By Alex Emslie
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer said Thursday’s sentencing of former San Francisco police Officer Reynaldo Vargas marks “the final chapter in a very sad story” for the department.
Breyer accepted federal prosecutors’ recommendation for lighter punishment in exchange for Vargas’ cooperation in a federal corruption trial that’s sending two of his former colleagues to prison for longer terms.
Vargas was sentenced to one year in prison and three years of supervised release for conspiring with his onetime partner, Edmond Robles, and their supervisor, former Sgt. Ian Furminger, to steal property from suspects in 2009. Vargas pleaded guilty last October to charges of conspiracy to distribute drugs, distribution of marijuana, conspiracy to commit theft and theft, before the jury trial of the three officers began.
The drug charges stemmed from Vargas’ decision to give a pound of marijuana to two informants, which he described when he testified for the prosecution in November.
“As wrong as this sounds, it was kind of an altruistic gesture,” Vargas said on the stand. “I wanted to give them something to — something they could use to make some money for themselves,” Vargas said. “They were very down on their luck. My intent with it was ultimately it was just going to be destroyed. I thought that was kind of a waste. At least if they had it, they could do something with it. They could obviously sell it — that was her expertise — and make some money for themselves to get themselves off the street into a hotel room, eat, that sort of thing.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Hemann asked the former narcotics officer, “So your intention — not to put too fine a point on it — was to give heroin addicts marijuana to sell on the street?”
Vargas answered, “Yes.” He went on to testify that Robles and Furminger eventually knew about the transaction, as well as about times he collected money and property from searches of suspects’ homes, keeping the proceeds and sharing them with Furminger and Robles.
Furminger was convicted in December of two counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit theft and one count of conspiracy against civil rights. He was sentenced in February to three years, five months in prison, a $25,000 fine and 120 hours community service.
Former Officer Edmond Robles was convicted in December of the same charges as Furminger, plus an additional conspiracy to commit theft charge. He was sentenced in March to three years, three months in prison, plus a $25,000 fine and 120 hours community service. Both Furminger and Robles were also sentenced to three years supervised release.
Both are appealing their convictions to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Furminger is also at the center of a bigoted text messaging scandal that’s resulted in three SFPD officers’ resignations. Seven more are facing termination hearings before San Francisco’s Police Commission. The officers who may be fired, joined by three who were disciplined by the police chief but kept their jobs, filed a complaint May 11 alleging the Police Department had allowed a one-year statute of limitations on discipline to elapse.
Vargas was contrite at his sentencing hearing Thursday.
“If I’m going to go forward, I have to acknowledge everything I’ve done in the past and accept responsibility for that,” he said.
Prosecutors cited several factors in recommending the lighter sentence for Vargas. He was especially useful in pursuing charges against Furminger and Robles, Hemann wrote. The risk of testifying against other officers, while still facing jail time, was also a factor.
“In addition to the usual risks associated with being a ‘snitch’ in prison,” Hemann wrote, “Vargas faces the risk of retaliation at the hands of law enforcement by virtue of his cooperation against police officers. … One unique aspect of this case is it is unusual for police officers to agree to cooperate in a prosecution against their fellow officers. It is important that the ultimate sentence imposed on Vargas provide incentive to officers in future cases to cooperate with investigations into police misconduct.”
Breyer did not impose a $20,000 fine that Hemann requested.
This post contains reporting from Bay City News.