Outraged: One Man’s Two Month Quest From the FBI to the ATF to Expose What He Says Are Corrupt Police Officers in Mendocino County
“I had been traveling for almost a month straight on different projects,” he explained. “Since Thanksgiving, I had very little sleep…I grabbed food to go…I was out of town by 10.”
In Hopland, Flatten stopped for fuel. “I was already familiar with the gas station,” he said. “I went inside to buy some water, but they didn’t have the kind I wanted.” Flatten said he talked to the clerk whom he recognized from earlier stops, then stepped into his car and drove south on Hwy 101.
“I was traveling slightly a bit slower than the traffic to the left of me when I spotted an unmarked police car stopped alongside the road,” Flatten said. “I wasn’t really concerned. I was following the driving laws. I know I was in a gray area [legally]. But…my mindset is not that I’m trafficking drugs.”
He said he was alert but not very concerned “even when they pulled out behind me and the lights were activated.” The lights were on the grill and “somewhere higher but not on the roof.” He said he thought, “It was kind of odd at the time that they took…after me. I didn’t know what I was getting pulled over for.”
Flatten described turning into a pull out just past a landmark locally known as Squaw Rock. “I must have felt a little agitated [because] I smacked the button on the radio to turn it off,” he admitted ruefully.
But, still, “I thought it was going to be simple,” he said.
A man dressed as an officer in a green uniform approached on the side away from traffic, Flatten described. He calls him Officer 1 but later, he identified him with “almost certainty” from photographs online as the Hopland Tribal Police Chief Steve Hobb. “When he leaned in the passenger side window…he had a grin or smirk,” described Flatten.
Officer 1 asked questions about who he was and where he was going but never identified himself, according to Flatten. Another man, whom Flatten calls Officer 2, stood at the rear of the vehicle. Eventually, Flatten said Officer 1 asked him, “Will you step out of the car?” The man said he wanted to see his license and registration.
“Something about the way he was talking to me set not chills but a tingle all over me,” said Flatten who said he was beginning to believe this was not a legitimate traffic stop. “There was a definite shift in his tone. I knew at that point there was something wrong.” He later described why he believed this was not a legally conducted stop in a document he sent to the FBI, the California Attorney General’s Office, the Mendocino Sheriff’s Department, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Grand Jury. He wrote,
Flatten said he thought the men were pretending to be officers but were actually criminals and he worried that his life might be in danger. “For probably the first 30 seconds I wondered, ‘Do I need to break out and run on foot,'” he explained. “I knew it wasn’t right. There was not any kind of identification.”
I knew I wasn’t speeding and although [O]fficer 1’s techniques appeared official, his procedures did not. He did not disclose his name or department …I started to take notice that both uniforms had no patches, no badges, or no name tags. They were both wearing green…uniforms with black raid vests that displayed “POLICE” insignias on front and back, and [O]fficer 2 had a green cap with the muted U.S. flag on the side of the cap.
But then he saw something that he said reassured him. “…I saw their license [plate] was California Exempt,” he explained. “I felt relief. These are cops.”
He said he could tell the plate was authentic. “I never once doubted the plate,” he said. “I knew that it was real. It wasn’t paper. It wasn’t cardboard. It had screws…It was on a police [type] car…I think my nervousness or anxiety decreased when I knew that at least one of them was a legitimate cop.”
Having been an undercover investigator in Texas for several years when he was in his twenties, Flatten said he instinctively trusts law enforcement and believed that at the worse he was facing paying an attorney because he was operating in a legal gray area.
Flatten handed Officer 1 his rental agreement and his license. The first officer then handed them to Officer 2.
In a statement he wrote the evening of December 5 (read the entire document here) and included in his packet to various law enforcement agencies and government departments as he sought justice, he described what happened soon after he got out of the car. He wrote,
Officer 1 opened the hatchback to my rental and removed the box, and then closed the hatch. He did not touch anything else in my vehicle. Officer 1 set the box on the ground next to his front passenger tire and [knelt] down as he cut open the box with his knife…
[O]fficer 1 pulled three sealed bags from inside the box…
Officer 1 put the contents back into the box, he looked at me and said to [O]fficer 2, “Get a picture of his license…” as he quickly placed the box in the unmarked unit. Officer 2 took a picture of my drivers license, me, and the license plate on the rental car…Officer 2 [said], “We’re with the ATF. Marijuana is taking over in California, like cigarettes. You may get a letter from Washington.”…
He handed me my license and rental contract and said, “Have a nice day.” and they left me standing on the side of 101. They were gone heading northbound on 101 before I could walk back to my driver door. We were on the side of the road for less than 5 minutes.
They never ran my name to see if I was wanted nor did they search any other part of the vehicle, or my person.
After the unmarked vehicle left, Flatten said he needed to pause. He said he then drove south and stopped at a restaurant to gather his thoughts. “It probably took 45 minutes for me to calm down, to get a normal pulse, to be able to think straight,” he said. “By the time I left, I was pretty sure these were legitimate cops not doing legitimate work,” he said. Because the unmarked police-type vehicle had California Exempt License plates, Flatten said he believed that the two men were law enforcement. He told us they also seemed to have a working knowledge of police techniques including how Officer 1 physically controlled his movement. Flatten said that the man had been trained and was smooth and practiced in what he did.
However, he told us he was also sure they were behaving illegally. Flatten said he soon came to that conclusion for several reasons. “They never ran my name to see if I was wanted nor did they search any other part of the vehicle, or my person,” he explained which he says is standard practice. Nor, he said, did the officers ask to see his recommendation for medical marijuana that he told them he had in a backpack on the front seat of the SUV.
In addition, he said, “I never heard any police radio traffic and neither of the officers used their radios to communicate.”
Furthermore, he was never given a property receipt or voucher for the property seized from his vehicle which law enforcement is required to do.
Though Officer 2 allegedly told Flatten that the operation was with the ATF and though many of the agency’s operations are “carried out in conjunction with task forces made up of state and local law enforcement officers,” Flatten believes that local officers wouldn’t have been working alone on an ATF operation and federal officers wouldn’t have a California Exempt License plate.
That night, after he got a motel, he said he “carefully placed my rental car contract in an envelope to preserve any potential fingerprints from the two officers, as proof of my contact with them.”
Once he felt he understood that he had been the victim of corrupt police officers, he said he “went into investigative mode.” He said he began by documenting every detail of the stop he could remember. “I typed up a lot of information that I sent to an attorney,” he explained.
He also began searching the internet for images of law enforcement officers in Mendocino County that matched his memory of those who had pulled him over.
His search took him to Hopland Tribal Police. The picture on its homepage sent a shock of recognition through him, he told us later. “I was pretty certain that I had found Officer 1,” he explained.
He said he began investigating the officer and soon discovered that his name was Steve Hobb and that he had been hired as Police Chief in the fall of 2017 and he had been let go from his previous position as a police sergeant in Banning, California where he made over $120,000 per year plus benefits. (Hobb filed a suit against the city in 2016 and some sort of resolution occurred earlier this year.) The job in Hopland likely paid around half that, according to an advertisement placed Friday for a new Hopland Tribal Police Chief when Hobb left his position last week. He told us in an interview we did with him that he was going to “a real police job.”
Flatten said he became convinced that he was not the only victim. He said he felt it was likely there were other people who have had product or money taken from them who were afraid to step forward because the men who stole from them were police officers.
After struggling for a couple of days, Flatten said he eventually decided he couldn’t ignore what he believed to be police corruption and move on. He said he decided to report the incident. “When people have power like that and abuse it, that’s wrong,” he explained. He added that he worried that if they weren’t stopped, someone could be killed. In addition, he said felt that if the officers were corrupt here who knew if they had helped wrongly convict innocent people in other situations.
“It is not so much for me that I want it investigated,” he told us later. “This is really wrongdoing by people in authority. Somebody could get hurt. Not many people in this situation would come forward and maybe I am one of the few that will.”
On December 8, he called the Mendocino County District Attorney’s office and the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department. After not getting anyone willing to take a report and after not receiving return calls, Flatten said he contacted the FBI in San Antonio in person where he lives part-time and gave a statement.
Over the next six weeks, he made multiple calls and requests for help to various agencies. When he felt he had exhausted all avenues without anyone taking him seriously, he reached out to media and this reporter.
“These individuals robbed me on the side of the road and no one will investigate,” he told us. “[The Mendocino Sheriff’s Office says] they do not investigate other agencies and both [the FBI and the Attorney General’s Office] say that local law enforcement is responsible.”
Later, he told us, “I know what happened and it was wrong and it was criminal. And the public needs to know…It is very odd that someone from law enforcement doesn’t want to do something on an official level.”
We began reaching out to several people including Chief Hobb in an attempt to confirm Flatten’s story. For several days, we received no response to our inquiries. Meanwhile, FBI Agent Heinrich called Flatten. Flatten alleges in his statement (however, the FBI would not confirm this) that Heinrich said he had spoken to Hobb. Flatten’s statement alleges that Heinrich said that Hobb had told him “that the incident was part of a federal operation on tribal land but they were not looking to prosecute… .”
However, when we reached out again to Hopland Tribal Police Chief Hobb on February 2, he told us, “I adamantly deny any involvement in anything like that.” He said he would have been on duty that day but he said he would have been alone. He did say, “An FBI agent called me and I denied it” referring to being involved in pulling over Flatten and seizing three pounds of cannabis.
Since then we’ve reached out to the ATF, who then began an investigation into the incident. Flatten said that on February 8, an agent contacted him and in the course of talking with him confirmed that the incident that Flatten alleges occurred on December 5 was not an ATF operation. However, while the ATF has confirmed there was a call to Flatten and their agency is investigating the allegations, they would not confirm the content of the call.
In addition, on Thursday, February 8, Mendocino County Undersheriff Randy Johnson confirmed that his department is looking into the incident. “We opened an investigation,” he said. “We are in the early stages.”
He did say that his department hadn’t been conducting an operation in the area and, he said, he didn’t believe the ATF had notified his department that an operation was occurring. However, Johnson pointed out, “As far as I know, we weren’t notified…Sometimes the ATF lets us know stuff and sometimes they don’t. But oftentimes they tell us.”
He added, “If it was a legit stop, it appears things weren’t done in a manner that were consistent with a normal undercover operation.”
Johnson said that his department’s investigation could eventually lead to sending the rental agreement that Flatten said was handled by Officer 1 and Officer 2 in for processing for fingerprints. “We could send that document to have it developed,” he stated. “If we get readable prints, then we would compare them [to the officers Flatten believes responsible.]”
However, Johnson said, this could take some time. “Labs are backed up. It depends on how many [prints] they got..I don’t know how long it takes.”
Towards the end of the interview, Johnson acknowledged that Flatten was unusually persistent and passionate in his attempts to seek justice. “I know Zeke feels very wronged,” he said. “I’m not here to say he wasn’t.”
As for Flatten, he told us the robbery was bad but seeking justice has been extremely difficult, too. “It’s been just a nightmare,” he said. “It’s been extremely stressful going through the process…I keep questioning what is real. I feel like it is the Twilight Zone.”
But, according to Flatten, he’s determined to find out what happened to him and if it happened to others. “I want you to know I will pursue this until there is nothing left to pursue,” he said.
Note: At the request of the ATF, the name of the agent who had contacted Zeke Flatten has been removed. They were concerned for his safety.