Officer Down

Steve Landi was a hero at 101 California and a cop to his bones. Why is the SFPD trying so hard to get rid of him?

But in June 1995 the investigation was resuscitated, for reasons that grand jury transcripts and other court documents do not make clear. Gudelj testified merely that he was asked to reopen the probe because "rumors" continued to surface about cops stealing from drug dealers.

This time, Gudelj's team took a different tack. Eight investigators were assigned to interview drug dealers and users, asking them if any cops had ever stolen from them. Among the 50 or so "civilians" the investigators talked to, Gudelj later told the grand jury, some number alleged that, yes indeed, the officers who arrested them had stolen some of their stuff.

The accusers had many things in common. Most had criminal records. All were caught with drugs -- usually speed. All claimed that money or dear personal possessions -- including a fake Rolex watch, expensive jewelry, irreplaceable antique fountain pens, designer perfume, and some pricey Limoges porcelain boxes -- mysteriously disappeared from their pockets, closets, or apartments at the time of their arrests, and must surely have been stolen by the police.

Juror Michael Mitchell was amazed at the weakness of the DA's corruption case.
Paul Trapani
Juror Michael Mitchell was amazed at the weakness of the DA's corruption case.
Attorney Mark Nicco defended Landi at his criminal trial.
Paul Trapani
Attorney Mark Nicco defended Landi at his criminal trial.

Most significantly, all of the accusers were promised that the drug charges against them would disappear, if they testified against the cops before a grand jury.

On Sept. 28, 1995, Fagundes was indicted on 17 counts, including grand theft, attempted grand theft, and perjury. Acevedo was indicted on four grand theft counts. Landi was indicted on two counts of grand theft and one count of trying to solicit perjury from a fellow police officer. The perjury charge against Landi was tacked on in the closing moments of the investigation, and would haunt him the longest.

Smith, who would soon lose the DA's Office to Hallinan, hailed the indictments, saying they showed "no one is above the law, including police officers."

Ribera, soon to leave as chief of police, told reporters the case made him "feel ill," and that the indictments would show other police that the SFPD "will not tolerate criminal activity by its members."

Integrity, the citizenry was told, would be restored to the SFPD.

The three indicted officers were placed on unpaid leave for more than a year as they awaited trial. Their rank-and-file brethren were unsure how to react. Support and condemnation came from different quarters within the department.

The task of nailing the hides to the wall fell to Assistant District Attorney Donald A. Sanchez, the same attorney who had shepherded Stephen Gudelj's investigation before the grand jury and won indictments. (Sanchez, who has since left the District Attorney's Office and moved to Arizona, could not be reached for comment for this story.)

But headlines and bootlicking coverage in the city's daily newspapers do not a criminal case make. When the trial finally opened on Jan. 29, 1997, Sanchez told jurors that "this is a case about theft, perjury, the arrogance of power, and corruption. The evidence will show that these officers have corrupted the system."

The evidence showed no such thing, the jurors decided. In fact, at trial's end, there was precious little credible evidence to be considered at all.

"I thought it was horrendous. I couldn't believe that any of the three was on trial, especially Landi and Acevedo," says Michael Mitchell, one of the jurors in the case. When the jury retired after hearing evidence for about three months, Mitchell says, "nine out of 12 of us were basically ready to acquit the first day, at least on the majority of the charges. And Landi on all of them."

The biggest problem, of course, was that the bulk of the case rested on a parade of drug dealers and users -- the "citizens" rounded up by Gudelj's investigators -- who had all been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony.

Mitchell, now 49 and himself an investigator for the state Department of Insurance, says he wasn't going to automatically take the word of a cop over a drug dealer, though "a dope dealer is a known criminal, and they do have to overcome that to some extent."

But what amazed the jury, Mitchell says, was the utter lack of corroborating evidence to support the charges. If these cops were walking away with thousands of dollars in cash, why wasn't it showing up on their bank statements, or somewhere in their personal financial records? If, as the accusers testified, the cops were stealing watches, precious jewelry, and fine antiques, what had happened to the stolen goods? Where were the stolen items, or the pawnshop receipts showing they had been hocked?

"Somewhere that's going to show up," Mitchell says. "But they didn't even present one bank statement. They didn't have one single hock-shop receipt." One prosecution witness, Mitchell says, testified that $2,000 in cash and 60 pieces of gold jewelry were taken from him. "And they don't have a single receipt from a pawnshop or jewelry place?" he says. "What did they do with the 60 pieces of jewelry if it was stolen? If it existed."

Boiled down, Mitchell says, "all they had at the end of two months was nine dope dealers who received a total walk for a year and a half while the investigation was going on. Every time [the dealers] were arrested, they got a walk from Gudelj."

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