The former head of the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department's drug interdiction team pleaded guilty Dec. 1 to federal charges of conspiracy to commit extortion under "color of law," falsifying records in a federal investigation and tax evasion.
Ex-Sgt. Brendan "Jacy" Tatum and his former partner, Joseph Huffaker, were both indicted by a federal grand jury in September for their role in an unlawful marijuana and asset seizure scheme uncovered by KQED in 2018.
Tatum stood straight-backed in a dark navy suit in the wood-paneled federal courtroom in San Francisco before Judge Maxine Chesney. She methodically went over the three counts of the indictment and then asked Tatum how he pleaded.
"Guilty, your honor," he said.
Tatum declined to publicly comment at the Dec. 1 hearing. But about an hour after the court hearing, his lawyer, Stuart Hanlon, emailed KQED about Tatum's plea.
"My client plead guilty to all charges he is facing because he is in fact guilty," Hanlon said. "He realizes he has made huge mistakes and that there will be serious consequences for him. He is ready to face these consequences. The first step is to admit what he has done."
Hanlon said Tatum's career as a "good and honest police officer" will be overshadowed, adding that Tatum would "accept the judgment of the Court." He said his client wants to try and make up for what he has done and focus on his family.
"To say he is sorry for what he has done does not come close to expressing his regret and shame," Hanlon added. "He knows he will go to prison, but that time will end, and he will begin a next part of his life. He does not intend to let his criminal acts define who he is."
Zeke Flatten, a Texas-based man who was the first person to come forward with allegations that he was robbed of cannabis by police officers posing as ATF as he transported south from Humboldt County, sat watching this unfold in the courtroom. After the change-of-plea hearing, Flatten said Tatum's guilty plea marks the "beginning of the end" of the years-long case.
"It was amazing to hear him plead guilty," Flatten said. "I think it kind of just solidified everything."
Huffaker has so far pleaded "not guilty" to all the charges. Huffaker's lawyers declined to comment on what Tatum's admission of guilt means for their client.
More than three years ago KQED, in partnership with the North Coast Journal and independent journalist Kym Kemp, first reported allegations from a string of motorists who said that Rohnert Park police officers improperly seized cash and marijuana from them during traffic stops along the border of Mendocino and Sonoma counties — 40 miles north of the small suburban town of Rohnert Park.
Tatum was in charge of Rohnert Park's drug interdiction and asset forfeiture efforts. Between 2013 and 2018, the team led by Tatum seized around $3.6 million from motorists under civil asset forfeiture provisions that allow law enforcement to take cash they suspect is connected to criminal activity. Much of that money was turned over to his department.
Tatum's team also seized at least two and a half tons of marijuana during that time, according to documents obtained and analyzed by KQED. In 2015, Tatum was publicly recognized by the city for his efforts.
However, after motorists came forward claiming that the cannabis seized by Rohnert Park officers was being transported legally, KQED found that destruction orders for hundreds of pounds of marijuana were missing. Tatum also had a history of dishonesty and was found by a federal jury in 2018 to have violated a couple's constitutional rights during a warrantless search.
Tatum has now pleaded guilty to using his authority as a police officer to extort people he pulled over. The indictment also alleges the two were re-selling the marijuana they seized. The indictment detailed $400,000 in cash deposits by Tatum's family members that were never reported to the IRS.
In a September email his attorney, Heather Phillips, said that she looked forward to defending him "so that the entire story can be revealed and Mr. Huffaker's name can be cleared."
However, with Tatum's guilty plea, pressure on Huffaker will mount. Earlier this month, prosecutors shared more discovery documents with Huffaker and his legal team, and indicated that they might be adding more charges to his case. His next court appearance is Dec. 15.
A spokesman for the department of justice said they could not comment on the case until after sentencing. Judge Chesney ordered Tatum to return for sentencing March 9.
Flatten said he hopes that Tatum's cooperation means anyone else who was involved in the illegal scheme will be brought to justice.
In June of 2018, Tatum left the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety. Over the next three months, the police chief and a Sgt. who supervised Tatum both retired. Huffaker left the department in early 2019 under the conditions of a settlement agreement he reached with the city.
Last year, the city of Rohnert Park paid out over $1.8 million to settle a civil lawsuit with eight plaintiffs who claimed hundreds of pounds of marijuana and $55,000 was unlawfully seized during traffic stops. Another lawsuit Flatten filed against Mendocino County in connection with the case is ongoing.