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By Royal Calkins
It happened back in 2007 but cops and prosecutors still tell the story. Monterey County sheriff’s deputies suspected that a drug dealer named Hernandez had swallowed a packet of narcotics after being stopped for a traffic violation in Salinas. Detective Brian Pickens was called in to handle it because he was the department’s drug expert.
Pickens guessed that Hernandez had a considerable amount of dope in his belly and had a way to get him to cough it up, so to speak. He handed Hernandez a cup of water, which he drank. Then Pickens told him it was laced with a substance designed to dissolve narcotics packaging.
There was only water in the cup, but Hernandez believed his time was up unless Pickens gave him an antidote. After Hernandez admitted to swallowing several bundles of narcotics, Pickens instead sent him to a hospital where doctors used various means to retrieve 29 packages.
After Hernandez started talking, deputies obtained a search warrant for his home and found close to a pound of narcotics. That made him a fairly significant drug dealer.
Hernandez walked away a free man, however. Pickens’ trick worked but the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office knew the arrest wouldn’t stand up in court.
“A threat that a suspect may die if he does not cooperate is a clear due process violation . . . ,” Ed Hazel, who was then Monterey County’s managing deputy district attorney, wrote at the time. “Here the subsequent confession was illegally obtained (and the result was) the freeing of a major drug dealer without any repercussions.”
That was part of an unusual letter that Hazel sent to the Sheriff’s Office in May 2007 in which he complained that Pickens had mishandled the Hernandez case and seven others. Hazel said Pickens had released suspects in drug cases without documenting their arrests, allowed suspects to go free in exchange for promises never kept, and made false representations in court documents. (See sidebar)
Voices recently obtained that letter and a previously confidential report chronicling a 2018 DA’s Office investigation into allegations that Pickens was causing other detectives to include unverified information in documents used to obtain search warrants.
Pickens retired as a result of that somewhat inconclusive investigation but issues it raised remain unresolved. He was cleared of criminal wrongdoing regarding the warrants, but it appears there has never been a systematic look at whether his aggressive and creative style resulted in any unjust convictions over the years.
Documents reviewed by Voices and interviews with numerous law enforcement officials, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others lead to the conclusion that the legal system can be painfully slow to recognize and correct its failings. In this case, Pickens used dubious means to rack up an impressive string of drug and narcotics arrests while those around him apparently never felt empowered to redirect his efforts. Unlike rulebreakers in most fields, Pickens was promoted twice and was even honored as the department’s deputy of the year three years before converging events forced his retirement.
Former colleagues say that on more than one occasion, Pickens broke regulations by retrieving information from a suspect’s cell phone without a warrant and used it to obtain a warrant. The same colleagues and others in law enforcement also say that police departments in Salinas and Greenfield had stopped cooperating with Pickens at various times because of his tactics, especially using information from their reports to write warrants in unrelated cases.
‘Making good cases’
Pickens acknowledges that he wasn’t welcome in those towns at times but says it was because he was making good cases there and making their police departments look bad. He denies improper use of cell phone information or reports from other departments.
He said the tension with Salinas police began when he mentioned the names of a couple of informants to a Salinas police officer, who went out and arrested them. Former Salinas law enforcement officials, however, say he created his own problems by not letting Salinas police know when he was operating in the city, repeatedly creating dangerous situations for the city police.
“In Greenfield, we were uncovering too much shit,” Pickens said in a telephone interview. “We weren’t even allowed to drive through Greenfield.”
As for cell phones, Pickens verified cracking into many suspects’ phones to obtain information but only before the practice was ruled illegal.
Perhaps more significantly than the investigation into Pickens’ work, the DA’s investigation of 2018 also turned up concerns about inadequate oversight of the sheriff’s investigations unit, failure to maintain files on confidential informants, failure to prepare written contracts with informants and lack of records of payments to informants.
Those deficiencies would be considered serious breaches of protocol in most law enforcement agencies. Monterey County sheriff’s spokesman John Thornburg declined to comment on whether the department has since started following standard procedures regarding recordkeeping and informants.
Voices filed a Public Records Act request with Monterey County seeking any writings about confidential informants and recordkeeping. The response from the County Counsel’s Office this week was a copy of the sheriff’s policy manual requiring systematic creation and maintenance of records on each confidential informant, written contracts with the informants and complete records of payments to each informant. There was no indication, however, of whether those policies are in effect.
According to the DA’s report, Detective Jesse Piñon told investigators that one of the first things he noticed when he began working in investigations is that they did not maintain any informant files.
“Piñon stated that his training and experience in previous units was to document all contact with CIs (confidential informants). Piñon stated he was informed by Detective Sgt. (Brian) Hoskins that per Undersheriff Moore (former Undersheriff Michael Moore) they were no longer to maintain CI files.” A lieutenant who supervises the narcotics unit of a large California police department said he had never heard of a department not keeping files on confidential informants.
“Absolutely standard procedure,” he said. “And no record of payments. That invites problems.”
Pickens said he doesn’t deserve any of the blame for the poor record-keeping. He said he never heard an explanation but suspects the department brass wanted to eliminate any kind of paper trail so it would be harder for the DA’s Office to scrutinize the department’s work.
Moore could not be reached to comment.
‘Get on board or get out of the way’
Hazel sent his letter at a time of serious tension between prosecutors and the sheriff’s investigative unit. Others in the DA’s Office had complained that Pickens and at least one other detective weren’t sharing information with prosecutors and wouldn’t listen to legal advice.
With a complaint like Hazel’s in his file, Pickens’ value as a detective could have been diminished. If he had to appear in court, prosecutors might have to tell the defense that there were concerns about his credibility, particularly in light of one case in which he was suspected of falsely claiming prosecutorial approval of a favor he hoped to do for a would-be informant.
Prosecutors routinely maintain files listing what are known as “Brady cops,” officers who have been caught lying. Pickens apparently was never put on the official list kept by the Monterey County DA’s Office but sources in the Sheriff’s Office and the DA’s Office say he was on an informal list signifying that he should be watched closely. Brady is a reference to a Supreme Court ruling that, among other things, requires prosecutors to inform the defense if a testifying officer had been caught lying.
Unlike anyone else who might be called into court, police officers in California are protected by procedures that make it highly difficult for defense lawyers to uncover information about their credibility or past performance. When the defense suspects there might be damaging materials in an officer’s personnel file, the defense attorney is required to file a special motion that sometimes results in a judge reviewing the file in private and determining what if anything to turn over to the defense. Bias naturally seeps into that process considering how many judges are former prosecutors and how few are former defense lawyers.
Pickens said he has been the subject of numerous such actions, known as PItchess motions, but didn’t know if any of his information had ever gone over to the defense.
Pickens said he was told by former prosecutor Terry Spitz several years ago that 106 Monterey County cops and deputies were on the informal list kept by the DA’s Office.
The prosecutors’ issues with Pickens’ performance as of 2007 posed a problem for the Sheriff’s Department until someone came up with a creative solution. The year after Hazel sent his letter, Pickens was promoted to sergeant by then-Sheriff Mike Kanalakis. That meant he would supervise detectives in the field without having to appear in court himself. Detectives working under him would do the testifying. Problem solved.
Kanalakis didn’t respond to a request for comment about the promotion.
Pickens said he worked mainly with prosecutor Todd Hornik in the years before Hazel’s letter, and that things were going extremely well until Hornik decided to change direction.
“We were going after dope and guns and he didn’t want to go after dope and guns anymore. He wanted to go after the money,” Pickens said. Law enforcement agencies local and federal had begun focusing on drug cases that involved significant amounts of cash or property because the courts were letting them keep much of the seized assets.
“Hornik wanted us to do the money cases,” Pickens said. “I didn’t care about the money. I wanted the cases where you’d see the drugs and the money on the table. It should have been about the drugs.”
Hornik declined to comment about Pickens.
The way Pickens tells the story, he was a hard-charging, high-performing cop who had a way with informants and who became disliked by many of his colleagues because he made them look bad.
“If you’re not doing your job, I’m not being paid to be your friend,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s a fast road. Either get on board or get out of the way.”
Pickens, 52, grew up in West Virginia. He told friends in the department he was big on making drug cases partly because of a narcotics-related death in his family. His younger brother hanged himself.
Pickens joined the Sheriff’s Office in 1989, straight out of the Army. Before making detective, he spent much of his early law enforcement career on patrol in southern Monterey County working with deputy Steve Bernal, who is now sheriff. As a detective, he made good use of his South County knowledge, working drug sources there in hopes of turning larger cases in Salinas.
After the written complaint from Hazel, Pickens stayed on with the department for another 11 years, not all of it in investigations. He developed a reputation as a maverick but also as a producer.
“He made cases,” said one veteran prosecutor. “He wasn’t one of those guys just sitting around and eating pizza.”
But at the same time, Pickens was known to be unafraid of bending or breaking rules in order to make those cases, especially if they involved narcotics or guns.
“His team did a lot of work using clever and unique methods,” said another prosecutor, who asked not to be named. “I wouldn’t say his work was fishy but he did take approaches that ended with weird results.”
That attorney called Pickens a “hunter.”
“He loved finding drugs and he always wanted the guy with 5 kilos to lead him to the guy with 10 kilos. It didn’t often work out like that, however, and at least some 5-kilo guys apparently went on their merry ways.”
A former high-ranking Sheriff’s Office official said, “Brian might have done some big cases when he was working with the feds, but from what I understand, they weren’t particularly enamored with the guys we sent up there.”
Despite the issues that swirled around Pickens throughout his time in the department, Sheriff Bernal promoted Pickens to detective sergeant and named him Deputy of the Year in 2015. That was partly because he had been on prestigious temporary assignments with FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration task forces. Bernal’s role in selecting Pickens was a break with tradition. For years, the Deputy Sheriffs Association had selected the annual honoree.
Pickens said that although Bernal helped his career along, he has little respect for Bernal as a cop. Bernal was a deputy, the department’s lowest rank, when he knocked off incumbent Scott Miller to become sheriff in 2014. Unlike most deputies, he had received no advanced training and he had never applied for special units such as SWAT or search-and-rescue. He applied to be a detective but it didn’t work out.
“I worked with a lot of deputies in South County including Bernal and he was terrible,” Pickens said. “He was lazy.”
Pickens mentioned that Bernal, like many deputies, was assigned to the King City substation and was living in San Luis Obispo County. Advancement in the department would require working in Salinas, “and he didn’t want to make the drive,” Pickens said.
‘He got close to the line’
Though it was somewhat inconclusive, the District Attorney’s Office investigation of 2018 ended the career of one of the most productive and controversial detectives to ever prowl the back streets of Monterey County.
A previously confidential report on that investigation shows that it was prompted by complaints from other deputies and focused on allegations that Pickens, by then a detective sergeant, had been “ghost-writing” search warrant affidavits for his underlings in the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department investigations unit. They contended he was adding information that the detectives couldn’t verify.
To obtain most search warrants, detectives craft affidavits spelling out their credentials and detailing whatever evidence is needed to persuade a judge to authorize raiding someone’s home, office or car. It’s an open secret in law enforcement that some officers often fudge on the affidavits by putting words into informants’ mouths or claiming to have witnessed transactions that they really hadn’t seen.
One detective working under Pickens had complained to the DA’s Office that Pickens required him and others to write things that they couldn’t corroborate, such as seeing a drug dealer carry out a sale or supposedly having an informant who had seen where narcotics or other contraband was hidden.
The DA’s investigation found some evidence to support those complaints but not enough to file charges against Pickens. By initiating the investigation as a criminal inquiry, the DA’s Office mostly limited itself to issues of potential criminality, meaning the investigators had little reason to poke into procedural issues or Pickens’ relationship with prosecutors or the courts
The DA’s investigation was also limited to warrants written in 2017, leaving most of Pickens’ career unexamined. Much of the inquiry involved comparing text messages from Pickens with the final language of affidavits, looking for any examples of fiction being treated as fact.
Though no charges were filed, top sheriff’s officials apparently felt the investigation signaled that it was time for a change, especially since the investigation was concluding just as Sheriff Steve Bernal’s re-election campaign was ramping up. A public firing or a prosecution of Pickens would have splattered some mud on the Bernal campaign. So at the start of the investigation, Bernal moved Pickens to the Coroner’s Division, which amounted to a demotion.
“I wasn’t going to do that,” Pickens said in a telephone interview. Instead, he said he took vacation time off and waited for the investigation to conclude. As it was about to end, he turned in his retirement papers.
(After this article was initially posted, Voices received a copy of an announcement from the department’s head of internal affairs at the time time, John Thornburg, informing the department’s command staff that Pickens was being placed on administrative leave on Feb. 5, 2018, a month before he retired.)
Pickens’ friends in the department say he was exonerated by the investigation, which overstates the case.
It has become conventional wisdom within the Sheriff’s Office that Bernal and a couple of his top advisers drove to Pickens’ home immediately after being briefed on the investigation and asked for the sergeant’s gun, badge and car. A supporter of Pickens within the Bernal administration says that simply didn’t happen.
That official, who asked not to be identified, said the DA’s Office had been unfairly scrutinizing Pickens for years.
“He resigned because he was sick of being targeted and feared all of his work would be rejected by the DA’s Office,” that official said. “I wasn’t a huge Pickens fan, but I respected his tenacity. Like (another detective), he got close to the line on many investigations, but knew never to cross the line.”
Bernal didn’t respond to a request for comment on his hiring policies or the Pickens investigation. Bernal has hired several deputies who had previously been fired by his department or others.
‘A scammer and a sweet-talker’
Pickens said he was proud of his record and proud not to have been one of the many in law enforcement who seem to be chained to their chairs.
“A lot of the guys didn’t like me because I made cases, and that made them look bad,” he said.
“We never did anything illegal or immoral. We worked our asses off,” he wrote in a text message. He said he was the victim of a feud with another former supervisor, Cmdr. Matt Luther, that began after he was “forced” to tell Internal Affairs what he knew about issues that caused Luther’s termination. Luther, who is in the midst of an appeal process, was fired for his role in a series of after-work gatherings including one that resulted in an armed deputy passing out in a patrol car. That internal affairs investigation came to be known as Pizzagate.
In response, Luther said it was Pickens and another detective who voluntarily initiated the Pizzagate investigation.
“He is a scammer and a sweet-talker, which is why he is so good with narcotics users and crooks. He essentially speaks their language,” Luther said.
Pickens said he had no choice but to cooperate with the IA investigation of Luther even though it put him in the horrible position of having to speak poorly about his direct supervisor.
In the 2018 investigation, DA investigators interviewed about 25 members of the Sheriff’s Department. Though some of those questioned say they were promised confidentiality, they say the information was provided to the sheriff, resulting in at least a couple demotions and transfers.
Berkley Brannon, the chief assistant district attorney who oversaw the inquiry, said no one was promised confidentiality. He also mentioned that several defense lawyers were notified of the Pickens’ investigations so they could examine whether Pickens’ techniques might have played a role in pending criminal cases but not completed cases.
Brannon said the results of the investigation didn’t warrant a similar examination of completed cases, older cases in which Pickens’ techniques could have tipped the scales in law enforcement’s favor.
Monterey County Public Defender Susan Chapman said last week that she was only vaguely familiar with the matter. She would not say if the investigation had caused anyone in her office to reexamine any pending or completed cases.
Pickens’ departure in March 2018 received some press attention at the time. First, KION-TV reported that the DA’s Office was investigating allegations of corruption within the department. Later, Monterey County Weekly complained in a column that a star performer, Pickens, had been pushed out by an investigation that had turned up nothing more than procedural errors, which is not the case.
The report, by DA investigators Steven Guidi and Tracey Spencer, starts by summarizing two anonymous letters of complaint from within the Sheriff’s Department. One says, “We are all tired of the illegal, unethical and immoral activities perpetrated by certain members of this office . . . . We cannot count on our own office to properly investigate these cases as Bernal simply allows them to be covered up in order to avoid a bigger problem and this goes all the way up the chain of command.”
That complaint said Pickens routinely sent “ghost-written” search warrant affidavits to two detectives who signed them and “swore under oath to the information.” It said Pickens “routinely used information provided by unreliable confidential informants . . . “ and that he had altered police reports written by deputies without their knowledge.
Although various detectives were assigned to different areas, such as violent crimes and gangs, Pickens constantly reassigned them to work on drug or gun cases using information that came primarily from his informants, detective Jesse Piñon told the DA’s Office in a subsequent interview. Piñon said he didn’t like that arrangement because drug informants often lie.
Piñon said one of Pickens’ informants said he had bought drugs from a dealer on Hebbron Street in Salinas. Piñon said he doubted he was telling the truth, so he confronted the informant.
“The CI eventually admitted that he had not done a buy but claimed that he could,” according to the DA’s report.
“Piñon stated that in his opinion the warrants he received from Sgt. Pickens were already entirely written except for the ‘hero sheet,’ which is what law enforcement calls the description of the detective’s credentials and experience.
The report continues, “Piñon stated that he felt he was given a completed search warrant by Sgt. Pickens and that he was expected to swear to the information in front of a judge when he had no knowledge of the information in it. Piñon stated that he felt that Sgt. Pickens was threatening to move him out of investigations because he would not lie for him. Piñon stated that he did not know why Sgt. Pickens could not be the affiant on the search warrant and get it signed by a judge himself. Piñon stated that he had heard that it was because he had no credibility in court.”
Piñon added that he did not know whether the search warrant was ever approved. The detective said he told Detective Sgt. Brian Hoskins about it, which led to a meeting with Pickens’ supervisor, Cmdr. Archie Warren.
“Piñon stated that he felt most of the meeting with Commander Warren was spent listening to him talk about what a good guy Sgt. Pickens was and that it had been Sgt. Pickens who requested Piñon come to investigations. Piñon stated that he felt his complaint had not been taken seriously.”
Piñon declined to comment for this article.
A former detective, Sgt. Nicolas Kennedy, told the DA investigators that Pickens had sent a prewritten affidavit to detective Arras Wilson but he understood that Wilson verified the information before taking it to a judge.
Kennedy said he always verified the information that Pickens provided as it “was usually missing a lot of details . . .”
“Sgt. Kennedy said Sgt. Pickens told them many times ‘It’s not my name going on this. It’s yours. You have to check on this.”
Wilson mentioned one affidavit that he signed even though he had never interviewed Pickens’ informant. He said that if he told Pickens he wanted to re-contact an informant, “Sgt. Pickens would get on him, telling him that he needed to pay more attention during the debriefings.”
“When asked why Sgt. Pickens didn’t submit the warrants himself, Wilson said he felt it was because Sgt. Pickens was wanting his subordinates to get the credit.” He also said, though, that he had never heard Pickens tell anyone else that they were responsible for verifying information he provided them.
Outside the investigation, Pickens’ credibility has been examined as part of at least two appellate court cases.
In a 2006 case, Pickens testified that he had called the department’s records division to check a car’s license number before he and his partner pulled the car over, leading to a drug arrest.
The 6th District Court of Appeal upheld the conviction but found that “Det. Pickens’ cell phone records established that he did not make a call to records on his cell phone prior to pulling up behind defendant.”
In a 2013 appeal of a client’s drug conviction, deputy public defender Tom O’Keefe filed a motion to be allowed to see Pickens’ personnel file, partly because of his handling of another case, one of the cases included in prosecutor Hazel’s formal complaint to the Sheriff’s Office in 2007.
As part of the earlier case, a small-time dealer named Tetrick, had become an informant for Pickens but wanted to avoid a 120-day jail term. He signed a form filled out by Pickens that falsely indicated that a prosecutor had approved the request for no jail.
Pickens said recently that he doesn’t recall the details on the form.
Though California law provides a strong shield protecting law enforcement personnel files from inspection, it also provides for so-called Pitchess motions that provide limited access to the information with judicial approval.
At the start of Tetrick’s trial, Monterey Judge Julie Culver denied O’Keefe’s Pitchess motion, which became the focus of his appeal. The public defender argued to the higher court, “I am informed and believe that Deputy Brian Pickens fabricated facts and evidence” and that his “character, habits, customs and credibility” were substantial issues.
Without looking at Pickens’ personnel record, the appellate court disagreed with the defense lawyer and kept the detective’s file sealed. The conviction of O’Keefe’s client was upheld. Tetrick died later that year.
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