Prosecuting a SF repeat offender: How 1st bait car arrest gets out of jail again and again

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Thursday, November 23, 2023
How SF's 1st bait car arrest gets out of jail again and again
The first man arrested under the latest bait car campaign has a long criminal record, including that crazy night in 2022.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The I-Team has obtained exclusive crime scene photos showing the aftermath of a wild ride through San Francisco's North Beach. This case from April 2022 involves the same person, who is now the first suspect arrested under the SFPD's new bait car campaign.

"We try really hard to catch people doing, you know, these car break-ins," San Francisco Police Officer Riley Bandy told the ABC7 I-Team. "This is the scourge of the city."

Bandy got injured trying to stop a car burglar.

The first man arrested under the latest bait car campaign has a long criminal record, including that crazy night in 2022. When we first told the story last month, some viewers asked us for more information: How this defendant was able to get back on the streets so quickly after such a serious incident?

RELATED: 1st arrest made in bait car campaign, SFPD's renewed effort to prevent vehicle break-ins

SFPD made its first arrest during its bait car campaign to prevent vehicle break-ins: 26-year-old Robert Sonza.

We first look at a crime scene that spanned several blocks in San Francisco's North Beach. It didn't receive much media coverage. After 9:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night in April 2022, police spotted a stolen SUV used in multiple car break-ins that day.

"The police sort of trapped him," said North Beach resident Patrick Rylee. "This is a one way street. They trapped him down there."

Police had the suspect, 24-year-old Robert Sonza, in a dead-end on Union Street past Montgomery, but he rammed the SUV into a patrol car, and sped away. He took out a garage on Alta Street, sideswiped cars and returned to the intersection where Bandy had just pulled up, getting out of his patrol car.

MORE: Car break-in victim tracks stolen camera and gear to SF, gets surprising response from police

RILEY BANDY: "He just headed right straight for my car and tried to run me over, so I had to jump back into my car to avoid getting killed."

DAN NOYES: "He was aiming for you."


DAN NOYES: "For your body?"

RILEY BANDY: "Oh, yeah. So, I had to jump back in, and he slammed right into my car. And if I waited a second more, I'd have been dead. So, and then, he did it again. I was trying to get out the car. Same thing. He backed up, did it again."

Bandy left by ambulance, and says he still feels the effects of the back injury he suffered that night. Next, Sonza drove onto the sidewalk, hit this staircase, took out a Vespa, made it to Columbus and Broadway where he slammed into a civilian's car injuring him. Sonza ran from that scene, officers finally catching him a few blocks away in Chinatown.

MORE: After 15,000 car break-ins so far in 2023, SF leaders brainstorm ways to end epidemic

Officer Bandy tells us, "He victimized a lot of people that day, wasn't just me."

At first, prosecutors charged Sonza with several counts of "Assault upon a peace officer with a deadly weapon," "Hit and run," "Evading an officer with willful disregard," "Leaving the scene of an accident," "Resisting arrest" and a misdemeanor, "Possession of burglar tools."

In a plea deal, all the charges got dismissed, except a single count of "Evading an officer".

"I was really surprised to know that they, that they really dropped, you know, almost everything," Bandy said.

That court proceeding also included an incident from February 2nd of last year. Police responded to the Japantown Garage for a report of an auto burglary. Officers tried to detain Sonza as the suspect, but he fled -- got in his car, ran over an officer's foot, and hit a parked car.

MORE: Tourist's car burglarized near where SFPD announced new tact to crack down on car break-ins

That case brought nine more charges, including "Assault upon a peace officer," "Burglary of a vehicle," "Hit and run," and "Resisting arrest."

We wanted to find out why all those charges were dropped -- except for a single "Evading" -- in two incidents that injured officers and a civilian, and did all that damage to homes and cars.

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins discussed the case with us, saying, "I certainly don't want to see any officer injured while doing their job."

But through their offices, the public defender, Sylvia Nguyen; the prosecutor on the case, Farrah Zarea; and the judge, Linda Colfax, declined my requests for an interview.

The hearing transcripts show that the probation department did not agree with their plea deal that would let Robert Sonza avoid prison time by participating in a residential program: "Probation instead recommended that he be sentenced to serve his time in prison."

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Video shows thieves breaking into three cars in less than two minutes near Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.

Still, Sonza got out with time served -- a little over six months in jail.

DAN NOYES: "How did that happen? Is that a good outcome, do you think?"

BROOKE JENKINS: "So, I have looked at that case briefly. I was left with concern about that plea. It is not something that on its face, I believe, I would have done."

This case began under former prosecutor Chesa Boudin, before his recall, but it wrapped up in the early months of Brooke Jenkins' administration.

"There was a culture that had been established here by the prior administration of very lenient plea offers," Jenkins said. "And it takes time to sort of correct course, to have lawyers understand the true value of a case, the true public safety risks that certain people pose."

MORE: SF business owner hands out 'do not break into this car' signs to protect customers

Sonza got arrested again Sept. 1. He's accused of breaking into a bait car and taking "Burberry Bags belonging to San Francisco Police Department." On the same day, he was also charged with breaking into two rental cars, including one with out-of-state plates at a parking lot along the Embarcadero.

Linda and Dan Oldiges lost cash, a $1,200 iPad, and a $3,500 laptop.

DAN NOYES: "Does it mean anything at all that the police were able to catch your guy with their bait car? It worked. I mean, their law enforcement technique worked."

DAN OLDIGES: "Well, it does. But then, you know, let's see what happens to this guy. Because, you know, it wasn't his first rodeo. You know, it's a professional job. What are they going to do? Slap them on the wrist and let them out in a couple months?"

INTERACTIVE: Take a look at the ABC7 Neighborhood Safety Tracker

One other twist in this case: the court asked Officer Bandy to write a victim impact statement that he read for us.

"'I request leniency be granted to Mr. Sonza and that the charges be dropped,' I said. 'Mercy always triumphs against judgment. Let us end 2022 with mercy and forgiveness and grant Mr. Sonza his freedom.'"

There is no indication from the transcripts that the judge considered Bandy's statement, or even read it.

"Between him and I, there's forgiveness, you know," Bandy said. "I had no idea that he would go out and do it immediately again as soon as he got out. That's the Bay Area for you, though. These crimes happen so often."

Sonza has a trial date at the end of December. It will probably push into the new year. In the meantime, he remains in San Francisco County jail.

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