OAKLAND -- The former head of an elite Contra Costa County vice squad was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison Monday for stealing drug evidence, robbing prostitutes and making phony arrests -- crimes he said he committed as a cry for help while in a depressed and suicidal state.
"When I see the charges I've pleaded to, I'm overwhelmed with guilt and shame," ex-Central Contra Costa Narcotics Enforcement Team Cmdr. Norm Wielsch said as he sobbed and clutched a tissue. "I'm sorry, that's not really me."
Wielsch's attorney argued for electronic home detention for the 51-year-old Antioch resident, who asserts he "impulsively" began abusing the badge while suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by his 25-year law enforcement career and a degenerative muscular disease that eventually will put him in a wheelchair.
Judge Saundra Armstrong said she wasn't convinced. By Wielsch's own account, he was motivated, at least in part, by greed, the judge said.
Armstrong said she would have sentenced Wielsch to 17½ years, as the U.S. Attorney's Office requested, but thought 14 years took into account both his medical problems and the damage he caused to the public's confidence in law enforcement.
"He was crushed," defense attorney Raymond Erlach said after the sentencing. "In Norm's mind, he's being unfairly singled out because he's a cop."
Criminal cases against suspects arrested by Wielsch and others were dismissed, and several civil lawsuits were filed, after undercover state Department of Justice agents in February 2011 caught Wielsch and Concord private investigator Christopher Butler trying to sell drugs that had been seized by CNET. The Department of Justice program headed by Wielsch and staffed by local officers was suspended indefinitely as authorities launched a police-corruption probe that resulted in the prosecution of officers from Danville and San Ramon.
Wielsch pleaded guilty in December to five felonies: conspiracy to distribute marijuana and methamphetamine; theft from programs receiving government funds; robbery; and two counts of conspiracy against civil rights. Another six felony charges were dismissed as part of the plea deal.
His attorney said Monday that it was Wielsch's mental illness that made him susceptible to Butler, a sociopath who corrupted otherwise good people. At one point, Wielsch wanted to stop robbing prostitutes, Erlach said, but Butler blackmailed him into continuing by claiming that he had video of a married Wielsch having sex with one. Prosecutor Hartley West told the court there's no evidence that's true.
"If you trace their criminal conduct, all of it traces back to Mr. Butler," Erlach said.
Butler, 51, of Concord, was sentenced to eight years in federal prison in September. He and Wielsch started their law enforcement careers together at the Antioch Police Department in the early 1990s.
Wielsch had previously told investigators that he robbed and sold drugs to prepare for retirement and to earn favor with Butler for a position in Butler's expanding private investigation business.
Wielsch suffers from Charcot—Marie—Tooth disease, which has caused severe atrophy to his feet and lost feeling in his legs from the knees down. The disease struck him 30 year earlier than it did his father, who uses a wheelchair.
He said he was too proud to seek help for his depression over the disease, and it sent him into "a downward spiral of self-destruction" after 24 years of "honest hard work." He said he wants to speak at police academies and police departments about the importance of getting help for depression.
"I wish I had someone to warn me," Wielsch said.
Outside the courthouse, defense attorney Sara Zalkin said she has evidence that Wielsch abused his authority earlier in his career than he claims. She said she represents clients who had been arrested by Wielsch but declined to talk further, citing attorney-client privilege.
Former Danville officer Stephen Tanabe, 48, of Alamo, is awaiting trial on charges that he conspired with Butler to set up the estranged husbands of Butler's P.I. firm clients for DUI arrests. San Ramon attorney Mary Nolan, of Oakland, is awaiting trial on charges that she and Butler used eavesdropping equipment on her clients' estranged spouses.
And former San Ramon police officer Louis Lombardi, 40, of Discovery Bay, was sentenced to three years in federal prison for stealing drugs and other property when he was a CNET agent under Wielsch.
Wielsch will be eligible for parole in 10 years, his attorney said.
Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.