Portrait of the Soul-Jacker

Police call Bernard Temple the meanest hit man ever to roam the gang-infested streets of Bayview-Hunters Point. Temple calls himself a soul-jacker -- someone who kills to steal the spiritual power of his victims.

The arrest capped a six-month investigation by the Bay Area arm of the new federal Violent Gang Task Force. A Department of Justice invention that started forming on paper in the waning days of the Bush administration, the task force was resuscitated by Attorney General Janet Reno and launched in 1994 during a nationwide teleconference with the nation's top law enforcement officials.

The Temple case is the first state court prosecution to come out of the Bay Area portion of the task force, which joins local police and district attorneys with the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Several San Francisco police officers have been cross-sworn as federal agents, so they can participate in the task force.

Led by FBI Special Agent Thomas J. LaFreniere, federal agents and police officers have rattled cages all over Bayview-Hunters Point, pressuring drug dealers and gangbangers to "turn" and snitch against their associates and running undercover investigations of suspected drug dealers. The full-court press on gangs is founded on the fairly reasonable belief that crack cocaine and drug gangs who terrorize urban communities are at least as large a security problem for Americans as the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center. And clearly, crack-related gang warfare is an ongoing terror in Bayview-Hunters Point.

Federal drug war task forces are certainly nothing new. But the Violent Gang Task Force is the first to go after home-grown gangs who ply the crack trade in poor neighborhoods.

And the task force has ambitions far beyond busting the Soul-Jacker. The cases against Temple are interwoven with a larger, high-stakes federal prosecution, involving far-ranging drug conspiracy charges filed against 16 defendants accused of belonging to a drug gang called the Michael organization, after its purported leader, Charles Michael (aka Mr. Biggs), a sometime rap music promoter who, government informants say, ran one of the biggest crack operations in Hunters Point out of a hair salon and laundered his money through a rap record label.

Both the Temple and Michael cases come out of the same four-square-mile, drug-and-crime-ravaged slice of San Francisco: Hunters Point. The confidential informants who have provided information crucial to the federal case are also deeply involved in the Temple case, law enforcement sources and some of the witnesses themselves say. LaFreniere has led the Temple and the Michael probes, and the same SFPD officers have worked on both. (LaFreniere, other federal officials, and the top S.F. police officers involved in the task force declined to be interviewed.)

An attorney familiar with the Michael case expects Temple to be linked to the federal drug conspiracy probe by allegations that he was the enforcer, the hit man for Mr. Biggs. Such a charge would introduce an element of violence probably necessary if the government is to get long sentences in the Michael cases, and currently missing from them. A local law enforcement source confirms that the renewed Temple investigation grew out of the federal investigation into the Michael organization.

Temple's attorney, V. Roy Lefcourt, also believes the government would like to link his client to Mr. Biggs. Lefcourt has formally requested FBI documents and other federal records, trying to establish a link between the Temple and Michael investigations. Obviously, Lefcourt and his client contend any such link is a fabrication; Lefcourt says he has seen federal and local police documents that indicate that the FBI persuaded San Francisco police to reopen the Temple murder cases after they had been closed because the feds couldn't find any witnesses brave or foolish enough to take the stand against the Soul-Jacker while he was a free man.

A few simple facts are sufficient to illustrate the fear Temple inspires: More than 100 people saw him gun down Mullins. The Williams killing was done in broad daylight with no disguise. It took years of work and enormous law enforcement pressure to persuade even a few witnesses to tell what they saw.

Even now, the murder cases against Temple seem to be relatively weak. There is no ballistic, blood, or other physical evidence. Assistant District Attorney Andrews has elicited eyewitness testimony against Temple -- but that testimony has been given by convicted killers and drug dealers who were associates of the alleged hit man and who have astonishing criminal records of their own. Lefcourt thinks that Temple was taken off the streets to make some defendants in the Michael case feel more comfortable with the idea of turning against their former partners and becoming government witnesses.

But so far, none of those defendants has turned. In fact, it is the federal government that has a turncoat problem. One of the government's eight confidential witnesses -- apparently someone the Justice Department had been counting on as a key witness -- has already had sub rosa discussions with the Michael defense team and is helping those attorneys in their attempts to exclude key wiretapping evidence from trial.

And in November, three months after testifying against Temple, government witness, Robert Nash contacted Lefcourt and told the defense attorney that he had lied under oath to the grand jury. Nash has since signed a declaration to that effect, and Lefcourt is trying to throw out the indictment alleging Temple murdered Mullins, citing a tainted grand jury hearing.

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