Federal prosecutors in Sacramento have spent years targeting suspects selling rifles and automatic weapons illegally, and on Sept. 19 they filed a criminal complaint against four men charging them with conspiracy to deal firearms without a license and to transfer a machine gun.
The case stemmed from an undercover operation in which the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spent more than $138,000 to buy 45 firearms and devices used to build “ghost guns,” untraceable assault-style rifles, according to an affidavit from ATF Special Agent Matthew C. Ryckman.
Then, three weeks later, prosecutors asked U.S. Magistrate Kendall J. Newman to dismiss the charges and close the case “in the interests of justice.”
No further explanation was given, and the case, which has become known to Sacramento-area lawyers as “the Caldwell case” because of the names of two defendants, was ordered closed on Oct. 5.
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Now, federal sources confirm the case was dropped because of allegations against Ryckman in a corruption probe into activities of officers in the Baltimore Police Department, where Ryckman, 32, spent eight years as a patrol officer, SWAT team member and detective.
Ryckman, who could not be reached for comment, has not been charged with any wrongdoing and is not suspected of any improper behavior while an ATF agent in California, a source said.
But the Baltimore Sun, as part of an ongoing investigation into police corruption there, reported Thursday that Ryckman worked in a squad with another officer in Baltimore who has admitted to drug dealing, robberies and other crimes and is serving a 25-year sentence.
A law enforcement source said prosecutors and FBI agents from Baltimore interviewed Ryckman in Sacramento weeks ago and now are investigating his activities in Maryland.
The allegations against him in the Baltimore case led the U.S. Attorney’s in Sacramento to dismiss the gun case he spearheaded here, a source said, one of five cases in California affected by his involvement.
The remaining four cases were reviewed and prosecutors decided they could proceed because Ryckman’s involvement was not as extensive as in the one that was dismissed, one law enforcement source told The Bee.
Federal prosecutors notified defense attorneys in those cases of the issue, the source added, and they are now looking into Ryckman’s involvement with their clients.
“We are appalled that someone like this could make his way onto ATF,” First Assistant Federal Defender Ben Galloway told The Bee Friday. “The Caldwell case is one of at least five in the district involving Ryckman.
“We are working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and independently, to ensure his role in each case is fully understood, and we will seek corrective action where appropriate.”
Another defense attorney who represented a defendant in the Caldwell case said prosecutors never told him why they suddenly decided to drop the case.
“Once my guy got dismissed I didn’t even care,” attorney Mike Hansen said. “My immediate thought was, it’s a bad cop, not that that happens very often. It’s certainly never happened to me before.”
Ryckman is no longer with the ATF, and a spokeswoman with the agency’s San Francisco field office declined to provide any details about his departure.
“Matthew Ryckman was an ATF employee from August 21, 2016, to September 27, 2018,” the agency said in an email. “He was a Special Agent under the direction of the San Francisco Field Division.”
But the Baltimore Sun, in a story published online Thursday, reported that Ryckman has been accused of lying in police reports and stealing money. The Sun also reported that Ryckman declined to comment.
A source told The Bee that Ryckman told the FBI he had been involved in falsifying reports while in Baltimore, but emphasized that no such activities occurred while he worked cases in California and that authorities in Sacramento learned of the Baltimore allegations from federal agents based there.
McGregor Scott, the U.S. attorney for the Sacramento-based Eastern District of California, confirmed that his office investigated Ryckman’s activities closely.
“We take our ethical duties as prosecutors to protect the sanctity of the criminal justice system with the utmost seriousness,” Scott said. “Because of questions that were raised about Mr. Ryckman’s credibility based on events which took place in Baltimore, we proactively dismissed the Caldwell matter.
“We have done a thorough review to ensure ourselves that no similar misconduct took place while he was working as an ATF agent in the Eastern District of California.”
To date, the Baltimore scandal has led to the convictions of eight officers in racketeering cases, The Sun reported. Two federal cases there in which Ryckman was the arresting officer have been reactivated, according to The Sun, which reported that Ryckman was the arresting officer in 300 cases that proceeded to court.