Senate leader Darrell Steinberg fired a Capitol peace officer late Thursday after The Sacramento Bee asked legislative officials about court records showing the officer had cocaine in his system when he was involved in a December 2012 gunfight that left three people injured and one man dead.
Gerardo Lopez was a sworn peace officer and a member of the Senate’s in-house law enforcement unit known as the sergeant-at-arms office. An employee of the Senate since 1999, he lost his job roughly seven months after a preliminary hearing in Sacramento Superior Court revealed he had consumed cocaine and marijuana the night he took part in the fatal shootout in front of his house.
“While the facts in the case will be determined by the court, the presence of an illegal substance falls well below the standards expected of a law enforcement officer in the Senate,” Steinberg’s office said in a statement. “At the Senate president pro tem’s direction, the employee’s service in the Senate has been terminated, effective immediately.”
The development is the latest in a complex case charged with emotion. Lopez’s mother, Dina Hidalgo, is a high-ranking official in charge of Senate human resources. His wife, Jennifer Delao, is a secretary in Steinberg’s policy unit. Family members of the man who died in the shooting say Lopez has gotten preferential treatment in the criminal investigation because of his longtime status as a Capitol peace officer. Prosecutors, however, say Lopez is a victim in the case.
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Lopez did not respond to messages The Bee left for him, and Hidalgo declined to comment.
Lopez and Delao invited some friends back to their Greenhaven-area home after a night out at a bar in December 2012, according to court testimony by detectives working on the case, when a night of partying turned into a shootout. Prosecutors deny any preferential treatment for Lopez, who they say was the victim of a home invasion in the early morning after Delao had gone to bed and one of their guests, Frank Trevizo, discovered he was missing a $100 bill.
“(Lopez) said that, for whatever reason, the mood had changed,” Detective Ryan Bullard said during the preliminary hearing in September.
“Mr. Trevizo had gotten upset and was looking for a $100 bill that he could not find after counting through a wad of cash that he had. And he started asking Mr. Gerardo Lopez, his cousin Anthony, and then Jessica Aguallo where that $100 bill was and if they took it.”
Trevizo – who has a lengthy criminal record and has served time in prison – called some friends to come help him recover the money he believed had been stolen, prosecutors assert.
The friends arrived wielding guns, detectives said, and stole cellphones, money, keys and alcohol from Lopez’s house. Trevizo then left with the friends and forced Aguallo, a female friend of Lopez’s, to come along, according to a detective’s recounting of an interview with Lopez. Trevizo’s lawyer said the woman went willingly.
Lopez told the detective he feared the intruders were going to harm the woman, so he went to his bedroom and got his gun. Then he walked outside, detectives testified, and the firefight ensued. Prosecutors say four people were firing guns: Lopez, Trevizo and two of Trevizo’s friends, brothers Francisco and Joseph Merjil. Lopez, Aguallo and Francisco Merjil were injured by gunshots, detectives said, and Joseph Merjil was killed.
Who shot whom will likely be a matter of debate when the case goes to trial next month. Trevizo and Francisco Merjil are being charged with felony robbery and kidnapping. A third friend, Thomas Ordonaz, who prosecutors describe as the getaway driver, is charged with felony robbery in the case.
But no one is being charged with the killing of Joseph Merjil. His family members believe Lopez killed him but is not being prosecuted because of his long-standing ties to powerful people.
Francisco Cervantes, brother-in-law of the Merjils, said Lopez and his mother have “political pull” that influenced the way police describe what happened that night.
“It seems like they immediately went into home invasion, robbery. They went straight into self-defense for the homeowner,” Cervantes said. “We feel there is so much that they didn’t investigate.”
Lopez’s connections to the Capitol had “absolutely nothing” to do with prosecutors’ decisions in how to pursue the case, Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi said. He said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the case because it is about to go to trial, but added that in general, a person who is the victim of a crime is justified in using force on the perpetrators.
“You do have a right to defend yourself as long as there is an imminent danger of great bodily harm or death,” Grippi said.
“We’ve charged the other people – the defendants – with a crime, and we have named the homeowner Mr. Lopez as a victim. So assuming it was Mr. Lopez’s weapon that fired the shot – and I am saying that because we do not have proof of that yet – then it would be justifiable.”
After the shooting, Senate officials granted Lopez a “catastrophic medical leave” and sent out an email asking other Senate employees to donate their sick time so he could continue to be paid. Lopez returned to work in the fall, prompting numerous tips to The Bee that a peace officer involved in a gunfight was patrolling the Capitol.
An anonymous complaint also landed on the driver’s seat of Sen. Mark DeSaulnier’s car. After a long day at work in the Capitol last September, DeSaulnier, D-Concord, said he arrived in the basement garage after midnight to find a sealed envelope in his car.
Inside was an anonymous letter purporting to be from several Senate staff members, complaining that during Hidalgo’s tenure as head of human resources, several of her relatives were hired. Their frustration had come to a head, they wrote, with the shooting involving her son.
“We are in fear of his mere presence,” the letter says. “What if he is attacked while walking into work from the garage near other employees? Would you feel safe if he drove you to an out of town event?”
DeSaulnier said he gave the letter to several Senate officials, including Steinberg. Steinberg spokesman Rhys Williams on Friday defended hiring in the Senate, saying in an email that “one cannot be excluded from employment merely because he or she has a relative currently employed in the Senate. He or she, too, is a citizen and taxpayer.”
Williams said Lopez was interviewed and assessed by a panel of officials for the job, and passed the rigorous training required of sergeants.
Williams said Steinberg hired an outside investigator to look into the security issues raised in the letter to DeSaulnier.
That investigation was still underway when Steinberg fired Lopez. The statement released by Steinberg’s office makes a point of noting that he was unaware of the toxicology report in the case until he received a briefing Thursday.
Several days ago, The Bee asked for information about Lopez from Senate Secretary Greg Schmidt and Chief Sergeant-at-Arms Tony Beard. Both said they couldn’t talk about a confidential personnel matter.
On Thursday, The Bee told a Steinberg representative that the court file references toxicology reports showing Lopez and a guest at his house that night tested positive for cocaine. Detective Bullard testified that Lopez told him he had smoked marijuana with Trevizo earlier that night outside the bar. Lopez told the detective that the joint tasted funny and made his heart race. The detective said that Lopez attributed the cocaine in his system that night to the marijuana he had smoked outside the bar.
Trevizo’s lawyer, Danny Brace, had a different version of events. He said his client had provided cocaine that Lopez and others were snorting at the afterparty back at his house. The missing $100 bill, he said, was what they were using in the endeavor. When it was eventually discovered, Brace said, the bill was rolled up like a straw.
Brace said Lopez had no reason to go outside with a gun after Trevizo and his friends had left his house.
“There’s no question my guy started it by calling his buddy for backup. And it got out of hand. But they were leaving. They were halfway down the court,” Brace said.
Challenging Lopez’s credibility will be key to Trevizo’s defense, Brace said. He pointed out in the preliminary hearing that Lopez didn’t tell detectives in his first interview that he had used drugs the night of the shooting. Detective Bullard testified that he brought Lopez back for more questioning two months later, after toxicology reports showed he had tested positive for cocaine.
Vicki Merjil, the aunt of the Merjil brothers, said in an interview that her whole family has been “ruined” by the loss of Joseph and the incarceration of Francisco. Her nephews may have made some bad decisions that night, she said, but they left Lopez’s house without anyone being harmed.
“Gerardo became the aggressor,” she said. “Once that door closes, he is no longer fearing for his or his family’s life. So now he becomes the aggressor because he goes out and chases them.”
In the preliminary hearing, however, Judge Jack Sapunor said he saw sufficient cause to let the case against Francisco Merjil, Trevizo and Ordonaz proceed.
He also offered a brief assessment of what appeared to have happened that night:
“The tragedy here is that Mr. Trevizo dropped a $100 bill, and a man died for it.”