Veteran Oakland homicide investigator surrenders; arrested on perjury, threatening witness charges

A veteran Oakland police homicide investigator accused of lying and paying off a witness years ago in a murder case surrendered Tuesday evening and was booked on charges of felony perjury, threatening a witness, bribery and other allegations. 

Phong Tran, 45, surrendered at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin at about 7:45 p.m. and was formally booked 45 minutes later. He is being held without bail pending his arraignment Wednesday morning in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland.

Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price announced in a video statement that at least 125 other cases involving Tran will have to be investigated "to see if we have wrongfully convicted anyone else."

"Lying and manipulating a witness are serious violations of the public trust and a threat to the integrity of the judicial system," Price said. "When the integrity of a conviction is at issue in one case, it raises questions in every other case that the detective has investigated."

Tran allegedly bribed a woman to fabricate testimony that she witnessed a murder in 2011, according to court documents. Tran also testified that he did not know the supposed witness, although the woman would later claim she had been a casual informant for Tran before testifying in the murder case. 

KTVU first broke the news of the arrest warrant issued on Monday, which is linked to what happened after a KTVU broadcast a decade ago. 

The news outlet Oaklandside first reported in March that two men's convictions in the 2012 murder trial of Charles Butler Jr. were overturned after a witness recanted her testimony and accused Tran of paying her before the trial. 

Manipulating a murder case

Butler was shot and killed on Dec. 22, 2011 in Oakland. No suspects were identified, but "various witness statements tentatively implicated Cartier Hunter and Giovante Douglas," court documents state. 

In 2013, KTVU broadcasted an interview with Butler's father, Charles Butler Sr., in which he asked anyone with information regarding his son's death to come forward. 

During the trial, Tran testified that Aisha Weber, the witness who recanted her testimony, contacted the police shortly after the interview with Butler's father aired. 

Tran said this was the first time he had "any contact" with the witness. Tran also claimed Weber "'did not get paid' or ‘get a dime’ of any reward money at the time of their interview," court documents show. 

However, on May 16, 2021, Weber signed a declaration admitting that she lied during her 2013 interview with Tran and while testifying during the trial. 

"She admitted she witnessed neither the shooting nor the people responsible for it," documents state. "She admitted she spoke to Officer Tran about the Butler murder multiple times, in 2012 and 2013, prior to her recorded police interview." 

Weber went on to admit that she first met Tran in 2011 during an unrelated incident in which she was shot in her arm. This meeting led to an "informal community-informant relationship" with Tran in which she provided background information on a number of incidents over the years. 

Officer alters story

According to court documents, Tran also changed his story in 2022 and admitted that he first met Weber in 2011 shortly after she was shot, seemingly contradicting his court testimony. 

He also admitted that he "periodically provided money to Ms. Weber" before and after her court testimonies, records show. "He denied, however, providing any money to Ms. Weber prior to her recorded interview in September 2013."

Oakland police officer Phong Tran, shown here in a 2013 KTVU interview, must surrender to face charges filed by the Alameda County district attorney that accuse him of perjury, threatening a witness and other crimes. 

In a letter to the DA's office, Tran stated that he "sometimes provided his own money… to assist Ms. Weber during challenging times." Tran said he arranged a lunch meeting between Weber and the Butler family "to solidify her cooperation in the investigation," court files claim.

Weber, however, put it more bluntly. She said she was paid for false statements. 

"She explained she told Officer Tran prior to her recorded interview that she did not actually witness Mr. Butler's murder," records state. "Officer Tran contacted her in September 2013 and promised her money in exchange for providing a statement claiming to be a percipient witness. She said Officer Tran provided her with specific details about the murder, including but not limited to the identity of the suspects, prior to recording her statement."

Court documents also show prosecutors believe Tran pressured another witness to identify a suspect in Butler's murder. 

"[Tran] told her that he could ‘help’ her son, who was at the time in custody facing robbery charges, if she would ‘help’ him make a positive identification," court records state. The witness stood by her original story, stating that she did not see the suspect's face and therefore could not identify the suspect. 

Tran denies charges

An attorney for Tran vehemently denied the accusations while slamming Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price.

"The DA treats murderers like heroes, looking for every possible excuse to keep them out of jail. Yet, real heroes such as Oakland Homicide Detective Tran – who has dedicated and risked his life to try to keep the city safe – are treated like criminals," said Andrew M. Ganz, the lawyer representing Officer Tran. "He is being prosecuted for having the audacity to investigate, arrest and bring to justice the killers who terrorize Oakland. These charges are baseless and should gravely concern every Alameda County resident that desires a truly equitable criminal justice system."

Though it acknowledged the existence of the arrest warrant, OPD referred all comments and questions to the District Attorney.

Impact on other cases, opening old wounds

Tran worked on hundreds of cases in the past decade and the legitimacy of those cases could be called into question, said Bill Hing, a law professor at the University of San Francisco.

"There's a very good likelihood that other cases will be dropped as well," Hing told KTVU. "It depends on what this officer did on the various homicide cases. If his investigations involved coercion and bribery on a regular basis, well those cases are going to be dismissed."

In a statement, Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods said he is not surprised to hear the news about Tran. 

"We have been sounding the alarm in court and to the previous District Attorney administration for years about Det. Tran and other police misconduct," Woods said. "DA Price’s office immediately took action to the issues we raised. The District Attorney also needs to review past convictions, as well as current matters pending in court involving Det. Tran."

Butler's family was more than upset to hear the news.

The overturned convictions have "reopened old wounds," Ann Butler, sister of Charles Butler, told KTVU. Late last year, Ann and her mother visited the Alameda County DA's office where they were told the men convicted of Charles's murder would be released from prison.

"I can't understand how my mom feels, I will never understand the pain she feels, losing her son," she said. "It makes me angry that those men are just out living their lives. They shouldn't be able to do that."

Ann Butler also said that she distrusted Tran since the start of the investigation.

"The way he would constantly come over to my parent's house, saying he just happened to be in the neighborhood," she said, "I didn't feel like that was genuine."