During his law enforcement career, Santa Clara City Council candidate Bob O’Keefe became the subject of two lawsuits claiming he violated people’s civil and constitutional rights, according to court documents obtained by San José Spotlight.
One man arrested by O’Keefe for allegedly buying jet skis using a false identity was later found factually innocent, which means he was arrested for a crime he did not commit.
O’Keefe, who worked 30 years for the California Highway Patrol, is locked in a heated race for an open seat on the Santa Clara City Council. He’s won the endorsement of Mayor Lisa Gillmor and the city’s police union, which has spent several thousand dollars on mailers supporting his bid.
When asked by San José Spotlight, O’Keefe initially could not recall the case but subsequently defended his police work and said he has no regrets.
The lawsuits came to light this week as the country grapples with law enforcement’s role in society, biased policing, violence and brutality.
Arresting the wrong man
According to court documents, O’Keefe was assigned to a case in the late 1990s involving two men using false identities to purchase two jet skis and a trailer from a watercraft shop in Hayward. Two days later, the men purchased three jet skis, a trailer and ATV from another shop in Hayward.
Four employees at the two shops said one of the men had a prominent gap in his front teeth. But the man O’Keefe arrested for the crime — Christopher Olenzak — had straight teeth without a gap, according to court documents.
O’Keefe created a photographic lineup that included Olenzak but only two of the men showed their teeth in the photos. Two out of five witnesses identified Olenzak as the perpetrator; one also pointed to Olenzak, but qualified that only if he had a gap in his front teeth.
O’Keefe obtained a search and arrest warrant in July 1998 and headed to Olenzak’s home. According to the court documents, he “noticed at this time that plaintiff did not have gapped or crooked teeth.” O’Keefe brought one of the store employees to Olenzak’s home, and he was identified as the thief.
“At the time of the in-person identification, defendant did not ask plaintiff to show his teeth,” the documents say. The officers also found no evidence of the jet skis or identity theft at Olenzak’s home.
Still, Olenzak was arrested and taken to jail that night. During the criminal trial, it was determined Olenzak was arrested for a crime he did not commit.
The following year, Olenzak sued O’Keefe, several law enforcement agencies and others in federal court. O’Keefe was accused of violating Olenzak’s Fourth Amendment rights by omitting exculpatory facts from the affidavit supporting the arrest and search warrants.
Ultimately, Olenzak could not prove O’Keefe liable and lost his lawsuit and subsequent appeals.
In an interview with San José Spotlight, O’Keefe said he’s strived to be “extremely thorough” with every investigation during his CHP carer.
“I was sure we had the right guy. I was 100 percent sure it was him,” O’Keefe said. “It was Olenzak. I have no doubt in my mind. We filed charges against Olenzak… I don’t believe it went to trial. Somewhere in this process, the case was dismissed for whatever reason.”
O’Keefe said even if he had included the information about the gap in the suspect’s teeth, the issuance of the search and arrest warrants still would have been justified.
The East Bay Sniper
Seven years later, O’Keefe found himself in legal trouble again.
Chris Gafford — who was arrested by the California Highway Patrol on suspicion that he shot eight vehicles along I-580 — filed a lawsuit against O’Keefe and several other CHP officers and officials, alleging they violated his civil rights.
The court ruled against Gafford in a summary judgment in July 2012. The high-profile case — which became known as the East Bay Sniper — made national headlines and the CHP faced political pressure to quickly make an arrest.
The suit claims Gafford was not identified as the shooter by victims during a lineup and had an alibi. Gafford’s attorney told the Contra Costa Times there were varying physical descriptions among the victims who saw the shooter.
The lawsuit claimed the CHP’s questionable allegations against Gafford and its push to close the case resulted in him receiving harsher treatment from the criminal justice system, including being incarcerated on unrelated drug charges longer than he should have been.
Shortly after the arrest, Alameda County prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence to file charges, the newspaper reported. He was charged federally.
O’Keefe said Gafford was charged federally because of expediency and it’s not an uncommon practice.
“There was overwhelming evidence that supported our investigation of Gafford,” O’Keefe said. “A deal was made between the DA’s office and the federal prosecutors that said the federal agency would prosecute the case. They took all our evidence and charged him federally and his exposure to a sentence would be longer in federal court.”
Despite the suits, O’Keefe stands by his actions.
“I did not violate his civil rights,” he said. “People can say whatever they want to say but if you do the right thing, the truth will come out.”
O’Keefe, who narrowly lost a bid for city clerk in 2018, is running for the District 5 council seat which was vacated by Patricia Mahan in February for medical reasons. He faces Planning Commissioner Suds Jain in the Nov. 3 election.
Contact Ramona Giwargis at [email protected] or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.