Judge testifies about crucial search warrant signed outside Smith & Wollensky
Records show Officer David Salgado and Sgt. Xavier Elizondo — on trial this week in federal court — used that warrant to search what they believed to be a drug stash house on the West Side, records show. But prosecutors say the officers allegedly used a tipster who offered false information to secure the warrant.
Cook County Circuit Judge Mauricio Araujo didn’t exactly make it a habit to sign search warrants outside Smith & Wollensky in River North.
But Araujo happened to be at a dinner party at the swanky steakhouse on Dec. 19, 2017, when Officer David Salgado sent him a text message on his personal cell phone. So he agreed to step outside to meet with the officer just before 6 p.m.
When he did so, he signed a warrant that is now crucial in the federal trial of Salgado and Sgt. Xavier Elizondo, which began earlier this week at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. Araujo wound up telling his story on the witness stand Wednesday.
Elizondo and Salgado used that warrant to search what they believed to be a drug stash house on the West Side the next day, records show. But prosecutors say the officers used a tipster who offered false information to secure the warrant with hopes of divvying up what turned out to be $15,000 hidden in the building.
The FBI had planted the money, though. The ruse was part of a federal investigation that later led to charges against the officers, who are accused of using bogus search warrants to steal cash and drugs. The officers are charged with conspiracy to commit theft, a civil rights conspiracy and embezzlement, among other crimes.
The officers’ attorneys have denied the allegations, insisting they never took a dime.
Meanwhile, Araujo faces unrelated claims he made improper advances toward a female police officer and a female court reporter and demeaned a female prosecutor. Araujo was assigned to administrative duties after the first complaint surfaced. The allegations were mentioned briefly during Araujo’s testimony, but attorneys did not press for details.
In an earlier FBI interview, Araujo told authorities Salgado was “more than an acquaintance but not quite a friend,” according to a summary. Still, Araujo told the FBI he had attended the wake for Salgado’s mother, that he dropped by Salgado’s bachelor party in South America and he was invited to Salgado’s wedding.
On the witness stand Wednesday, Araujo testified that he was “friendly” with Salgado “but not friends.” And he insisted he was not doing a favor for Salgado by signing the warrant outside the steakhouse.
Rather, Araujo said he had no doubts about Salgado or Salgado’s informant. And he said he would not have signed the warrant had he thought they were lying.
Earlier Wednesday, jurors also heard from Jeffery Owens, the FBI informant who recorded conversations with the two officers. Owens acknowledged he’d made $71,000 over three years cooperating with the FBI.
Owens told the officers about the purported stash house in the 1400 block of North Maplewood, insisting that money had been hidden in a “cheap-a-- little hood” over the stove.
“I seen them up in the duct work,” Owens said.
The FBI had told Owens not to help the officers swear out a search warrant. So prosecutors say the officers wound up enlisting another tipster to get the search warrant from Araujo. During the ensuing Dec. 20, 2017, search, Elizondo spoke by phone to Owens when the officers couldn’t immediately find the money.
“Look, it’s in the ductwork above the stove man,” Owens said frantically on the recording. “I know for a fact it’s in there man. I watched him put it in there.”
But Elizondo told him, “This place is empty as f---.”
The officers eventually found the money — and surveillance cameras planted by the feds. In the end, the officers decided to inventory the money properly.
“Everything that we found, when you told us where it was at, it got inventoried, my man,” Elizondo later told Owens. “Nothing, not a penny went nowhere else. It went in, because we didn’t know what was up.”