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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About The Author

Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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