By David Holbrook
San Ramon Valley Times
Four years ago, Alameda County prosecutors told jurors not to trust Gabriela Gomez when she told them how she accidentally drove her boyfriend's pickup into a group of children at an Oakland playground.
One child was killed and 10 injured when the 18-year-old swerved into Lossieland Preschool.
"She is willing to manipulate other people through her tears and through lies in order to deflect the attention from her," Deputy District Attorney Ronda Theisen said of Gomez then.
Now, it appears the former San Ramon woman will soon take the stand again. This time, it won't be to defend herself, but to help prosecutors. Court documents show that while Gomez's character was under
attack in court in 1996, federal and Oakland authorities were arranging for her to testify against an alleged hit man in a gruesome double-murder case.
Gomez's cooperation has since earned her a spot in the federal witness protection program where, according to court documents, she has received thousands of dollars in cash, escaped prosecution for other alleged crimes and dodged deportation.
Although Gomez was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and served a 15-month jail term in connection
with the incident at Lossieland, her participation in the witness protection program has helped her avoid paying court-ordered restitution. She has also been able to sidestep multimillion dollar lawsuits filed by the relatives of her victims.
"She never had to pay a thing," said Sheree Jenkins, mother of 2-year-oid Robert Turner, who was killed in the Lossieland crash. "We didn't even know where she went."
Federal authorities will neither confirm nor deny that Gomez is in what is officially known as the Federal Witness Security Program. But numerous court documents show Gomez entered the program immediately after she completed her jail stint for the Lossieland conviction.
Money, relocation assistance, identity makeovers and other provisions of the witness protection program are determined on a case-by-case basis, usually during negotiations with the witnesses or their attorneys, said Frank Hondanza, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service.
"We don't set them up for life," he said. "It generally lasts for two or three years. There's a monthly subsidy."
Bondanza said authorities notify witnesses or their attorneys if they are the subject of a lawsuit. "They're still responsible for their actions," he said.
Records show authorities have paid Gomez at least $6,000 in cash for moving costs, rent and household items such as a new bed, comforters and pillows. Gomez, an illegal immigrant, also avoided deportation to her native Mexico and criminal charges in connection with a shoplifting arrest in San Francisco after federal authorities intervened.
Since entering the witness protection program, Gomez has been arrested on suspicion of telephone fraud and writing bad checks, records show. However, she has failed to make court appearances in that case.
Federal authorities' interest in Gomez began with the slayings of two East Bay residents in the summer of 1996.
On the evening of July 11, Devon Chung, an alleged drug dealer from Jamaica, and Traci Carter, his girlfriend, were abducted from Chung's Oakland apartment. The couple's beaten and stabbed bodies were found the next day Chung's near Redwood City and Carter's at Stanford University.
Police believe Carter was an unintended victim. Nevertheless, her face bore repeated puncture marks that showed she had been tortured before her death.
Samuel Lee Johnson, an alleged hit man, was later arrested and charged with in the killings.
The evidence against Johnson, authorities say, includes weapons he purchased that were found at the abduction scene. Authorities also have testimony from Gomez, who told investigators that her boyfriend at the time, Antonio "Fat Tone" Deleon, hired Johnson to kill Chung, who she said was a rival drug dealer.
Gomez says that on the night of the killings, she and Deleon were awakened in their San Ramon apartment by a phone call from Johnson, who gave his boss a code phrase that the job was done; "Pop goes the weasel."
Gomez told police that Johnson was Deleon's regular hit man and bodyguard. She said Johnson often stopped by their San Ramon apartment to collect large cash payments, and once showed off a new silencer by firing rounds into phone books stacked in the fireplace.
The reputed drug turf war apparently didn't end with the killings of Chung and Carter. Two weeks later, Deleon was shot down in West Oakland. He was killed by at least two gunmen who pumped multiple rounds into him.
Gomez's account of Chung and Carter's killing hasn't always pointed to Johnson. In the first days of the case, she denied Johnson was involved and said the killer was a man with the street name "D."
Police reports show Gomez changed her story shortly before her October 1996 trial on manslaughter charges for the accident at Lossieland.
"At First all she said was. No, no, no, Sam didn't do it,'" said Kimberly Kupferer, one of Johnsonıs public defenders. "Then finally after all this pressing by the police, and right before her trial, she says Johnson did it."
While Gomez's changing story and criminal record might help Johnson's attorneys impeach her credibility at trial, the words of a prosecutor could be even more beneficial.
Theisen, the lead prosecutor in the Lossieland case, used words such as "lies" and "manipulation" to discredit Gomez's testimony in 1996.
Prosecutors in the Johnson case are expected to try to navy those comments suppressed.
"They're the ones who thought she was uncredible so it'd be hard for them to turn around now and say we can't bring that out," Kupferer said.