Complaint Documents Lies by Informant, and Knowledge and Conspiracy by Police and Investigators and the Intentional Use of Fabricated Statements to Obtain Warrant
In the fall of 2015, the Yolo County DA’s office dropped charges against then 39-year-old Sonny Martinez, who had been accused of attempted murder and firing at an inhabited dwelling. The incident resulted in 13-year-old Alize Valadez being hit by a bullet in her head as she was lying on the couch watching a movie at her West Sacramento home.
A horrible tragedy for sure, but from the start, family members of Sonny Martinez told the Vanguard that he was in Stockton at the time of the shooting and they had video from a local pizza place to prove it.
Now, more than three years later, Mr. Martinez and his family are filing a federal civil rights suit in the Eastern District of California, represented by attorney Douglas Thorn.
They argued that Mr. Martinez suffered “abusive treatment” at the hands of investigators from the Stockton and West Sacramento police departments and Yolo County District Attorney’s Office.
They write that “investigators arrested Mr. Martinez and put him jail for 53 days on charges carrying a life sentence based on the phony story of a career felon, swindler, and drug addict who briefly lived next door to the Martinez family and who was desperate for money and revenge.”
Official reports note that on October 26, 2015, “Defendant Altamirano met with investigators at the West Sacramento Police Department headquarters and said Mr. Martinez called him on his cell phone earlier that morning and confessed to the highly-publicized shooting of 13-year-old Alize Valadez in West Sacramento two nights earlier.”
“What the official reports don’t say is that Altamirano was lying,” Mr. Thorn writes. “Investigators searched Altamirano’s phone and discovered the call log on his phone did not contain any calls from Mr. Martinez that morning or at any time after the shooting – not one call.
“And the phone records investigators obtained from the service providers for Altamirano, Mr. Martinez, and Ms. Ramirez verified that Mr. Martinez was in Stockton when the shooting happened and did not call Altamirano at any time after the shooting.”
Among the named defendants include Yolo County Supervising Deputy District Attorneys Robert Gorman and Ryan Couzens. They also allege that Rafael Altamirano “was a paid or compensated police informant.”
They further note: “The acts and omission of every individual defendant were under color of state law and were expressly or tacitly authorized or acceptable under the existing policies or longstanding customs or practices of their municipal employers.”
In the 54-page complaint, Mr. Thorn lays out a lengthy chronology of the interactions between Mr. Altamirano and Mr. Martinez. Mr. Martinez had moved to Stockton for a fresh start where they met in September 2015. Mr. Altamirano became upset that Mr. Martinez was hired for a maintenance job he badly wanted and needed.
Mr. Martinez around this time was warned that “Altamirano was a ‘snitch’ who solicited a large drug buy so he could tell the police about the transaction to collect money or get out of some trouble he was in or both.”
He was also warned that he was “an unpredictable drug addict engaged in a lot of criminal activity and that he owed a drug debt to Sureño gang members.”
The complaint documents that Mr. Altamirano “began annoying (Mr. Martinez) with text messages and telephone calls, and would regularly interrupt (him) while he was working.”
On October 24, 2015, at roughly 8:26 pm, Sonny Martinez called his mother in Sacramento. His phone records provided to Sgt. Winger of the West Sacramento Police Department “established Sonny (Martinez) cell phone was in Stockton for the 19-minute call.” The call ended at 8:46 pm, about four or five minutes prior to the shooting of Alize Valadez.
Writes Mr. Thorn: “It is impossible to drive from 901 Solano Street in West Sacramento to 6808 Stonewall Court in Stockton in five or 10 minutes – it cannot be done.”
Between 8:50 p.m. and 8:52 p.m. on Saturday night, October 24, 2015, “an unknown suspect or suspects fired several rounds of .38 caliber ammunition into the duplex at 901 Solano Street in West Sacramento and injured 13-year-old Alize Valadez.”
Several other West Sacramento Police Department personnel assisted with the investigation at the scene, including Crime Scene Investigator Ruth Pagano-Trn. In addition, the media began arriving at the scene about 45 minutes after the shooting, and the high profile case received massive media coverage on the internet, newspapers, and television stations throughout the central valley, including Stockton.
Mr. Thorn notes: “There was an eyewitness to the shooting who told Palmer the vehicle involved in the drive-by shooting was a black or dark-colored passenger car traveling southbound on Solano Street, which also exonerated (Mr. Martinez) from involvement in the shooting and provided further corroboration that Altamirano had lied about (Mr. Martinez) confessing to the shooting.”
The West Sacramento Police had few leads as of the end of the day on October 25, with Sgt. Kinney of the West Sacramento Police Department telling reporters, “Nobody saw anything. We didn’t really get any helpful information.”
It was on Monday that Mr. Altamirano came forward with information. He told Dan Zwicky of the Stockton Police Department he had information about the Alize Valadez shooting. Mr. Thorn writes: “Defendant Zwicky knew Altamirano wanted and expected money for his information and, on information and belief, Zwicky knew Altamirano wanted and expected help with his October 3, 2015, arrest and other trouble with law enforcement.”
He alleges: Officer Zwicky “expected to pay Altamirano whether the information Altamirano was peddling was helpful or truthful or not. The custom and practice of the Stockton Police Department is to pay Altamirano to keep him available to the Stockton Police Department investigators like Zwicky and Zwicky knew if he asked for payment for Altamirano, the department would pay Altamirano even if Altamirano was lying.”
Mr. Thorn alleges that Mr. Altamirano’s story was implausible, that “no producent person would believe Altamirano,” and that he “did not trust Altamirano.”
Critical to their case as Mr. Thorn writes was that on October 26, there was a meeting at West Sacramento headquarters, “Every member of the team knew evidence that Sonny called Altamirano that morning was vital to Altamirano’s credibility and a fair determination of probable cause to get lawful warrants.”
They had Sgt. Winger search Mr. Altamirano’s phone for evidence of the call with Sonny Martinez. Writes Mr. Thorn: “Winger’s Cellebrite analysis and SIM card extraction confirmed Altamirano was lying about the call from Sonny and Sonny’s confession to the shooting because the digital evidence Winger extracted from Altamirano’s phone proved Sonny did not call Altamirano that morning, or at any time after the shooting – not one call.”
Nevertheless the team met again “and agreed to disregard the truth.”
Still they used the fabricated story as a means to obtain a warrant to arrest Mr. Martinez, “search his truck and other property, and file criminal charges against Sonny to put and keep him in jail without bail for as long as possible to monitor his mail, phone calls, and statements to government informants and jailhouse informants in the hope something might turn up to help them with their investigation, or it would help their investigation move forward by getting the streets talking about the arrest and shooting.”
Mr. Thorn alleges that the Investigative Team withheld “exculpatory material from Sonny and his public defender so he could not use the exculpatory material to make a motion to dismiss the case or dismiss some of the charges so he could make bail and thwart their plan to use his incarceration as a means of gathering information they could not otherwise access.”
Despite the weak evidence, members of the Investigation Team “immediately began carrying out the objectives of the conspiracy and within a matter of hours had deprived Plaintiffs of their civil rights using warrants they obtained by deliberately or recklessly disregarding the truth and deceiving the magistrate with Altaminrao’s phony story.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting