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

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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.  
 

THE INTERVIEW

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.”
 

THE BEGINNING

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.”
 

Wielsch’s first law enforcement job was as a reserve officer with the Pleasant Hill Police Department in 1986THE 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.

 

"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.”

 

Reader Comments:
Nov 22, 2011 09:48 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

WOW! Here I thought that Wielsch was just another bad cop! He makes you realize that even cops are human and go thruogh more stresses than we citizens can imagine. He did wrong, but I hope he gets help and never falls for a con-artist like
Butler again. Good luck Mr. Wielsch and God bless!!

Ron, Danville

Nov 22, 2011 01:29 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Ron, reading this fascinating story gave me a little different take. Wielsch was unquestionably a bad cop, he admits as much. But there is just no excuse for his actions, and despite the incredible stress that police are under most do not sell drugs and otherwise violate the public trust the way the officers in this scandal have done. I agree with your comment about hoping Wielsch gets help. I'm also glad he is no longer wearing a badge.

Nov 24, 2011 11:52 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I agree that not all police officers go to that extreme of mental break down, however, we all know that most officers deal with their stress by drinking. They are notorious for alcoholism and suicide. Your also right in saying he should no longer possess a badge. And we all have stressors, its how we deal with that stress that is important. When stress overwhelms us, we can all make poor decisions that have a negative impact on ouir lives. He did violate our trust, but he never hurt anyone. Also, not many people admit to their mistakes these days. He sounds truley sincere on his apology!!

Ron, Danville

Nov 28, 2011 07:54 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I think I will wait to see how this all plays out in the Courts. Sounds like an awful lot of he said, he said!

Dec 4, 2011 09:37 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

Everyone has a threshold of what they will do to survive - it appears that Wielsch' s was very low! When you start to feel sad for him, think about all of the innocent people that he affected with his abuse of power. Wielsch claims that he was mesmerized by Butler's flashy lifestyle and that his father's workaholic attitude adversely affected him - is this really taking responsibility? At the end of the day you need to look at yourself in the mirror and ask did I do what is right - if the answer is no, you only have yourself to blame. It’s about time that Mr. Wielsch look at the mirror and be prepared for the consequences.

This has been flagged
Dec 5, 2011 11:53 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

What Mr. Wielsch did was not right, but he clearly had other things going on in his life that made his mind blury. His work history shows he was a good cop all these years and never broke the law, doesnt this show that something had to be wrong in his mind set? It seems like there were other emotional issues going on, and it got the best of him. Not saying that he made the right choice, but when your under that much stress and not thinking anything is possible. People make mistakes all the time, and by this article i feel that Mr. Wielsch knows he clearly made a big mistake. I Wish him all the best, and his story makes me realize that everyone is going through something no one else can compare too, so never judge a person by just one thing they did. You have to look at the bigger picture and how they lived their life up until their mistake, and how they own up to their mistakes.

Dec 6, 2011 11:17 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

When I first heard about Wielsch's arrest, I could not seem to understand or comprehend what would drive someone to do these criminal acts when they have such a great family and successful career. But let me just say this, there is a reason for everything we do. Life experiences and the people around us can cause anyone, not just cops, to do things they never imagined they were capable of. It is such a disgrace that anyone could write a terrible comment on here after reading this article. Did you people read the same article or did mine load differently? What else should someone do to prove to you nobody's that they feel horrible for what they've done. A man who blames himself for his daughter's illness and would beat himself up daily because she had his genes is undoubtedly apologetic about the mistakes he made. Maybe you all should dig down into your empty soul and realize your hatred for others. If you really want to write a rude and heartless comment, write about Chris Butler. Did Wielsch do any criminal acts before getting back in touch with Butler? Check the dates. I bet all the Hitler followers also look back on what they did and think "How was I able to do that when I know it was wrong, I know that's not me." Or should we all argue that all of those people who were INFLUENCED and had someone constantly MEDDLING them shouldn't be forgiven?

The entire Wielsch family, including Norm Wielsch, you are in my thoughts and prayers. And Wielsch is a strong man, for most people wouldn't admit to what they have done. It takes a lot of strength to accept responsibility for your actions and to face charges such as these. Speaking from personal experience, I hope he keeps his mind in the present. Think about today, not what you did yesterday. It already happened, you can't change it. However you sure can live each day thoroughly.

Dec 18, 2011 02:53 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Yea and if a civilian pulled that crap 25 to life as a minimum Stop the drug war or at least let US citizens be declaired Noncombatants. Legealize drugs and put the savings into treatment

Dec 22, 2011 09:15 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

After reading this article I have a different view of Mr. Wielsch. Before this article, I judged this man based on his actions- not as a man going through life under a lot of stress, but as a law enforcement officer who was held to high standards. Now I see that we hold officers to unattainable standards. This article made me realize that police officers are humans too. Not only do they have to deal with the stress of their own lives and families, but they also have to deal with the stress of the community and protecting citizens. We cannot expect all citizens to be perfect, therefore we cannot expect all police officers to be perfect either. Stress has a way of forcing people to do things that we otherwise would not do in our right minds. We see that by the way we sometimes treat our family and friends. Officer Wielsch did not handle his stress in a great way, (there were better ways that he could have dealt with his issues) but I understand that stress causes people to do things that they otherwise would not have done. I hope for him and his family's sake that he gets the therapy he needs to learn to deal with his stress. I also hope that the criminal justice system teaches their officers how to deal with stress in productive ways so something like this does not happen to other officers. I wish nothing but the best for Mr. Wielsch and his family. I do not believe that jail / prison will rehabiliate him; instead he needs counseling and working with criminal justice agencies on dealing with stressful situations and the prevention of crimes by law enforcement officers.

Jan 16, 2012 12:04 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I been a peace officer for over 40 years. I knew this guy and thought he was a good agent.

There is absolutely no excuse for his behavior. Don't give us this crap that he was led down the road by Butler. Norm is an experienced agent; he knows about people like Butler, there is no excuse for corruption.

We always read about the Blue Line and the rest of this BS. Every cop I know thinks that Norm and the other two should be sent to prison for life. Butler may be a crook, but he is just a dope dealer. Norm is a corrupt police officer. He has disgraced every good police officer in America.

What stress? I am sorry about his daughter; but he is not the only person with a sick child. He at least has insurance. There is no excuse for corruption.

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