On March 12, 2020, the Riverside County District Attorney announced criminal indictments against some then-current and former members of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
“A Riverside County criminal grand jury on March 11, 2020, returned indictments charging a Riverside County Sheriff’s Department lieutenant, sergeant, and a former deputy along with a tow truck company owner in a criminal conspiracy case,” the announcement said.
Lt. Samuel Flores, Sgt. Robert Christolon and former Deputy Kevin Carpenter were charged, as was Cody Close, the owner of DJ’s Towing. The charges included bribery, conspiracy to commit a crime, and unlawful computer network access.
The indictments led to a flurry of media coverage—but in the 26 months since, there has been almost no media coverage, and very little progress has been made in court.
Why the delay? Of course, the pandemic has been a major factor. Other reasons have included frequent changes in the prosecuting attorneys handling the case; the misplacement of the grand jury transcripts by the District Attorney’s Office; and the general backlog of cases in the courts.
Meanwhile, the defendants wait, and one of those defendants, Lt. Sam Flores—who has since been fired by the Sheriff’s Department—is frustrated. So much so, in fact, that two members of his defense team recently reached out to the Independent to express consternation over various aspects of the way in which the case was built by the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office. In fact, Flores’ team says the evidence they have compiled actually shows he was wrongly accused.
The next hearing in the case is set for this Friday, May 20. They hope the court will rule on their motions favorably.
Michael Reed, an attorney with the Mastagni Holstedt law firm, specializes in representing first responders and public employees. He is joined on Flores’ defense team by honorably retired Riverside County Sheriff’s Sgt. Joel Morales, who serves as lead investigator.
“Joel Morales and I really believe that Sam Flores, as well as (co-defendant) Rob Christolon, are getting railroaded,” Reed said. “It’s really unfortunate what’s happened.”
In a lengthy presentation, Reed detailed the extensive body of evidence Flores’ defense has prepared to combat each of the criminal charges filed against Flores.
Reed and Morales discussed evidence that refutes alleged instances of Flores accepting bribes. They said they’re ready to provide valuable context to the circumstances surrounding meetings at which Flores is alleged to have participated in a conspiracy to commit crimes. They explained multiple internal RCSD rules, regulations and business practices which would have deprived Flores of any ability to misuse his position in the department in the ways of which he’s been accused. And they said the court proceedings have raised many questions about the quality of the evidence introduced during the grand jury proceedings—hence, the assertion by Reed that his client is “getting railroaded.”
A May 2021 motion filed by Reed makes this claim: “Between September of 2019 and May of 2020, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department conducted an internal affairs investigation of Mr. Flores. (The investigator) interviewed numerous employees of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, percipient (or discerning) witnesses, and alleged defendants in this case. Many of the percipient witnesses interviewed by internal affairs were not interviewed by criminal investigators. Additionally, witnesses interviewed by internal affairs investigators and criminal investigators in parallel investigations have provided inconsistent statements constituting impeachment and exonerating evidence. … The defense believes that the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department intentionally manipulated and altered the report, findings and conclusions of the independent investigator assigned to conduct the investigation.”
The filing goes on to say that in the current criminal case, “prosecutors used the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department to conduct this investigation instead of their own independent investigators. The department is considered a part of the prosecution team, and as case law instructs, favorable evidence known to the prosecution team is required to be disclosed to the defense … .”
In other words, Flores’ team believes that the prosecution’s investigation was compromised, and important testimony and evidence that could exonerate their client has been withheld from the defense. Furthermore, Flores’ defense believes that multiple violations of law have been committed by RCSD prosecutorial investigation personnel, and that the withheld documents, when introduced in court, will prove the innocence of their client, as well as the prosecution’s misdeeds.
Toward that end, Reed submitted both a 14-page personal motion and a 19-page supporting motion in May 2021 that detail a large variety of legal arguments, RCSD rules and regulations, and examples of unsatisfactory or misleading prosecution investigative missteps.
In the personal supporting motion, Reed contends that “the purpose of changing the independent report was to undermine the defense of Mr. Flores and ensure that the conclusions of the administrative internal affairs investigation matched the information that came out of the Grand Jury, which led to the indictment of Sam Flores.” Also, “the prosecution’s criminal case, information and evidence they obtained is the result of a grossly negligent investigation conducted by an inexperienced lead investigator … and other members of the Riverside County Sheriff Department. We believe it was this same Department that was actively engaged in manipulating the internal affairs investigation of Mr. Flores to undermine his defense and ensure the internal affairs investigation conclusions fit the narrative of Mr. Flores engaging in a crime as opposed to accessing the truth.”
The motion then goes on to identify a number of RCSD personnel who testified as witnesses before the grand jury—people the defense believes were dishonest and/or offered incomplete details of relevant events during those hearings.
“The prosecutor … stated in open court that there are Brady issues here,” Reed said during our interview. “So even the prosecutor agrees that there’s some kind of problem here when it comes to potential deceit or lying by the people interviewed.” (“Brady” refers to a law, based on a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision, saying evidence that could exonerate a defendant must be turned over to the defense.)
The Independent reached out to prosecutor Francisco Navarro, of the Riverside County District Attorney’s office, to discuss the case, and received no response.
The defense team is asking the presiding judge to review all the investigative reports and documentation “in camera,” or privately, and then rule on the defense team’s assertions regarding possible instances of false testimony, or manipulation of evidence by any members of the RCSD.
The over-arching questions being raised by Flores’ defense are: Did the Riverside County District Attorney’s office, under the direction of District Attorney Mike Hestrin, use the evidence and conclusions resulting from a RCSD internal affairs investigation to help form the basis of the criminal indictment? And why didn’t the District Attorney’s Office insist that a new investigation be conducted by the DA’s own investigators, to provide the factual foundation for the criminal case—which, according to Morales, is the normal course of action in such a situation?
“The criminal report was full of conjecture,” Morales told the Independent. “I don’t know how it got through and (was) vetted … No way I’d let a report like that—that has to have my signature before it goes to the district attorney’s office—to get through the process, because none of the allegations were substantiated.”