Cops vs. Cops

Can a credible case be built against errant cops if the witnesses are involved in the drug trade?

San Francisco Police Officer Gary Fagundes was in the process of arresting Julia Gonzalez on drug charges last April 28 at North Beach's Broadway Hotel when he was interrupted by the hotel manager. There's someone in the room next door, the manager told him, and it looks like they're doing a dope deal.

Fagundes rushed to the room and demanded admittance: When the door opened, Fagundes discovered three of his fellow SFPD officers videotaping the room in which he was trying to arrest Gonzalez.

The object of the cops' surveillance was not Gonzalez, who was not booked. It was Fagundes.

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The cops-chasing-cops action culminated in criminal indictments against Fagundes and Officers Steven Landi and James Acevedo, who were charged on Sept. 28 with multiple counts of theft and grand theft. District Attorney Arlo Smith and Police Chief Anthony Ribera held a joint press conference that day, with Smith saying the case made him feel as if "the whole system is under attack" and Ribera saying it made him ill.

Some or all of the officers charged may be guilty. But a review of the indictment, court files on earlier cases, and interviews with the principal players reveal a prosecution that is long on shadow, woefully short on corroboration, and extraordinarily dependent on a number of known drug dealers to make its case in court.

Landi -- the first of the three indictees to tell his side of the story -- contends that the indictment is a desperate attempt by Inspector Steve Gudelj of SFPD's Special Investigations Division (SID) to justify the 18 months and thousands of dollars of overtime spent on the investigation. (Ribera declined to comment on the investigation.)

In all, there are 16 accusers -- many of them self-admitted drug dealers -- who claim that the charged officers stole money or other personal effects from them during drug enforcement investigations. The officers have pleaded not guilty and deny they stole anything.

The roots of the investigation can be traced to the fall of 1993, just after SFPD Capt. John Willet was appointed commander of the Central Station. Capt. Willet says that he was deluged with complaints about crack dealing along the 700 and 800 blocks of Geary Street, between Hyde and Larkin, and that he instructed Sgt. John Velasquez to select five officers to work as a team and make cases against the street dealers infesting the area. Velasquez selected officers with previous experience in working undercover drug cases. They included Officers Fagundes, Landi, and Acevedo, along with Officers Alane Baca and Robert Lynch. (Baca and Lynch have not been charged with any wrongdoing.)

Although that stretch of Geary is home to middle-class apartment dwellers, life on the street level attracts drug-trade spillover from the Tenderloin. Retail vacancies abound in the two blocks, which are home to six bars, three hotels, and five liquor stores, including one that cashes checks. Police also say that dealers enjoy quick and convenient transportation thanks to the De Soto taxi company, which operates in the neighborhood. Drugs are still so readily available on Geary that on one recent weekday morning drug dealers tripped over one another in attempts to make sales.

It wasn't long before Sgt. Velasquez's officers began investigating other drug sale venues. Fagundes and Landi paid particular attention to methamphetamine dealers -- "speeders," in the cops' parlance -- along the Polk Street corridor, near Post and Leavenworth, and deeper into North Beach. Working mostly in plainclothes, Velasquez's team operated the same way the department's downtown drug unit does -- making small buys, arresting the seller, then pressuring the small seller to name the names of his suppliers and working up the chain to the larger supplier.

This is textbook drug enforcement procedure, predicated on confrontation, threats, and intimidation, but balanced by leniency for cooperation. While the technique generally produces results, it also creates resentment among the accused and inevitably leads to complaints about theft, the planting of evidence, and, occasionally, beatings -- some of the very charges against Fagundes, Landi, and Acevedo.

According to Capt. Willet, throughout 1994 Velasquez's team arrested "four or five" drug dealers a week along the Geary Street corridor. Landi says that if you include drug arrests outside the corridor, Velasquez's team averaged 40 drug arrests per month. This means that the officers busted many more than the 16 who eventually accused the police of stealing from them, and in turn raises this question: If Fagundes et al. stole from the 16, did they also steal from the scores of others they arrested? And if they didn't, should we believe the 16 who say the cops did?

Exactly when the complaints about Fagundes originated is unclear, but Landi believes that suspicions about Fagundes were raised when federal drug agents -- running a separate cocaine investigation in North Beach -- inserted a hidden microphone in the women's restroom at the Portofino Cafe on Columbus Avenue. According to Landi, the microphone recorded several male dealers -- who frequented the women's room to minimize interruptions -- griping about Fagundes and exchanging rumors that he had been stealing from dealers. These reports were forwarded to Police Chief Ribera, according to both Willet and Landi.

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