EXCLUSIVE: Santa Clara County Sheriff faces questions about 'delayed' arrest of child molester

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A shocking allegation is coming from within the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office -- that top brass delayed the arrest of a suspected child molester for days, so they could get better media coverage.

You don't have to be an expert to see the potential danger here. A detective who worked the case feels so strongly that delaying the arrest was wrong, he's speaking out.

Chad Zitzner, 45, of San Jose will be arraigned on three felony counts this coming Monday. The teacher from Broadway High School is accused of molesting a 12-year-old girl at math camp last summer.

"He was also associated with a little league team, so he was around children constantly," said Santa Clara County Sheriff's Detective Matt Peyton, who was the primary investigating officer on the case.

He told the ABC7 News I-Team that Zitzner knew he was under investigation before the arrest, so Peyton considered him a flight risk.

"There were several things that were running through my mind as potential hazards and the desire for me to pick him up immediately was very strong," Peyton said.

Peyton tells me he was outraged and didn't hide his feelings about the decision, even though he thought it came from Sheriff Laurie Smith herself.

"I think it came from the sheriff, I know for a fact that she was already aware of my investigation previously because the school district was involved," Peyton added.

Bob Powell is Peyton's attorney. "To put the priority of having a good press day and I know the election is coming, it's unfathomable, it's despicable," he said. "I mean there's no excuse for what happened here in my opinion."

ABC7 News contacted Sheriff Smith's spokesman to arrange an interview, but received an email, "The assertions made regarding this investigation are patently false...the interview request is denied so as to not give any additional credence to this outlandish allegation."

So, the I-Team's Dan Noyes found the sheriff at her reelection campaign event.

Dan Noyes: "I'm reporting on a complaint from a detective of yours that your office delayed the arrest of a suspected child molester for media purposes."
Laurie Smith: "No, that's already been looked at. I think that we communicated with your channel."
Noyes: "It's not true?"
Smith: "No."
Noyes: "Okay, well this detective is on the record, on camera. He shows me some texts as well that say it's true."
Smith: "It's not."

Detective Peyton provided text messages from the arrest team that Friday morning. They request photos of the suspect, and answer at 8:17 a.m., "Got them, thanks."

Less than an hour later comes word, the arrest is "Off till Monday. Sorry, not my call."

Peyton fired off this email to his supervisors later that day: "I feel it would be negligent to leave a child molester free for any amount of time, and for any reason. I understand entirely the desire for positive press, but I do not feel that justifies withholding action."

Zitzner's arrest finally came that Tuesday. It received wide media coverage.

"There are reasons sometimes to delay serving an arrest warrant, but media attention would not be one of them," Former San Francisco Police Commander Rich Corriea, who headed the sex crimes unit. He's now a professor and co-chair of the USF Law Enforcement Leadership Advisory.

"If it's that straightforward that someone said, 'Let's wait for a better press cycle,' then that's wrong and it's not acceptable and someone should be answering for that," Corriea told ABC7 News.

Matt Peyton told Dan Noyes he has faced bullying and retaliation for complaining about the delay in the Zitzner arrest... and for publicly supporting John Hirokawa, Sheriff Smith's challenger in the upcoming election.

Peyton's now on paid administrative leave, his lawyer says, for trying to document the treatment he received.

"He is on paid administrative leave for allegations that he improperly recorded a conversation with a superior officer and that's the full extent of it," said Powell.

Peyton says speaking out now has nothing to do with politics.

The department would not address Peyton's status, saying it's a personnel issue.

Click here for more stories, photos, and video from recent I-Team investigations.
Copyright © 2022 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.