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
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.
NORM THE NARC
During his time with the Antioch PD, Wielsch sometimes worked closely with the state DOJ Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. After a dozen years with Antioch, Wielsch applied to work for the organization full-time and was hired by the DOJ in August 1998.
Just before Wielsch went to work for the state, a former Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement agent named Richard Parker was arrested and later sentenced to life in prison for stealing more than 600 pounds of cocaine from evidence lockers in Riverside. Parker’s disgrace made the agency scrutinize new applicants more closely than ever, officials say, so it’s fair to assume that Wielsch’s background was carefully checked before he was hired. In other words, at the time of his hiring by the state, Wielsch appeared to have a clean record.
I spoke with several police officers who worked closely with Wielsch at various stages of his career. Because of the ongoing investigation and case against Wielsch, none of them would comment on the record. The impression I got from every officer was the same, however: They were shocked by the news of Wielsch’s arrest.
After about six years with the DOJ, Wielsch was assigned to work for CNET, a state-run network of specialized officers from various police forces in Contra Costa that investigated illegal drug activity. Wielsch reached the task force’s top post and would oversee countless investigations and thousands of arrests.
Although Wielsch spoke proudly about many aspects of his CNET experience, he said that the stress, the nightmare-inducing crime scenes, and most of all, the pervasive he-man mentality had a negative effect on his personality. “I saw everything in black and white, and I was not a nice person,” Wielsch said. “If I looked at your record and saw that you had been arrested, even for a DUI 10 years ago, I would have thought you were a piece of crap.”
Unfortunately for Wielsch, already plagued by his black-and-white mentality and fear that not being an on-the-streets gun-toting macho man meant you were of no value, bad health was beginning to threaten everything. About 13 years ago, he started having symptoms of peripheral neuropathy, a progressively debilitating condition that destroys nerve endings in the extremities.
In 1999, he started needing operations on his feet. “I would get infections, and they would have to go in and remove pieces of the bone,” Wielsch said. He said he would get blisters, and holes in his feet would go all the way to the bone, so he would pack the holes with saline solution and tissue.
During our first interview, Wielsch showed me his feet, which are grotesquely misshapen from the condition and nearly 20 surgeries. He hid the illness, however, from his superiors in the DOJ, also hiding the fact that the neuropathy affected his ability to fire his gun.
Wielsch said the idea that the neuropathy would sideline him was so depressing that he would drive his work car on the freeway at 90 miles per hour or enter a house solo with a search warrant. Wielsch said he fantasized that a car crash or gunshot wound might mean he could retire with an injury, rather than end up sitting at a desk.
ENTER CHRIS BUTLER
Sometime in late 2005, Wielsch got back in touch with Chris Butler, a former colleague from the Antioch PD who had resigned from police work in the mid-1990s, after numerous run-ins with the administration, and had become a private investigator.
By that time, Wielsch was living with Diane, the woman who later became his second wife. But inside, he was increasingly troubled. He was dealing with his neuropathy and trying to hide it from his employers, seized with fear about being reduced to a desk job. By his own account, Wielsch was starting to unravel.
Meanwhile, Butler demonstrated a completely different reality, full of intrigue, glamour, and sex appeal.
“We would get together for lunch every six weeks or so,” Wielsch said. “He always insisted on paying. He would bring girls with him and make sure they were dressed up all pretty. He’d show up in his black Mercedes, and you’d be like, ‘Wow, I’m impressed.’ ”
Certainly, Wielsch wasn’t the only one seduced by Butler’s flash and sizzle. Butler, by many accounts, was kind of a Pied Piper, with outrageous and often shady shenanigans that drew in well-meaning people, who later remarked that they didn’t know why they ever agreed to participate. Using phony, manipulated investigations, Butler was able to convince People magazine, Dr. Phil, and the Today show that he and a crew of “PI Moms” (local mothers working for him as private investigators) were a success story worthy of magazine articles, television segments, and a reality show of their own.
After reconnecting with Butler, Wielsch engaged in activities with his former colleague that, while not on a par with putting confiscated illegal drugs back out on the street, certainly jeopardized Wielsch’s position as the commander of CNET. Contra Costa DA Hal Jewett says that the ongoing investigation has revealed that Wielsch demonstrated unprofessional conduct that could have cost him his job at least as early as May 2007.
One such case occurred in early 2009. Wielsch said that Butler came to him and explained that a client had hired him to scare her college-age son into thinking he was being arrested for selling Ecstasy.
Butler set up an elaborate ruse, luring the young man in with two attractive female decoys, who invited him to a wild party, suggesting the evening would undoubtedly end in a three way.
After building the young man’s hopes, the decoys said the party would have to be canceled because their Ecstasy connection had dried up. When the young man said he could provide the drugs, the decoys set up a meeting place for a buy: the back parking lot of the CNET offices in Pleasant Hill. Butler and several employees waited for the young man to show up with the drugs, then swarmed in, waving unloaded guns and claiming to be police.
“I agreed to kind of coordinate everything,” Wielsch said. “I was worried about him doing it in an unsafe manner, so I agreed to help him as a friend. I wanted to make sure that [Butler’s associates’] guns were not loaded. I did not want someone accidentally pulling the trigger.” Wielsch said he and Butler used police markings in the operation to prevent the woman’s son from thinking he was being robbed. “If he thought he was being robbed and he had a weapon, he could legitimately shoot us, and it would be legal. Or if he pulled a knife, we might have to shoot him, and it would have caused a big problem.”
The ruse worked. The wide-eyed young man was caught red-handed with a plastic baggie filled with Ecstasy.
While this case may have given Wielsch a blast of power, other Butler setups were virtual Viagra. In a case from January 2010, Wielsch attended a Southern California hot tub party planned so that Butler could “test” female decoys he had recruited on Craigslist.
Butler told the decoys, most in their early twenties, that drug dealers would be attending the party, which he said was designed to infiltrate their narcotics trade. But the event was really just a way for Butler to show some of his buddies a wild night by exploiting naive young women. Butler’s notes about his interviews with the decoys, sent to Wielsch and others before the party, included such insights as, “If I had asked her to blow me during the interview, she would have.”
At the party, Wielsch gave a presentation to the unsuspecting decoys, he admitted during our interviews, identifying himself as an officer from the DOJ Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement and stating that the soon-to-arrive drug dealers—who were actually paid actors—were subjects of a state narcotics investigation.
A particularly sensational side allegation
outlined in the federal indictment against Wielsch and Butler is the charge that the two conspired to operate a brothel in a Pleasant Hill strip mall, and that Wielsch used CNET resources to protect the business while investigating competing massage parlors in the area.
The business in question was known as My Divine Skin, and in a statement to investigators obtained by Diablo, Butler admitted that illegal massages were going on there. According to one of Butler’s former employees, the former PI hid security cameras inside the business so that he could watch over a stable of lingerie-clad masseuses while sitting in his office in Concord, nearly four miles away.
Despite the copious criminal activity Wielsch admitted to during our interviews, he consistently denied having any involvement with or profiting from the brothel. He did admit to tipping off a woman who had worked at My Divine Skin that CNET was planning a series of raids of East Bay massage parlors. Wielsch also admitted to arresting a prostitute that Butler had set up at the request of a Butler and Associates client whose husband had partaken of the prostitute’s services.
During my interviews with Wielsch, I asked him about using CNET, and taxpayer resources, to arrest a prostitute on behalf of Butler’s client. “When I think about the crazy stuff Butler asked me to do, I can’t believe what I went along with,” Wielsch said. Later, he said, “Butler would explain some idea he had, and your first reaction would be, ‘No, that’s a terrible idea.’ Then [Butler’s] golden tongue would come out, and he would justify it, and you would drive home thinking, ‘That was a really good idea.’ ”
Explaining further how he got sucked into Butler’s wild fantasy world, Wielsch said, “My psychologist has suggested that this gave me a little shot of dopamine, made me think I could control things again. But it also could be that my sense of right and wrong was just done. When I think back, it did not make me feel good.”
HEADING FOR DISASTER
By 2010, things had only gotten worse for Wielsch. His mother had passed away in 2009 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s and a heart condition, and his elderly father was deeply depressed by her death. And Wielsch’s neuropathy had only accelerated. In addition to his injured hands and feet, Wielsch was also dealing with impotence, another symptom of his worsening neuropathy. “I was not a complete man at work and even less of a man at home,” he said. Then, in the summer of 2010, Wielsch’s daughter Jennifer, who had recovered from her bone marrow transplant as a baby, was diagnosed with a tumor covering 50 percent of her liver.
Wielsch, ever the man’s man who felt he should be able to control everything, blamed himself. “During the time that Jennifer was having tests on her liver, my dad was very upset,” said older daughter Kristina, in a phone interview. “He was always in tears. He would say that [the tumors had appeared] because his bone marrow was not working anymore. He just could not see that it could not be his fault.”
“I told myself she was sick because she had my genes, my DNA, my bone marrow,” Wielsch told me.
Not long after Jennifer’s diagnosis, Wielsch’s wife found a stash of syringes hidden in the refrigerator. Fearing the needles were for illegal drugs, she confronted her husband, only to discover that the syringes were for a prescription that was a last-ditch effort to cope with Wielsch’s impotence.
At the same time, Wielsch, who had been an exceptionally supportive and compassionate parent, was turning into someone who was often irritable and distracted, Wielsch’s children said in interviews. “Norm had always been such a positive guy at home,” said one of his stepdaughters, Jenna, who first met Norm in 1995, when she was 12, “but over the last year-and-a-half, he was irritable and frustrated. There were times when we were all on eggshells because we just would not know what mood Norm would be in.”
“It got to the point where I stopped calling because he would not return my calls,” said daughter Kristina. “It felt like I did not have a dad anymore.”
By the end of 2010, two of Wielsch’s doctors had encouraged him to leave police work because of his abundance of health problems, he said in our interviews.
As he sank deeper and deeper into depression while resigning himself to the prospect of early retirement, he went to his father. “I told him that I wanted to get out,” Wielsch said. “My father, this hardworking guy, told me, ‘No, that’s stupid. You’re only 50 years old. What do you expect to do?’ ”
“I think he also got a little ego thing having a son being who I … was,” Wielsch told me. “For some reason, I did not want to disappoint him, so I put the retirement out of my mind.”
That’s when Wielsch said that Butler had another “good idea”—one that would sink the two of them.
THE MARIJUANA AND THE METH
Wielsch SAID Butler approached him about SELLING drugs during the first month of production of Butler’s reality show, in November 2010. Wielsch said Butler told him that filming the show was ruining his business, and taking away his ability to land lucrative cases.
Wielsch said that Butler convinced him to hand over 10 pounds of weed that CNET had confiscated through the mail. Since the drugs were not tied to an arrest, the marijuana would be scheduled for destruction. Butler, who Wielsch said had previously sought his counsel about how to legally run an operation to grow and sell medical marijuana, asked Wielsch if they could try to sell the confiscated pot instead.
Wielsch admitted he agreed to split whatever money Butler could get for the pot.
Butler’s first choice for a contact to sell the drugs, however, was Carl Marino, a former peace officer who was the director of operations at Butler and Associates. Knowing where the shrink-wrapped one-pound bags of marijuana came from, Marino brought the drugs to authorities and became an undercover informant for the DOJ.
Early in 2011, after selling pounds of pot to the undercover informant, Wielsch said Butler called him to say they should move up the crime ladder to crystal meth, and that his contact had a buyer for the highly addictive and toxic narcotic. “Chris would say, ‘The guy’s got cash; I’ve never seen so much cash in my life. Don’t worry; I’ll take care of everything,’ ” Wielsch said.
Wielsch said that he checked the county’s narcotic destruction schedule, and sure enough, there was a big bag of crystal meth that had been sitting on the shelf for more than a year, and was ready
for the dump.
Wielsch said that when he told Butler about the meth cache, Butler was very excited. “Chris was rushing me and rushing me. But you just don’t go in and take it. There’s a process. You have to get court orders and contact the sheriff’s department,” Wielsch said, his voice cracking. “Chris would get mad.” Wielsch said Butler called while Wielsch was taking his father, who is 86, to Cache Creek to play the nickel slots. “Chris called me twice to see what was going on with the meth. I said, ‘Chris, I’m with my dad. … I can’t right now.’ ”
A few days later, though, Wielsch wrote a court order and had it signed by a judge. He said he picked a day (Tuesday, February 15) when the whole CNET team was out on a training exercise and drove, with Butler, to take the meth and some steroids out of the evidence locker.
“I did not know that [DOJ investigators] were following by plane and watching the whole thing,” Wielsch said in our interviews.
After his arrest, Butler provided investigators with a 34-page statement, which claimed to explain his relationship with Wielsch. Butler makes Wielsch out to be a wicked, frightening criminal and a relentlessly dirty cop. As Butler tells it, the marijuana sales and massage parlor were exclusively Wielsch’s get-rich-quick ideas. Butler also claims that he witnessed Wielsch robbing prostitutes of cash and cell phones.
In his statement, Butler slams Stephen Tanabe, a former Contra Costa sheriff’s deputy, and Louis Lombardi, a former San Ramon police officer. Both Tanabe and Lombardi have been charged in the scandal: Tanabe for assisting Butler with “dirty DUI” setups against spouses of clients going through divorce or custody cases, and Lombardi for conspiring with Butler and Wielsch in drug dealing. Butler’s statement makes Tanabe and Lombardi out to be ruthless thugs, but fails to mention that both officers helped Butler in his media publicity stunts, with Tanabe agreeing to be followed in a TV news story about Butler’s investigations, and Lombardi posing as a cheating husband in a segment filmed for the Today show’s story about Butler and the PI moms.
Wielsch told me he felt that Butler’s statement showed him a side of the private investigator he had never seen. He said Butler’s statement was “vindictive and hate filled. It didn’t seem like it was written by the guy I knew. But that guy was there the whole time.”
Still, throughout both of our interviews, Wielsch resisted throwing his former friend under the bus. “I accept all responsibility for my poor decisions,” he said, “and do not blame anything or anyone.”
Since his arrest, Wielsch said he has spent a lot of time soul-searching about where he went wrong and thinking about his family, with whom he has reconnected, and who have remained completely supportive. It was his father who got him out of jail on a $100,000 bond. Wielsch said that when he thinks about the arrogant and dirty cop he had become at the end of his law enforcement days, he “wants to throw up.”
“In February, a new officer was starting on the task force, and I told him, ‘CNET has been around for 25 years, so don’t do anything to fuck it up,’ ” Wielsch said, shaking his head. “The next day, I was arrested.”
“I did it, I regret it, and I don’t know why I ever did something so stupid. I gave up a $100,000 a year job for what amounted to about $12,000,” Wielsch said. “I’ll plead guilty when the time comes.”
As of press time, Wielsch and Butler were scheduled to appear in federal court on November 29, with the FBI’s investigation of the case ongoing.
To read the stranger-than-fiction story of how Norm Wielsch and private investigator Chris Butler were caught selling drugs from the county’s evidence locker, go to diablomag.com/thesetup.