Federal Trial Begins For Chicago Cops Accused of Fraud, Theft
Two Chicago Police officers are scheduled to go on trial Monday facing federal charges that they lied to get search warrants, stole from the illegal seizures and then obstructed justice to cover their tracks.
Officer David Salgado and his boss in a West Side gang enforcement unit, Sgt. Xavier Elizondo, were indicted last year.
In the indictment and other court filings, federal prosecutors lay out a web of illegal schemes, mostly involving the abuse of a process that allows police to obtain search warrants based on unnamed sources. Prosecutors claim Elizondo and Salgado used these so-called “John Doe” warrants to launder and distort information they got through coercion and bribery.
Sometimes, according to prosecutors, Elizondo and Salgado would have informants swear to false information, or claim they were the source of information that actually came from someone else in order to get search warrants on suspected stash houses where drugs were being kept. Every time, prosecutors say, the officers bribed informants by promising them drugs, money or even cartons of cigarettes recovered during the illegal searches.
Both men have pleaded not guilty.
42 complaints, 15 lawsuits
Salgado became a Chicago police officer in 2003. He’s had at least 21 complaints against him, including claims of false arrest, illegal search and extortion, but only one complaint, of insubordination, has been sustained against him.
Elizondo also has also been the subject of at least 21 complaints with only one sustained. He joined the police force in 1996 and was promoted to sergeant in 2014.
Combined the two officers have been named in 15 federal lawsuits, many as co-defendants.
The city has settled several of those lawsuits, which include claims of illegal searches, theft, coercion, brutality and false arrest.
Elizondo’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment. Salgado’s attorney Michael Petro described his client’s record as “sensational,” and said he is an “exemplary officer.”
“David Salgado has worked in the toughest circumstances for 15 years. To have some complaints over a period of time means that you're doing your job,” Petro said. “When you're dealing with bad guys and bad people on a day to day basis, yeah, they complain. Absolutely they complain. They don't want to go to jail.”
Federal prosecutors say Salgado and Elizondo began working together in the summer of 2017, and say that is when the officers began pressuring informants to lie in search warrant applications and supplying stolen drugs and money to confidential sources.
"We're the police, but we like to do business"
One key witness for prosecutors will be a former informant for Salgado and Elizondo named Antwan Davis. Prosecutors say Davis, known as ‘Twan, would pretend to be the source of information for the officers which would allow them to obtain search warrants. In return, Davis is expected to testify, the officers rewarded him with cigarettes, cash or drugs seized during the resulting illegal raids.
WBEZ’s efforts to reach Davis were unsuccessful.
It was Davis, according to court documents, who unknowingly connected Elizondo and Salgado with a person working undercover for the FBI. That undercover FBI source recorded conversations with the officers, including one in which Elizondo allegedly laid out the scheme, while Salgado sat next to him driving.
“'Yeah, so we're the police, but we like to do business,” Elizondo said according to a sworn affidavit by FBI Special Agent Rodney Harris. “If we can get, get the product, and, or the guns off the street, that's our deal dude, that's what we're supposed to do. You know, whatever faIls out of the bag, you know what I mean, at the end, whatever,” an allusion, prosecutors say, to the promise of stolen goods that would be shared.
Court records show that Salgado and Elizondo’s bogus search warrants typically targeted homes that did contain illegal drugs or guns, but their efforts occasionally led the gang unit to raid the homes of innocent people.
The conspiracy came to an end in January 2018, according to prosecutors, when Elizondo and Salgado stole more than $4,000 from a car they thought belonged to drug dealers but had actually been set up by the FBI to catch them in the act.
Prosecutors plan to call several officers who participated in the search of the car, to testify about the elaborate efforts by Elizondo and Salgado to allegedly conceal the money seized from the rest of the police on scene. They also plan to call a Cook County judge who signed off on many of the pair’s search warrants.
"If there was money missing, it's because Elizondo stole it"
In a recent interview, Petro said some of the allegations are the government criminalizing officers for doing what was necessary to get illegal guns and large amounts of drugs off the street.
“This is a very, very aggressive team, you know, and they're fighting crime in the worst of neighborhoods with the roughest of people,” Petro said. “They send these guys into these difficult situations, and to me, it's like upside down world...we're not going to give resources to fight crime, we're going to give our resources, you know, tens of thousands of dollars, to these lowlifes to catch some police officers.”
Petro described the case as prosecutors putting “career criminals” on the stand to impugn good cops.
However, Elizondo and Salgado are expected to point the finger at one another as they defend themselves.
Petro said because Elizondo was the supervising officer, Salgado did not “have a right to refuse a direct order” from his sergeant.
“This is Sgt. Elizondo’s team, his team of young men that work for him,” Petro said. “I don't think any of the officers on the team are culpable … And if there was money missing, it's because Elizondo stole it.”
Petro said he expects Elizondo to take the stand in his own defense. He said they are unsure if Salgado will do the same.
A court filing gives some indication of what Elizondo might say if he does take the stand.
“Elizondo was not a knowing or intentional member of either conspiracy charged by thegovernment. He did not agree to commit unlawful acts, nor did he know of anyillegal objectives,” attorney Michael Clancy wrote in the filing. “Even if Elizondo arguably had knowledge that Salgado or others may have been committing illegal acts ... there is no proof that Elizondo became a member of a conspiracy.”
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid.