Thursday, January 22, 2009

America Week #2: Fajita Gate

This story isn't nearly as funny as yesterday's, but it still involves public drunken fighting.

Story #2: Fajita Gate

Novemeber 22, 2002
San Francisco, California

Jade Santoro had spent most of his night drinking at The Bus Stop, a Union Street watering hole whose biggest draw is its free popcorn. At some point, he decided he wanted more than free popcorn, and walked a few blocks down the street the Blue Light, a bar remarkably similar to the Bus Stop except for the fact they serve food there and that it’s owned by Boz fucking Skaggs. His friend Adam Snyder was working there that night. Snyder, knowing he would be hungry later, ordered chicken fajitas from the kitchen, and set them down for later. Santoro drank with his friend and stayed to help Snyder close it down.

Meanwhile three off duty police officers, Matthew Tonsing, David Lee, and Alex Fagan Jr. had arrived at the Bus Stop. Fagan's father, Alex Fagan Sr. had been promoted to assistant chief of the police department, and they had spent all night celebrating. They decided to end their evening at the Bus Stop. The three cops drank until closing time and then lingered around in front of the bar drinking some more.

Santoro, Snyder, and the box with the fajita had left the Blue Light and passed by the Bus Stop on their way to Snyder's car. One of the cops identified the take out box as a food carrying device and demanded Snyder give him his food. Snyder flat out refused. The cops had some words and Santoro steeped in to defend his friend saying. "It's his food, leave him alone."

All hell broke loose. The off-duty officers converged and beat the two mean into submission. After cuts, bruises, concussions and a broken nose, not to mention a ruined fajita ("I went and picked up my fajitas that had slid over to the side of the street, and at that point it was kind of a lost cause, so I threw them away.") 9-11 was called. Fajitagate had begun.

When the police arrived on the scene, Snyder and Santoro identified the three off duty cops immediately. The police detained the three officers and the question of whether or not these cops receieved preferntial treatment--the central issue behind fajita gate--began. The arresting officers allowed off duty cops to change clothes, talk to each other, and even waited a few hours before giving them a blood alchool test. That being said, they didn’t squash the case. They spoke with the officers involved and had them contact their union representatives.

What most people don't know, what makes this story so strange is that the San Fransisco Police Department has always had a reputation for being a very mellow, laid back department. Unlike the LAPD, the SFPD never had a reputation for violence, corruption, or even brutality. In fact if anything, the department fails the other way. Terence Hallinan, S.F's D.A. at the time felt strongly the department did a poor, lazy job at investigating its cases. He wanted the department to be more aggressive and had openly challenged both its will, desire, and ability to investigate cases aggressively.

Thing was, Hallinan came from a bizarre, only in California type of family. His dad was a civil-rights attorney and hard-core leftist that ran once ran for President. As a kid, he would get into fights all the time, so much his nickname was KO. His family home was constantly vandalized with hammer and sickle graffiti. By the time he became an attorney he had been arrested so many times for fighting and various forms public protest he was nearly not allowed into the California Bar Association until future mayor spoke on his behalf. He went on to represent Angela Davis and all types of local radicals, drug dealers, and anyone who no one else would defend. It seems safe to say that only in a city like San Fransisco would a guy with this type of background have the chutzpah to run for D.A, let alone win.

So here's a guy who grew up fighting for people to get out of jail, and now, he’s become became part of the system that puts people into jail. But he’s still stuck in a fight the system mentaility that he’s butting heads with the police department every chance he gets.

Now, even though the SFPD were seen as laid back and possibly weak, there had always been a small, rag-tag group of "cowboy cops" that tended to take matters into their own hands. In 1970's, inspired by Dirty Harry, a group of SF drug cops decided they were gonna to go out into the streets and hit dudes in the mouth Mike Singletary style. Alex Fagan Sr. the man just promoted to assistant chief of police, was more or less the founder of that movement. And the apple didn't fall far from the tree. His son Alex Jr, with only one year on the force before the incident outside The Bus Stop, had used force 16 times, sending 6 suspects to the hospital.

But all this was lost. All the evidence that came Hallinan's way pointed towards a drunken bar fight. And even though everyone was drunk, the fight was over a fajita, and it took place outside a bar, Hallinan didn’t see it as a barfight. He was sure the department was hiding something. And even though the department was willing to have the three officers plead guilty and not fight the case, Hallinan wanted more, he didn't want three out of control cops, he wanted to bring down the whole department. And so he began to prepare a case alleging a massive frame up and cover up job.

Earl Sanders, the city's first black Chief felt very strongly all that had happened was a drunken fight. " From the experience of forty years, everything that I'd seen is that this was the happenstance meeting of five young men who got into a fistfight at two-thirty in the morning. I read the police report. There was no indication that there was anything awry with the investigation." That quote so enraged Hallinan and convinced him of a massive conspiracy that he began a grand jury investigation the file of which ran over 500 pages.

He called 43 witnesses to testify including but not limited to the cook at the Blue Light whose recpipe was called into question, "I put meat, and, after two or three minutes, put bell peppers, green peppers, and onions, and then I just took tortillas, flour tortillas, and I put in the white container and that's it."

After a exhaustive investigation, Hallinan asked the jury to for indictments against the three off-duty cops for beating up Snyder and Santoro. Here’s the weird part, for the obstruction of justice charges, they simply read the jury the law on conspiracy, and gave the jurors a blank indictment form and told them to write in the name of any officer they felt was guilty of these charges. The jury came back with indictments for the six highest-ranking officers in the department, including assistant chief Alex Fagan and Chief Earl Sanders.

Never in American history has the entire command structure of a police department been decimated. Sanders decided to hand himself in but first needed a replacement. He called Fagan, but found he'd been indicted, and more or less worked his way down the chain of command, only to find every single suitable replacement had been indicted as well. He finally found Heather Wong, the deputy chief of administration to run the department. (Coincidentally, this allowed Mayor Willie Brown to relish in the fact that during his term, he appointed the city's first Asian, black, and female Police Chief.)

Earl Sanders had always been seen as a hero in the black community. A long time champion of civil rights and a career policeman on the force, he climbed his way up to the top of the department. When he first started, the SFPD was still an all Irish institution, but he was able to earn enough respect for doing quality police work to gain acceptance. His rise through the department was an inspiration to every black cop and everyone else for the matter. Furthermore, he didn't play political games, his relationship with the mayor was no more than decent, and it was accepted throughout the city he got his job through hard work, not politics and patronage.

His arrest was nothing less than an outrage among the city's black policemen. During his booking, every officer sat there and refused to fingerprint him. According to Sanders I finally "turned over my collar with the four stars and said, 'Sergeant, do your job.' "

Sanders and the other officers all decided to take an unpaid leave of absence until things could get sorted out. Hallinan meanwhile was shocked at how high up the indictments went. He studied the testimony and discovered Sanders name had only been mentioned twice. Two weeks later, he went before a judge and asked the charges to be dropped against Sanders and Fagan. He still wanted to proceed with conspiracy charges against five other senior officers and a felony assault case against Fagan Jr.

It didn't go to far. His case against the five officers was thrown out by a judge who asked, "Where was the wink? Where was the nod? Where was the agreement?"

Fagan and another off-duty cop were eventually found not guilty in 2004 but were found liable in a civil case in 2007. Fagan was fired after failing a police examination.

Mayor Willie Brown served out the rest of his term and retired from politics.

Earl Sanders retired early due to fajitagate-related stress. In 2007, the US Supreme court turned down an appeal in his lawsuit alleging he had been maliciously prosecuted.

Terence Hallinan lost his reelection campaign and now is a spokesman for NORM.L


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11/22/09, 11:57 PM  
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