Norm Wielsch: On the Record
The former top drug cop in Contra Costa was headed for disaster long before his arrest. In this exclusive follow-up to Diablo’s exposé on a shocking corruption scandal, Norm Wielsch tells his side of the story.
paul chinn/san francisco chronicle/corbis
(page 1 of 3)
Earlier this year, Norm Wielsch found out what it feels like to make his “one phone call.”
It happened on the morning of February 16, when Wielsch called his wife, Diane, who was at work. Wielsch spoke in a low, trembling voice as he gave her the bad news.
“I’m in jail,” he said.
At first, Diane wasn’t surprised because her husband spent a lot of time around jails. Wielsch was a career police officer with 25 years of service, the past seven of which had been as the commander of the state-run Central Contra Costa County Narcotics Enforcement Team (CNET). When he repeated that he was incarcerated, Diane thought he was joking.
“No, I’ve been arrested,” Wielsch said through tears. “The police are coming to our house with a search warrant.”
Diane was stunned. “Should I go home?” she asked.
“Yeah, you probably should,” Wielsch said. “I’ve told them you will meet them there to let them in and open the safe. But don’t go inside until they get there.”
Soon after, officers from the state’s Department of Justice (DOJ) searched Wielsch’s Antioch home and seized $5,600 in marked money, most of which Wielsch had received the day before, in exchange for a pound of crystal methamphetamine. Wielsch had taken the meth out of the Contra Costa sheriff’s evidence storage, then sold it to an undercover informant working for the DOJ. The sale allegedly took place at the Concord office of former private investigator Chris Butler, who had ridden along with Wielsch to pick up the meth from the evidence locker.
Wielsch and Butler, both 50, were each charged by the Contra Costa District Attorney’s office with 28 felony counts, for the alleged sale and distribution of methamphetamine, marijuana, steroids, and prescription pills. In August, the U.S. Attorney’s office, which had taken over the case, handed down a 17-count indictment which included additional charges. Wielsch admitted his involvement from the moment of his arrest. In a statement given to investigators, Butler has admitted to selling marijuana but did not address the charge of selling meth. Butler says he was a pawn of Wielsch, that Wielsch masterminded the operation, which differs radically from Wielsch’s version of events.
Early reports suggested that Wielsch sold the drugs because he needed the money for a bone marrow transplant for his daughter, but Wielsch and his lawyer have said that the bone marrow procedure happened years before, and had nothing to do with the charges against Wielsch. In fact, they say that his motive was not money and that the crimes netted him just $12,000.
Which leads anyone with even a passing interest in the case to a crucial question: Why would a career cop with a stack of accolades for his police work and a high-paying, prestigious position in narcotics enforcement pull off some marginally profitable drug crimes and, in so doing, risk absolutely everything?
As it turns out, the day Norm Wielsch was arrested was one he had been headed toward for quite a while.
On June 30, Wielsch, a tall, broad-shouldered man with rugged looks, sat across from me at a long wooden conference table in the office of his lawyer, Michael Cardoza, and explained why he had agreed to an interview. His voice cracked, and his eyes welled with tears almost as soon as he started talking. He said he had written an apology. “As long as you put it in this story,” Wielsch said, “I will tell you about what I did.”
Wielsch handed me a typed statement, which said, “I want to sincerely apologize to: All past and current CNET agents and commanders. All agencies participating in CNET. The California Department of Justice. All law enforcement officers. All citizens that trusted me with my position. I violated their trust. I’m sorry.”
According to legal experts, Wielsch’s attempt to redeem himself by apologizing in this article should not affect federal sentencing if he is found guilty. His apology is consistent with his efforts to accept responsibility following his arrest, which could be recognized by the court.
I looked at Wielsch’s apology and told him I figured a lot of people would read it and say, “Sure he’s sorry—now that he’s been caught.”
Wielsch nodded and said, “Of course they will. But I need to say that, to get my apology out there, to start to heal myself. I need to let people know that I am not a monster.”
Wielsch grew up an only child, and his German immigrant parents, Ernie and Linda, moved around a lot while Ernie looked for work. The Wielschs lived in various parts of Canada and Southern California, before moving to Martinez, when Norm was finishing elementary school.
Upon settling in the East Bay, Ernie went into business running an auto repair shop in Walnut Creek. Norm, who always loved cars, worked in the shop with his father, who was long on work ethic and short on tolerance for weakness.
“My father is a workaholic kind of guy,” he said. “He always taught me that men are strong; men don’t cry; men don’t show their feelings.”
Wielsch toed the line and wasn’t a particularly wild teenager. He smoked pot a few times in high school, and his early experiments with alcohol made him so sick that he does not drink to this day. He had one serious girlfriend, Lisa, who lived on his block in Martinez.
“Norm was a very nice young man, a tall, good-looking man,” said Sandra, Lisa’s mother, when I met her at her home. Sandra asked that her family name not be used in this article. “He was very polite and respectful. I never had to worry about my daughter going out with him.”
Wielsch married Lisa, who had been two years behind him at College Park High, right after she graduated. At that point, Wielsch was running his father’s auto shop full-time and racing cars at Antioch Speedway on the weekends, and Ernie Wielsch expected his son to follow in his footsteps. Despite what appears to be a lifelong ambition to get his father’s approval, Norm Wielsch told him no. He had another ambition: He wanted to be a cop.
“He wanted me to run the family business,” Wielsch said, in one of many references to his father during two interviews. “It broke my dad’s heart.”
THE YOUNG COP
Once Wielsch found his calling, he worked as a reserve officer and put himself through Los Medanos Police Academy. About three-quarters of his way through the academy, he was hired by the city of Antioch and graduated wearing the Antioch police uniform.
Speaking about his early idealistic days on the force, Wielsch got very calm and his voice stopped cracking, as he remembered his younger, more innocent self. He spoke proudly, and thankfully, of the opportunities that the Antioch Police Department gave him.
But Wielsch also said that the tough-guy expectations he’d felt directed at him by his father were even more intense in police culture.
“I was six months on the job, and I had to run down a parolee, who tried to fight with me. I walked him in to jail, so proud of making the arrest. My shirt was all messed up and torn. The sergeant walks into the jail and looks at the parolee, and then looks at me, and says, ‘What the hell?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ I was so proud that I made the arrest. But the sergeant said, ‘You’re all tore up, and there’s not a mark on him. If this happens again, it will reflect on your evaluation.’ ”
During those first few years at the Antioch PD, Wielsch and his wife had two daughters. When their younger daughter, Jennifer, was a newborn, a family tragedy struck. The baby was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a condition in which the bone marrow does not produce enough blood cells. Jennifer needed a bone marrow transplant. Wielsch’s marrow was a match, so he became the donor.
“I think I handled Jennifer’s illness a little better than Norm did,” said Lisa, Wielsch’s ex-wife, in a recent interview. She has remained Wielsch’s close friend despite their divorce after 10 years of marriage. “I always tried to stay positive and hope she would be OK, but Norm feared the worst, and thought her illness was his fault. He was relieved that at least he could share his bone marrow, do something to help her.”
Feeling stressed out, Wielsch asked to see a therapist at work. Unfortunately, especially when considered in hindsight, Wielsch said he was warned by a superior to hide what he was feeling in his sessions.
“I was a basket case. I was so worried about my little girl in the hospital. My temper was short, I could not deal with people, and I sought help,” Wielsch said. “I was told by one of my sergeants, ‘Be careful what you say to that therapist because certain things you tell them, they will need to bring out; they will take your gun away and put you on a desk.’ ”
This would not be Wielsch’s only mention of his fear of the purgatory of the gunless desk job.