By Erin Sherbert
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That's the kind of praise a young cop dreams of when setting forth on a career in law enforcement. It appears to be deserved, in part because Steve Landi bet his life on being a good cop.
The Bay Area has been Landi's only home. It's where his father's parents came after immigrating from Italy, and where he was raised, spending parts of his childhood growing up in North Beach, Daly City, and the Inner Sunset. It was his dad's folks, he says, who formed him most. "I learned pretty solid values from those people," he says.
Landi attended, but did not earn a degree from, the University of San Francisco after graduating from Oceana High School in Pacifica. He married, had a son, and set out to be a police officer because he could see purpose in the work. He started on the job in Daly City in 1982, when he was in his mid-20s. Landi would later tell colleagues that, as part of a lie detector test administered by the Daly City force, he was asked if he had ever stolen anything in his life, even something as inconsequential as a candy bar when he was a child. Landi answered no. And he passed.
Daly City lasted just two years, then Landi caught the brass ring and was accepted onto the San Francisco force. First it was the midnight shift out of the Mission Station, working in uniform during the dark hours when anything could go wrong. "It was a hard-charging place. I was busy all the time. I loved it," Landi recalls.
From rookie beginnings, Landi commenced a quick and steady march up the police career ladder -- working plainclothes on carjackings, going undercover on narcotics stings, hunting for crack dealers in the housing projects. He became best known for his drug work, and developed a specialty in spotting, tracking, and bringing in methamphetamine dealers.
"He was right up there at the top," Marovich, one of Landi's superior officers, would later testify at a Police Commission hearing. "He would handle all of my difficult problems ... and he and his partner handled all our speeder problems for us."
Taken together, Landi's sharp eyes, mustache, and short curly hair give him an intimidating air. His neck and arms are massive for his average-size frame, a testament to the hours he spends training as a weightlifter. His name would frequently be mentioned in discussions of who was the strongest officer on the force.
Landi was often handpicked for special units sent in to clean up specific neighborhoods with intractable drug or violence problems, and he racked up his share of the individual and unit commendations that police departments are prone to hand out. But the SFPD gives its Medal of Valor to only a few officers in any given year, and only for "outstanding bravery above and beyond the call of duty." Bravery of the type Landi displayed on July 1, 1993, in a stairwell of the office tower at 101 California St.
Landi had just finished working out at the Central Station gym and wasn't yet on duty when Sgt. Patrick Tobin approached him with news of bedlam at 101 California. A gunman had opened fire in the law offices of Petit & Martin, and an unknown number of people had been killed or wounded.
Landi was a specialist on the sniper team, trained for just such work.
After grabbing a shotgun, Landi and Tobin sped to the office tower and plunged into the horror and fear that had beset the scene. No one was sure where the gunman was, or if he was acting alone.
Landi and Tobin took an elevator partway up the building, then began ascending a stairwell. Gian Luigi Ferri, the killer, was apparently working his way down the same staircase after shooting eight people to death on three floors of the building.
"I don't think we made a couple of flights before I heard some muffled voices and some gunfire," Landi recalls. "Pat says, 'That's the SWAT guys,' and starts going past me. I grab him by the shirt and pull him back and say, 'No, that's the bad guy.'
"I look up the stairwell, I see a guy with glasses looking down. He looks away, and there's a bang."
After spotting Landi, Ferri had killed himself. But Landi and Tobin did not know that at the moment. "I called for a SWAT team. Nobody's coming. Nobody's coming. Nobody's coming. Basically I say, 'Fuck this. We gotta clear this. We gotta get up there.'
"I get up to the next floor, there's blood all over the wall. I get to the next floor, the whole platform is a lake of blood. I get to the next floor, and I see the two feet. I get up to the body, and it's the suspect. He's got a .45 laying on his chest, and the back of his head is shot all over the wall."
That trip up the stairwell, which seemed to take hours, earned Landi his medal. But the journey from hero to goat -- at least in the Police Department's eyes -- would be a short one.