Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Lurid tale of drugs, guns, death and nepotism further stains Senate

Lynn Rasberry sat in the back row of a Sacramento courtroom listening to a lurid tale of alcohol, cocaine, guns, death and nepotism in the California state Senate, and found a measure of vindication.

Rasberry, a large and easygoing guy of 59, has gotten his blood pressure under control since he retired in 2010. He had worked 28 years for the Senate’s special services unit, which provides drivers to senators. He was the supervisor for the last five years of his tenure.

“I loved my job,” Rasberry said. “I would have stayed longer.”

For reasons he never fully understood, Rasberry felt harassed by Tony Beard, the chief sergeant at arms, not unlike an abused spouse.

Beard, who worked for 40 years for the Senate, fell hard. He quit this summer under pressure from Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, as my colleague, Laurel Rosenhall, reported about how one of Beard’s underlings, Gerardo Lopez, was high on cocaine when a gunfight erupted outside his home on a cul-de-sac off Greenhaven Drive early on Dec. 22, 2012. One man died.

Lopez is not on trial. He’s the victim, supposedly. Nor is Beard. He’s a peripheral character. But Senate culture very much was in the dock as defendants Frank Trevizo and Francisco Merjil took the stand last week to explain away their actions. They face robbery and kidnap charges.

The bad night began at Brownie’s Lounge, a neighborhood bar in South Land Park.

Lopez had bumped into Trevizo, a friend from their days at Kennedy High School, and invited him to Brownie’s, where a high school friend would be celebrating a birthday. It was the first of many mistakes.

Lopez, 35, and his wife, Jennifer Delao, who works for the Senate as a secretary, have three kids and live in a pleasant two-story home.

Trevizo has a felony record that includes gun and drug crimes. Hoping to impress his old friends, Trevizo showed up at the bar with a roll of nine $100 bills and bought a quarter-ounce of cocaine, he told the jurors.

The life of a party that ended in death, Trevizo bought rounds of drinks, shared his coke and tried to pick up one of the partygoers, a woman named Jessica Aguallo.

Lopez, the Senate sergeant and father of three, invited Trevizo to his home, along with Aguallo, Trevizo testified. It was well past midnight, another mistake.

Trevizo said he piled cocaine on one of Lopez’s dinner plates. When Lopez’s young son came downstairs to announce that the baby was awake at maybe 2 or 2:30 a.m., Lopez told his wife to hide the cocaine plate.

In his paranoid, drug-addled state, Trevizo concluded someone had stolen a $100 bill and he demanded it back. When they didn’t produce the bill, Trevizo called a friend, Joseph Merjil, Francisco Merjil’s older brother.

Trevizo testified he wanted Joseph Merjil to give him a ride home. The prosecutor says it was part of a home robbery scheme. Jurors will decide the truth.

Some time around 3 or 3:30 a.m., Joseph Merjil burst into Lopez’s home, wielding a handgun. His brother, Francisco Merjil, followed him. They both wore masks.

Trevizo testified that after the Merjil brothers arrived, he snorted another line of cocaine and hustled out the door, taking Aguallo with him, still hoping, he said, to persuade her to go with him to a motel. The prosecutor contends she was a kidnap victim.

Lopez grabbed his gun, followed and started shooting. By the time the lead stopped flying, Joseph Merjil was dead in the cul-de-sac gutter. Francisco Merjil, Aguallo and the Senate sergeant had been wounded. Authorities concluded Lopez acted in self-defense.

A friend of the Merjils, who had accompanied them to Lopez’s cul-de-sac, pulled Francisco into his truck and dumped him outside the Kaiser emergency room in south Sacramento.

Trevizo drove off with Aguallo, dropped her at the doorstep of a stranger’s home nearby, and fled. Why he didn’t stay with her? “I’m a convicted felon. I’m drunk. I’m coked out. … Just been in a gunfight.” How gallant.

Lopez is the son of Dina Hidalgo, who until recently was in charge of Senate human resources. As Rosenhall has documented, other sergeants worried Lopez ran with an outlaw crowd, and thought he came to work high, was a thief, and skipped work on Mondays and Fridays.

Where could the other sergeants turn? Not Hidalgo, the head of HR, and not Beard, Lopez’s direct boss and Hidalgo’s friend. They protected Lopez, until they couldn’t.

Hidalgo resigned last week, after 25 years working for the Senate, with an $85,400 settlement. She agreed not to sue, and Democrats who control the Senate agreed not to release a report detailing nepotism in the Senate. Among the problems with one-party rule, Republicans are powerless to force its release.

True to its word, Senate leadership sent attorneys to Judge Curtis Fiorini’s courtroom trying to block defense attorneys’ efforts to pry out exculpatory details from the Senate’s secret investigation. Due process is, after all, important to Democrats.

Nepotism is hardly new. It became corrosive when insiders came to believe the Senate was their fiefdom, and term-limited senators became uninterested in the institution’s operations, preferring instead to get attention by passing measures to control guns, educate young children, and regulate drugs and alcohol.

Beard had expected to be called to the witness stand, though his testimony was delayed. At the end of the day, as he waited for an elevator, Rasberry walked up. It was the first time they had seen one another since Rasberry retired.

“Hey, Tony,” Rasberry said. Beard stared straight ahead, as if no one was there. “I guess you have no comment,” Rasberry said.

Down the hall from where Beard had been sitting, four other sergeants waited to testify. When Rasberry walked up, they greeted him warmly with hugs and handshakes.

Rasberry got quite a send-off when he retired in 2010. Senators took to the floor to thank him for his service. A few days later, he had a private retirement party. Former Senate President Pro Tem John Burton honored him by driving over from San Francisco to attend. Beard was a no-show.

Beard got no ceremony when he left. Neither will Hidalgo. Nor will the two senators who were indicted this year on corruption charges, or the third who resigned after being sentenced to three months in jail for perjury. Maybe now the boil has burst and the culture will change – maybe.