A federal judge sentenced former Contra Costa County deputy sheriff Stephen Tanabe to 15 months in prison extortion and corruption in a bizarre divorce scam to arrest drunken drivers to help the victims’ ex-wives in custody disputes.
During a tearful recitation of his law enforcement career, Tanabe said he never believed, at the time, that what he was doing was illegal because the men arrested were indeed driving drunk. He did say, “What I did was wrong. But at the time, I didn’t think I did anything wrong.”
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer held a two-hour sentencing hearing in which federal prosecutors sought at least two years in prison for Tanabe. Ultimately, Breyer said he was disturbed that the deputy did not immediately recognize the conduct as wrong. “What you did was so outside the acceptable ethics it should have had alarms going off in your head,” Breyer said.
Tanabe, 50, of Alamo was convicted in September of extortion for taking a Glock pistol from a private investigator working for a divorce lawyer in the scheme. Tanaba conspired with a former Antioch police officer-turned private investigator to set up men in the midst of divorce cases to be arrested on drunk driving charges in order to help their wives.
The private investigator, Christopher Butler, was hired by wives and ex-wives engaged in divorce and child custody disputes to arrange “stings” against their spouses. They told Butler the men were likely to drive under the influence of alcohol. Butler used “decoys” to entice the men to bars in downtown Danville, 40 miles east of San Francisco. This was Tanabe’s patrol area.
The men would be encouraged to drink and then arrested when they left the bars by car.
Butler was the government’s key witness against Tanabe and had agreed to testify in exchange for leniency. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
One final player, divorce lawyer Mary Nolan, who directed clients to Butler, was sentenced to two years in prison based on a guilty plea to tax-related charges and not the sting operation.
Case: U.S. v. Tanabe, No. CR11-941CRB