Sacramento judge calls DA, police cat-converter theft case ‘fiasco'

Judge: ‘This was clearly run like they’re after somebody in the mafia’

As the last juror exited the courtroom, Judge Ernest W. Sawtelle told the lawyers to sit tight: He had a few words for prosecutor Gregory Hayes to take back to the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office:

“[A]s a taxpayer, I was appalled at the way this case was investigated and presented,” he said, according to court transcripts from July 31. “From beginning to end, this [case] was a fiasco.”

It began with Erik Brown and Bill Lorch being arrested, on live television, for allegedly being key players in Sacramento’s thriving metal-theft black market. It ended nearly two years later with a full acquittal for both men and the judge’s remarks. Now, there are lingering questions about what law enforcement authorities were more interested in: justice, or winning.

The saga started on September 24, 2013, when a multi-agency task force led by the Sacramento Police Department raided Brown’s shop, Firehouse Muffler in Del Paso Heights. Brown and shop manager Lorch were arrested and accused of buying stolen catalytic converters.

In California, it’s a crime to buy or sell a used a catalytic converter. These “cats” contain valuable metals such as platinum and copper, making them popular targets among thieves because muffler shops can recycle used cats without raising suspicion.

Firehouse Muffler landed on the radar of the police department’s Metal Theft Task Force, which was formed in 2012 to combat the 81 percent increase in metal thefts the city had seen over the previous three years.

Police say undercover officers sold Brown and Lorch used catalytic converters on six separate occasions. The men were charged with 15 counts apiece. But on July 31, a jury took less than two hours to acquit them, culminating with Sawtelle’s scolding.

For the first time in his career, the judge said he was forced to tell a jury that the DA failed to present material information to the defense during the discovery phase. Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi said that’s because the prosecution didn’t have the evidence to provide.

According to those involved, task force officers didn’t record any of their undercover transactions, nor were they able to demonstrate a clear chain of possession of the catalytic converters. During cross-examination, officers were unable to recall basic information pertinent to the case. They claimed to have lost their written logs and ledgers.

Grippi acknowledged that mistakes were made by the prosecution, but blames the poorly executed sting for the acquittal. “Sac PD normally does outstanding work,” he told SN&R. “I want to make that clear. But in this case they were sloppy and it hurt us.”

Police officials defended their investigators. “[A]ny circumstances that may have affected the successful prosecution are not indicative of the great work accomplished by the Sacramento PD,” department spokesman Sgt. Doug Morse wrote in an email.

Sawtelle saw the entire case as unnecessary.

He questioned why the DA pushed forward with a jury trial when the alleged crimes, for which he called Brown “clearly guilty,” merited a citation and $1,000 fine.

“This was clearly run like they’re after somebody in the Mafia, for crying out loud,” the judge said.

Brown believes his televised arrest forced the DA to pursue a case they had little chance of winning. “They showed my arrest live on the news from a helicopter,” he said. “What were they gonna do, just drop the charges? No, they needed to save face by at least getting me to accept a plea deal.

“What they did to us wasn’t right, and they know that.”

Brown’s attorney, Amber Lunsford, said the DA used both stall tactics and also the threat of a jury trial to pressure both men into a deal.

“That’s what we call a trial tax,” Lunsford said. “[Fifteen] counts if we went to trial, or one count if we took the plea. They’re basically trying to scare people into a plea deal so they can pad their conviction rate.”

Grippi disagrees. “They call it a ’trial tax’? That’s not true. We don’t call it that.

“We call it leverage.”

Police declined to comment on the cost of the investigation. Whatever the figure, it could end up being more: Brown says he recently hired noted civil rights attorney John Burris to pursue a suit against the city.

He says he’s struggled to recover professionally since his arrest.

“I lost everything,” Brown said.