Santa Rosa officials face firing months after marijuana goes missing

Santa Rosa Police Chief Ronnie Hernandez a the department’s K-9 in 2016. (Raul Garcia | Valley Morning Star)

SANTA ROSA — Since an estimated 19 pounds of marijuana went missing from the police department last summer, Chief Ronnie Hernandez’s job has been on the line.

Now, City Administrator Jared Hockema and City Attorney Larry Warner might also lose their jobs.

But, there are more problems with that regarding future criminal cases involving Santa Rosa.

Because Hernandez oversaw the department’s evidence locker, the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office has notified the city it will no longer accept cases in which the chief serves as the investigating officer. The DA’s office is saying the missing marijuana and problems surrounding the chief could taint prosecution in other cases as well.

The specific reasons behind the push to fire Hockema and Warner remain unclear.

Mayor Andres Contreras did not respond to a request for comment left at City Hall.

But, on Wednesday, city aldermen are expected to meet to consider firing Hernandez, Hockema and Warner.

“I have not seen this before,” Warner, who has served as city attorney for about a year, said yesterday, referring to the three officials on the chopping block.

Yesterday, Hernandez did not respond to messages requesting comment.

In Wednesday’s meeting, aldermen are also expected to respond to the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office’s decision against taking cases in which Hernandez is the investigating officer.

In a Jan. 25 letter to Mayor Andres Contreras, Edward Sandoval, the office’s first assistant district attorney, refers to an audit conducted by the District Attorney’s Border Prosecution Unit that uncovered more than 15 pounds of marijuana missing from the police department’s evidence locker here after a Santa Rosa officer seized the drugs at a port of entry.

Officials involved in the case said about 19 pounds of marijuana is missing.

“Our records showed that the Santa Rosa police had responded to an inordinate number of calls for service at the port of entries,” Sandoval writes in the letter.

Authorities were unable to interview the officer who seized the marijuana because he had resigned after the marijuana went missing, Sandoval wrote.

“A statement from the officer responsible for the seizure was never secured as he resigned in lieu of sharing his knowledge regarding the missing marijuana,” Sandoval wrote.

Sandoval added Hernandez was “ultimately responsible” for overseeing the police department evidence locker.

“Consequently, our office will no longer accept any cases wherein Chief Ronnie Hernandez is the investigating officer or where the Santa Rosa Police Department seizes any type of physical evidence, including narcotics cases,” Sandoval wrote.

“It is unfortunate such a measure must be taken, however it is necessary. The involvement of Chief Ronnie Hernandez potentially threatens any prosecution wherein his testimony must be relied upon as he will be impeached by defense attorneys about the missing marijuana.”

It’s not the first time Hernandez’s job has been on the line.

On Oct. 12, 2018, Hockema fired Hernandez after nearly four years on the job.

Then on Oct 25, aldermen reinstated Hernandez after his attorney John Shergold argued the city had breached the chief’s contract.

“That related mostly to the allegations regarding the missing drugs,” Shergold said.

Now, Hernandez’s job is in jeopardy again.

“It’s basically the same allegations or suspicion,” Shergold said, referring to questions surrounding the missing marijuana.

But now Warner and Frontera Consultants, for which Hockema works, also face termination.

“I don’t have any letter or statement,” Warner only said.

Hockema said he could not disclose the reason aldermen are considering his termination.

“From time to time, there have been items like this placed on the agenda,” Hockema said, referring to the push to fire him. “It takes two aldermen to place an item on the agenda. I serve at the pleasure of the board.”

In Wednesday’s meeting, aldermen will consider hiring Gustavo Ruiz, Cameron County’s Precinct 4 commission, to serve as city attorney.