A former Mission drug dealer and police informant testified Thursday, in the first of two federal corruption trials against a handful of San Francisco police officers, that he worked with police to rob other drug dealers starting around 2009.
Cesar Hernandez's testimony — laying out an alleged scheme in which three undercover officers from the Mission Police Station repeatedly robbed drug dealers of money and product — was the most revealing so far in the first of two cases stemming from a February federal indictment.
In opening arguments Monday, federal prosecutors said that the case was a stark example of “corruption with a badge.”
Five current officers and one former officer, all part of an undercover unit, were indicted for a host of federal charges, including constitutional-rights violations, extortion, lying in court and on police reports, and dealing drugs.
The alleged misconduct — which included the current case's defendants, Ian Furminger and Edmond Robles, as well as former Officer Reynaldo Vargas, who pleaded guilty recently — surfaced in 2011 when videos documenting illegal searches at single-room-occupancy hotels were released by the Public Defender's Office to the media.
Hernandez, who now works in a candy factory and received immunity from prosecution, testified Thursday that he was living in a Mission SRO in 2009 when he was forced, on the threat of arrest, into becoming a police informant for Vargas and Robles.
The Mexican-born Hernandez, who started working for marijuana smugglers when he was 8 years old, came to San Francisco in his teens and worked for a heroin dealer until his own use lost him his job years later, he said during testimony in Judge Charles Breyer's federal courtroom.
Starting in 2009, Hernandez, with the help of Robles and Vargas, allegedly robbed about 20 drug dealers together and separately. They then split the money between themselves and their boss, Furminger, according to Hernandez. Hernandez, who was registered as an official police informant, was sometimes paid small sums from the department for that purpose. But other times, he said he was paid with drugs and money taken in the course of their nefarious doings.
According to Hernandez, he was once paid in crystal meth taken from a drug dealer and on another occasion in cocaine. He was then able to sell those drugs, which is not allowed under the department's informant program.
At first, Hernandez thought he was working with good cops, he said.
The first informant job Hernandez had involved a fairly low-level dealer in the Mission whom he knew. Hernandez told Robles and Vargas that he would only inform on low-level dealers and never on anyone from his part of Mexico. So, Robles allegedly had Hernandez buy cocaine from the man's house and then he would report back.
Soon after, Hernandez said he met with Robles, who pulled out a wad of cash and gave him about $250. After Hernandez complained that the money wasn't enough, Robles allegedly gave him crystal meth to sell as compensation. Knowing the drugs had been taken from the buyer's house, Hernandez said he realized the officers were not just using him to arrest criminals.
“He was more my kind, like me,” Hernandez said of Robles. “The only difference was that he had a badge.”
Aside from identifying other dealers, Hernandez said he would buy drugs at dealers' homes and then report back to Robles and Vargas about how much money and what quantity of drugs were in the place.
While most of these efforts included Vargas and Robles, at one point Furminger was in the room during a discussion about robbing another dealer, Hernandez alleged.
On another occasion, after Hernandez complained about how little money he received, Robles said, “'Look … the money's not only for you … I have to split the money with my boss,'” Hernandez testified.
But stealing from drug dealers was not all that Robles and his compatriots were allegedly up to, said Hernandez.
“He told me he had a friend with good-quality marijuana,” Hernandez said Robles once told him. “He told me if I know somebody that we can sell [to].”
The allegations against the officers include stealing a $500 and a $53 Apple gift card during an apartment search in March 2009. The three are also alleged to have stolen money during four other searches in Newark and San Francisco between May and November 2009.