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The Ride of His Life

In his new book, Diablo Senior Editor Peter Crooks lays out the full story of a dark world of private investigator moms, fake stings, dirty DUIs, and more.


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Illustration by Matthew WoodsonMore than four years ago on a sunny Saturday, Diablo Senior Editor Peter Crooks climbed into the back of a minivan to go on a ride-along with a group of East Bay mom private investigators known as the P.I. Moms.  

The East Bay investigators, led by detective Chris Butler, were about to be featured in a reality TV show for Lifetime Television, and they had invited Crooks to come along to write a story for Diablo magazine.  

It wasn’t the first time the detectives and Butler had invited a reporter along as they tailed a cheating suspect. But it would be their last.  

As Crooks got ready to write his story, Diablo was tipped that the ride-along was a fake, the “suspect”—a cheating fiancé—and his “mistress” were actors paid to provide juicy color and details for the magazine article. Crooks had been the victim of an elaborate hoax.

Shocked and confused about why he had been subjected to such a scam, Crooks started digging. He quickly stumbled onto something much darker than mommy detectives planting fake stories in Diablo—and in the Contra Costa Times, People magazine, and on the Dr. Phil show.

In April 2011, Crooks wrote a 10,000-word cover story for Diablo, telling how he discovered that Butler and Norm Wielsch, Contra Costa’s top drug cop, were conspiring to steal and sell drugs. Marijuana, prescription drugs, and crystal meth that should have been in a police evidence locker were headed back out onto the street. Crooks brought that information to law enforcement, sparking a complex investigation that led to the arrests of Butler and Wielsch, and four other East Bay police officers.  

Even after the arrests, and after the story went national, Crooks didn’t stop digging into Butler’s shadowy world, which included fake stings and dirty DUIs here in the East Bay. This January, Crooks lays out the full story in his new book, The Setup: A True Story of Dirty Cops, Soccer Moms, and Reality TV.

Here, we talk to Crooks about the ride of his life.


 

Q: I remember how stunned we were when we got the e-mail saying the ride-along was a hoax. What were you thinking as you discovered how elaborate the setup was?

A: As an individual, it was embarrassing, infuriating, and irritating that I didn’t realize I was being lied to sooner. But as a journalist, I was excited at the idea that the story took this curve, which was: We’re about to have a national reality show filmed about these nice moms from Orinda and Dublin, and they might be con artists.

And we had the opportunity to be out in front of that story.

 

Three P.I. Moms posing for a 2010 feature in People / Diablo Imaging

Q: And it never crossed your mind that the ride-along was a fake?

A: A lot of people have said to me, “Oh, I read your story; I would have figured out that that was a fake.” But on the ride-along, the idea that everybody was a conspirator in a hoax did not cross my mind.

One buffer was that the P.I. Moms had already been given so much national attention by reputable media, and that Lifetime Television was going to be filming them. They had built this house of cards.

During the ride-along, I kept asking, How on earth are they going to film this? When I got the tip that it was a hoax, it all made sense.

 

Q: And after you got the tip, you confirmed very quickly that the ride-along was fake by going on Facebook and seeing that they were all friends—the people you were tailing and the P.I. Moms.

A: Yes, the tipster told me that the “mistress” was actually introduced to Butler by another decoy—a person hired by Butler to help set up a sting. The P.I. Moms were Facebook friends with that decoy, who was friends with the mistress. They all knew each other. So my head was spinning.

 

Q: And you kept digging.   

A: I never thought, I just want to wash my hands of this and kill the story. I was going to dive down the rabbit hole.

There was a while where I wanted to believe that [the P.I. Moms from the ride-along] Charmagne [Peters] and Denise [Antoon] hadn’t known it was a hoax. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt that maybe Butler had hired actors to follow, and the P.I. Moms thought the investigation was real and were just doing their job. But obviously, once we pulled the sheet back, it was just ludicrous.

 

Q: You kept e-mailing your tipster, who identified himself as Ronald Rutherford, which led to your finding out that Chris Butler and Norm  Wielsch were doing much worse things than staging private investigations in Contra Costa County.

A: The whistle-blower was a person who really wanted attention, and during the week after he first e-mailed, I was the only one giving him attention. So my giving attention to Ronald Rutherford was very helpful to getting a bunch of information really fast.

 

Chris Butler poses by a wall of TV detective headshots / By Shelly Lavars

Q: You have been a working journalist for more than 15 years, but your specialty has always been entertainment and personality profiles. How did you know what to do when you got tipped that Norm Wielsch and Chris Butler were stealing drugs with intent to sell them?

A: I had good instincts. The day I found out about the allegations that Chris Butler and Norm Wielsch were selling drugs, I made a phone call and set up a meeting with law enforcement. Some people might have waited months before deciding to say something about it, but I reached out to a trusted law enforcement source that day.

I’m thankful that Cindy Hall, who is now a retired investigator for the Alameda County DA’s office, responded as ethically and as expediently as she did. I’m glad I didn’t reach out
to someone else. One of the biggest worries I had was to say something and have it get swept under the rug. Then, I was going to have to look over my shoulder for the rest of my life.
 

Q: Even after Butler was arrested and you wrote the Diablo cover story, you didn’t stop reporting. You worked nights and weekends to track down everyone who was involved. Why did you keep digging?

A: I could tell that there was really important community value in exposing this kind of corruption, and I wanted to pull back the curtain all the way. I also knew that there was something interesting in examining this instant celebrity culture we’re living in.

What started as, Hey, these suburban moms are gonna be on Lifetime Television, became, Look at what some of these suburban soccer moms and their boss and this little gang of con artists were willing to do.

 

Q: Let’s talk about the Lifetime reality show. It wasn’t part of the hoax.

A: No. That was a really surprising part of the reporting: that the people hired to produce that reality show tried to make a real show. They were not staging cases the way Butler was. In fact, they were digging up legitimate cases for the P.I. Moms to work, cases that could have actually helped people.

 

Q: In your book, you investigate the awful things Butler was doing without the P.I. Moms, such as dirty DUIs: luring a husband to a bar by tricking him into meeting for drinks, then getting him drunk and having a police officer pull him over for DUI.

A: I report about a number of setups that Butler and his associates conducted that were astonishing, both for their elaborate structure and their diabolical purpose. They were willing to ruin people’s reputations and lives.

 

Q: Of all these stories you reported for the book, which did you find the most disturbing?

A: One was an elaborate arrest of a prostitute, where there were several police officers, not just Wielsch, who were on the clock—working cops—who arrested this young woman from Marin County who had been set up by Butler to come out to Walnut Creek, where they would bust her for hooking. All on behalf of Chris Butler’s client, who wanted to sting the woman because she was servicing the client’s husband.

Another disturbing discovery was that Butler and his associate Carl Marino would conduct “decoy tests,” which were scams to take advantage of young women. Very young women, sometimes 19, 20 years old.

 

Q: Just for fun?

A: Just for kicks. Just to manipulate these women.

They would say they wanted to see if the woman would be an effective decoy—to see how far she could get a guy to go. There was one big decoy party in Southern California where Butler interviewed dozens of women who replied to his Craigslist ad for female operatives to assist on an undercover drug dealer surveillance. Then, Butler made a list of the most gullible women, assigning them to demonstrate their seduction skills on his buddies, who the women thought were targets of a DOJ [California Department of Justice] investigation.

 

Q: And they weren’t trying to hire the women as decoys?

A: No. They were just taking advantage of them. They exploited people and really had no conscience about it. They did it just to feel power, to feel in control.

Butler was the puppet master: He loved pulling the strings and watching everything play out with him being in command. Carl Marino loved being a hero and being the center of attention. They’re different types of characters, but put together they were dangerous. And eventually, that relationship led to the house of cards being knocked down.

 

Q: In the book, we discover that Butler’s associate Carl Marino was your tipster, Ronald Rutherford. You helped him meet up with law enforcement, and he helped gather evidence for the California Department of Justice. But Marino isn’t a very nice guy, either. Why did you decide to reveal that?

A: Because it’s an important part of the story that took a while to unfold. Marino’s motivations for coming forward when he did are crucial to seeing the big picture. Just three months before coming forward, he enthusiastically took part in setting me up in that ride-along. Marino helped Butler plan the entire hoax, and he and his wife played a role.

To be clear, Marino did a good thing as an informant for the DOJ, but why did he eagerly go along with the ride-along, and then blow the whistle by coming to me? As I explain in the book, I think it was because I was paying attention to him while the production crew for Lifetime Television was demanding that he stay away from the show. And this is not just my theory: After long interviews with the show runner of the reality show and, more importantly, the DOJ agent who handled Marino during the investigation, the facts and timeline of the case and the reason why everything blew up when it did came into focus.

Finally, there is the character issue. When Marino asked for my help getting in touch with law enforcement, he promised that he would never lie to me. He was not able to come close to keeping that promise. For example, the entire time I was in touch with him, he never admitted to me that he posed as a reporter from Diablo magazine to set up a guy for DUI. Just three days later, Marino asked me, a real Diablo reporter, to put him in touch with a safe law enforcement contact. Then, the day I was contacting law enforcement, Marino was posing as a TV producer to set up another man for another dirty DUI.

 

Q: The story has taken a big toll on you personally. You were scared; your wife was scared.

A: My wife was incredibly supportive and helped me figure out the game plan of who to talk to about Rutherford’s allegations that the head of Contra Costa’s narcotics task force was selling drugs. But I didn’t tell her nearly as much as I knew. I didn’t tell her that there was a threat of plastic explosives.

 

Q: You never told your wife that your source said Butler had C-4 explosives?

A: Not until later.

 

Q: Why?  

A: Because it was really terrifying information. I was really, really on edge during that investigation, and I was having really vivid nightmares about C-4 blowing up in a public place. I still have those nightmares from time to time, even though the alleged C-4 turned out to be duct sealant and was never a threat.

This information had to be top secret; I couldn’t tell anyone. There were so many times that the undercover case against Butler and Wielsch could have been compromised. When the information about drug dealing and this level of corruption came to me, I was extremely stressed to realize how dishonest these people were, and what the stakes were.

 

Q: You were afraid that Butler might come after you, too?

A: I was worried about being set up by Butler before he was arrested, and was told that he was considering going after me. I thought he was going to set me up in a compromising situation—which I discovered he did do to other people.

It was hard to drive at night. Every head-light in my rearview mirror became Chris Butler. I was worried that my car was bugged because they installed listening devices in people’s cars. My imagination wasn’t a particularly friendly place.

I felt like I was losing it and trying to keep it together. It didn’t really feel like, Oh, it’ll all be worth it because there’ll be such a great story at the end. I didn’t know how it would end. But once he was in jail, I thought, He’s got so many fish to fry before getting revenge on me.

 

Q: Are you worried Butler might come after you when he gets out of jail?

A: I think Butler is actually a very intelligent person, and I want to think he’s learned lessons from all of this. He’s a convicted felon, so he’s not likely to get out of the slammer in a few years and say, “OK, Mr. Crooks, where were we?”

 

Q: I always thought that the P.I. Moms that you went on the ride-along with would fess up. They’d be like, “You know what? We did this terrible thing, and we’re sorry.” They still have not admitted that they were in on the hoax.

A: They never came clean. I’ve reached out to them. I wanted to give them a chance to explain themselves. Those women on the ride-along didn’t have anything to do with stealing drugs. I’ve heard from people that they just think I’m the worst person in the world—that their kids hate me for exposing this.

 

courtesy of Peter Crooks

Q: Finally, what do you hope readers will get out of your book?

A: I wrote it in a first-person memoir style because I wanted to take the reader along for the ride I went on: It was a crazy, exciting, wild ride.

I’m not the only person who was lied to by Butler and his minions. There are young women who have been taken advantage of. There are DUI recipients who were set up; there was a Contra Costa County judge that was lied to and a police chief that was lied to; and there are many families that have been damaged by these people.  

I hope people who were victims of these setups, or had their lives and emotions exploited by the inexcusable dishonesty of some of these characters, will find some satisfaction in the fact that I’ve pulled the curtain back to show what was really going on, and why it was finally exposed.

I think the book shows just how far people are willing to go to get attention, especially in a culture that celebrates instant celebrity. Hopefully the book shows that when you ask for that kind of attention, it’s not always going to be as flattering as you hoped.


The Setup: A True Story of Dirty Cops, Soccer Moms, and Reality TV (BenBella Books, list price, $24.95, Kindle price, $12.99) hits bookstores January 13. To read Crooks’ original Diablo articles on Chris Butler, Norm Wielsch, the P.I. Moms, and more, visit diablomag.com/rideofhislife.


 

Key Players: Where Are They Now?

Former Central Contra Costa County Narcotics Enforcement Team commander Norm Wielsch pleaded guilty to five felony counts of stealing and selling drugs, theft of federal funds, civil rights conspiracy, and robbery. On May 21, 2013, Wielsch was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison and is serving time in Fort Worth, Texas, where he is taking theology courses. He is scheduled for release in February 2025.

Former Antioch police officer Chris Butler pleaded guilty to seven felony counts, including selling drugs, extortion, robbery, a civil rights violation against a Danville teenager, and planting illegal wiretaps and listening devices in more than 75 automobiles. Butler was sentenced to eight years in federal prison and is serving time in Englewood, Colorado. In 2014, he received a sentence reduction of one year for cooperating with investigators and prosecutors in the case against former sheriff’s deputy Steve Tanabe, who was involved in three dirty DUI arrests. Butler is scheduled for release in May 2018.

Former Danville sheriff’s deputy Steve Tanabe was the only police officer who went to trial; everyone else pleaded out. Tanabe was convicted on six of seven felony counts and was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison. He is scheduled for release in May 2015.

Former San Ramon police officer Louis Lombardi was sentenced to three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges of selling marijuana and stealing money as well as personal property during searches of suspects’ homes. He was released in August 2014.

Former Richmond police officers Danny Harris Jr. and Ray Thomas Jr.—who hired Butler to smear a Richmond police lieutenant and two teenage boys, who were employees of Harris and Thomas’ security business—pleaded guilty in March 2012. Harris admitted to making false statements in connection to purchasing firearms, and both Harris and Thomas admitted to conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding. Harris was sentenced to five years’ probation and Thomas to three years’ probation.

Former San Ramon family law and divorce attorney Mary Nolan, who conspired with Butler to bug the cars of her clients’ spouses, pleaded guilty to five felony charges, including tax evasion and illegal eavesdropping. Nolan was sentenced to two years in federal prison in Dublin, California, and is scheduled to be released in December 2015.

 

How It Unfolded: Fake Cases and Real Crimes

September 9, 2010: Diablo Senior Editor Peter Crooks meets with Chris Butler, members of Butler’s staff, and an alleged client.
September 11, 2010: Crooks accompanies two P.I. Moms on a 10-hour ride-along.
November 2, 2010: An Oakland resident is lured to Meenar Bar in Danville by two of Butler’s female decoys, who ply the male target with alcohol. The target is arrested for DUI.
November 8, 2010:  Filming begins for P.I. Moms reality show for Lifetime Television.
November 19, 2010: Sometime around this date, Butler gives a pound of stolen marijuana to his director of operations, Carl Marino.
January 3, 2011: Using the name “Ronald Rutherford,” Marino e-mails Diablo and says the ride-along was a hoax for free publicity.
January 9, 2011: Marino meets a Martinez businessman at The Vine in Danville, under the premise that the target is being interviewed for Diablo. The target is arrested for DUI by Danville deputy Steve Tanabe.
January 12, 2011: “Rutherford” e-mails Crooks and asks for help, alleging Butler is involved
in unspecified “serious criminal activity.” Crooks replies that he will try to help but needs more information.
January 14, 2011: ”Rutherford” e-mails Crooks that Butler and Norm Wielsch are selling drugs. As Crooks contacts a trusted law enforcement source to arrange a meeting, Marino—this time posing as a TV producer—sets up a Livermore winemaker for DUI arrest.
January 16, 2011: “Rutherford” e-mails Crooks alleging that Butler is trying to sell two pounds of C-4 plastic explosive.
January 17, 2011: Crooks meets with longtime friend and Alameda County DA investigator Cindy Hall, and passes “Rutherford’s” contact information to authorities.
January 20, 2011: An investigator from Contra Costa DA office contacts Marino.
January 21, 2011: Marino and two actors go to a Livermore winery to continue the charade about a nonexistent TV show for the January 14 dirty DUI target. Then, Marino meets with a California Department of Justice agent, turns in two pounds of drug evidence, and becomes a confidential informant.
January 26, 2011: Wearing a recording device, Marino buys roughly three pounds of marijuana from Butler in a parking lot near Rossmoor, the first of Marino’s several drug buys as a confidential informant.
February 1, 2011: Production halts on the P.I. Moms Lifetime Television show because of cases falling apart.
February 15, 2011: DOJ agents witness Norm Wielsch removing a pound of crystal meth from an evidence locker. Marino records himself paying Butler and Wielsch for the meth.
February 16, 2011: Butler and Wielsch are arrested, and charged with 28 felonies each.
March 4, 2011: Tanabe is arrested in connection with the case.
May 4, 2011: San Ramon police officer Louis Lombardi is arrested in connection with the case.
June 3, 2011: Contra Costa District Attorney Mark Peterson announces that the case is being handed off to the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office.

 

Pete Crooks with This American Life host and executive producer Ira Glass, who is involved in producing a movie based on Crooks’ story / courtesy of Peter Crooks

The Author: In Person

Diablo Senior Editor Peter Crooks will talk about The Setup at the following events. For information, go to facebook.com/petecrooksauthor.

January 15: Book reading. Diesel, Oakland, 6:30 p.m., dieselbookstore.com.
January 16: Book release party. Rakestraw Books, Danville, 7 p.m., rakestrawbooks.com.
January 22: Book reading. Orinda Books, Orinda, 7 p.m., orindabooks.com.
January 23: Book reading. A Great Good Place for Books, Montclair Village, Oakland, 7 p.m., ggpbooks.com.
February 18: Guest speaker. Live! From the Library. Walnut Creek Library, Walnut Creek, 7 p.m., wclibrary.org.
March 14: Authors Gala. Walnut Creek Library, Walnut Creek, 6 p.m., wclibrary.org.
April 18: Mystery Writer’s Panel. Diablo Valley College, Pleasant Hill, 1 p.m., dvc.edu/emeritus.

Click here to read, "The Setup," the April 2011 story that revealed how Chris Butler and Norm Wielsch were arrested for selling stolen drugs.

Click here to read, "Norm Wielsch: On The Record," the December 2011 story in which former Central Costa County Narcotics Enforcement Team commander Norm Wielsch admitted to his role in the drug-selling conspiracy which led to his arrest and federal prison sentence.

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