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Former Rohnert Park Cops Accused of ‘Highway Robbery’ Face Federal Charges

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Former Rohnert Park police officers Brendon Jacy Tatum and Joseph Huffaker are facing federal charges tied allegedly illegal stops and seizures of cash and marijuana along Highway 101. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

Two former Rohnert Park police officers are facing federal corruption charges of conspiracy, extortion, falsification of records and tax evasion, all tied to an alleged years-long scheme to pull over and rob people of cash and marijuana.

Brendon Jacy Tatum and Joseph Huffaker were assigned to Rohnert Park’s drug interdiction team at various times between 2015 and 2017, according to a federal criminal complaint unsealed Friday. The program was aimed at seizing illegal drugs and cash proceeds trafficked along the Highway 101 corridor. Over about four years, Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety officers seized $3.6 million and 2½ tons of marijuana, according to an analysis of records from the program.

Cities and police departments can legally take people’s money and seize property if it’s tied to illegal activity through a process called civil asset forfeiture. The department gets to keep a cut of whatever they take, providing a monetary incentive to confiscate cash and make narcotics busts. Former Sgt. Jacy Tatum was in charge of the drug interdiction team and supervised asset forfeiture, according to the complaint.

But not everything that Tatum and Huffaker seized was legal, the complaint alleges. A number of motorists had paperwork to prove they were transporting legal cannabis for testing or to medical marijuana dispensaries. But the officers took their cannabis product or cash anyway, and in some cases failed to properly document those seizures.

The federal criminal complaint alleges that Tatum extorted at least $3,700 in cash and “significant amounts of marijuana,” and was aided by Huffaker in at least one of the illegal stops.

“Tatum and other officers made no reports of the seizure, did not submit the marijuana or assets into evidence, and sought no destruction orders for the marijuana,” a press release from the Northern California U.S. Attorney’s Office says.

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A KQED investigation in 2018 found that documentation for the destruction of about 800 pounds of marijuana seized by Rohnert Park officers was missing from court files.

Federal prosecutors charge that Tatum and Huffaker continued extorting motorists even after Rohnert Park ended its drug interdiction program in 2017.

In December of that year, two men allegedly impersonated agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives when they pulled over Texas resident Zeke Flatten about 50 miles North of Rohnert Park and across the Mendocino County line. The FBI is charging Tatum and Huffaker in connection with this stop. Flatten said that Huffaker was there but Tatum was not.

The officers didn’t identify themselves, but they took about $3,000 worth of marijuana Flatten was driving from a farm in Humboldt County to a lab in Santa Rosa, according to the complaint.

But Flatten didn’t go quietly. He reported the stop to Mendocino County law enforcement and the FBI. By early 2018, he’d also told his story to independent reporter Kym Kemp, who started asking questions.

Tatum drafted a press release on Feb. 13, 2018, months after the Flatten stop, touting a large “black market” marijuana bust by Rohnert Park police. Tatum “then prepared a false police report to conceal his criminal activity,” according to federal prosecutors.

“Prior to February 13, 2018, TATUM told Commander J.T. that there was a female reporter up north writing articles linking a stop to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s office and the Hopland Tribal police,” the criminal complaint says. “Tatum clarified that it was actually an interdiction stop conducted by RPDPS and that he wanted to correctly identify the law enforcement agency responsible for the stop.”

Tatum didn’t write a police report on the Dec. 5 seizure until Feb. 20, and he recorded the amount of marijuana and other details from a different case in that report. The FBI’s investigation found probable cause that Tatum “falsified a report for the undocumented stop and seizure of marijuana from (Flatten) in order to conceal his and HUFFAKER’s actions during the stop and deflect negative media attention.”

Flatten said Friday that he hoped the federal prosecution would prompt officers to “come clean” and hold each other accountable for “the dishonor they did to themselves and their badge and their community.”

“These guys are not going to get away with what they were doing,” he added.

After Flatten’s case became public, more drivers started to come forward with accounts of shady encounters with Rohnert Park officers intent on seizing cash and marijuana during pretextual traffic stops. KQED and Kemp spoke to a total of nine people with similar stories in a collaborative investigative report published in summer of 2018.

The criminal complaint details six traffic stops, four from 2016, the Flatten case, and another stop about two weeks later, on Dec. 18, 2017.

Tatum can be heard on body camera video telling one driver “there is no such thing as easy money” before the former officer illegally seized $3,700 in cash and $22,400 in marijuana, according to the complaint. Other than Huffaker, the charging document conceals the identities of other Rohnert Park officers who were with Tatum during the stops.

Huedell Freeman was pulled over by the officers a year before Flatten, in December 2016. They took 47 pounds of medical cannabis from him. Now, he said he feels very satisfied with the announcement of criminal charges.

“I did not have any idea that this journey would end up where it did,” he said. “I feel vindicated.”

Flatten, Freeman, and seven other drivers sued Rohnert Park and all won settlements in the past year, totaling $1.8 million.

Tatum and Huffaker are both charged with conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right, which carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence. Tatum is further charged with falsifying records in a federal investigation and tax evasion, which carry a combined 25-year maximum sentence.

Prosecutors allege that in 2016, Tatum deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars into his and his wife’s bank accounts and bought a $46,000 fishing boat, totaling over $440,000 that wasn’t reported on the former officer’s tax returns. The cash deposits were all in amounts under $10,000, “in an apparent attempt to avoid banking laws requiring disclosure,” according to prosecutors.

Tatum’s cash deposits “decreased significantly” after he resigned from the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety in 2018, according to the complaint.

“There's no greater responsibility for law enforcement than to abide by the oath of office and respect the constitutional rights of all people,” said Sid Patel, assistant special agent in charge for the FBI's San Francisco office. “And this was a serious breach of public trust.”

Rohnert Park city officials issued a statement saying that they cooperated with the FBI investigation and that they “do not tolerate” corruption among their police staff.

Flatten alleges that the scheme went beyond the two officers who are now facing charges. He said his hope is that Tatum and Huffaker cooperate with the investigation and expose other co-conspirators.

“They owe that to their own community because it definitely does go much higher than them,” Flatten said. “And there are more people that should be held accountable.”

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