Sunset on a Murder

Everyone thought the drunken fighting was just boys being boys. Until Robert Ramirez was shot 14 times in the face and Philip Sands -- one of his closest west-side friends -- was charged with murdering him.

The high school basketball game had ended an hour before, and Eric Garrett was waiting for someone to pick him up. A black high school student nicknamed "Pooh Bear" for his teddy-bear personality and 6-2, 280-pound frame, Garrett saw 20-year-old Kevin Reilly approaching. Garrett had never liked Reilly or his clique of friends, most of whom were white and several of whom were there with him in front of Kezar Stadium. The feeling was mutual.

"You've been talking shit for years," Reilly said as he neared Garrett.

"I'm sick of your shit," Garrett replied. "And I'm tired of all you motherfuckers harassing me."

Philip Sands and Robert Ramirez in a 
1990-91  St. Cecilias school photo.
Philip Sands and Robert Ramirez in a 1990-91 St. Cecilias school photo.
Philip Sands in 1999.
Philip Sands in 1999.

By this point, Garrett and a buddy had been joined by two friends, also black.

"Who are you calling motherfuckers?" one of Reilly's friends asked.

"You all!" Garrett said, pointing.

According to court records detailing the incident, Reilly and his friends then encircled Garrett and his group; the Reilly pack outnumbered the Garrett group 2-to-1. One of Garrett's buddies put on gloves and struck a fighting pose. Somebody said to Garrett, "Nigger, you're gonna die." Then a version of hell broke loose.

Somebody kicked one of Garrett's friends, Richard Bailey, in the back of the leg. Bailey hit back. In the ensuing melee, Bailey went down. One of Reilly's friends kicked Bailey in the face while he was on the ground. Everybody was throwing punches. It was, Garrett later testified, "crazy madness."

An ambulance took Bailey to the hospital, where he stayed for three days of treatment for, among other things, a blood clot that had formed in his brain. Reilly and Robert Ramirez, whom Bailey identified as having kicked his leg, were initially both charged with felony assault (Reilly with a hate crime enhancement). But the charges were reduced, and the two pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. Reilly and Ramirez were each sentenced to three years' probation, and two months and one month in jail, respectively.

With the exception of the jail sentences that followed, the February 1999 brawl was unsurprising to anyone who knew Reilly, Ramirez, and their buddies. They had been jumping other kids for no or small reason for years. In high school, in fact, the appearance of Ramirez and company at a party was often thought to be very bad news, because so many such appearances were followed by drunken fights.

Most of the Ramirez crowd didn't go away to college, and their brand of hooliganism continued after graduation. It wasn't really anything new. They were their generation's version of a Sunset District tradition, the next manifestation of an ethos that values a macho sense of honor, an advanced ability to drink large amounts of alcohol, and a willingness to launch into badass behavior whenever it might seem appropriate.

In previous decades, when the Sunset was populated primarily by working-class Irish, the hard-drinking, hard-punching, young-male set was known as SDI, which stood for Sunset District Incorporated or Sunset District Irish, depending on who told you what it stood for. SDI was a loose affiliation of neighborhood kids who came from good families, who went to good Catholic schools, who liked to party, and who loved to defend the honor of the neighborhood with their fists.

Despite its reputation for fights and a variety of other nasty mischief, SDI was tolerated -- even looked at fondly -- by many a Sunset District native, including some in law enforcement. "I grew up with those guys," says Lt. John Murphy, head of the gang prevention task force at the San Francisco Police Department. "Those guys had heart."

Though the group was inspired by SDI, most of the guys in the clique Reilly and Ramirez formed in the '90s weren't Irish -- at least, not full Irish -- and the group didn't have a name, at least not one that stuck. But it was cast from the same mold. The friends partied hard and traveled as a pack. If one fought, they all fought. If anybody got caught, nobody snitched.

Many in the community viewed the fighting as boys-will-be-boys misbehavior and nothing more. Or, many in the Sunset saw things that way until a pointless fight outside a bar led to a feud that ended last year with Robert Ramirez shot 14 times in the face, and one of his closest childhood friends, Philip Sands, charged with murder.

Debbie Ramirez wanted to send her four children to a good, safe school. Although she lived in Daly City, she chose St. Cecilia's School in San Francisco's Sunset District. Established in 1917 and connected to the Catholic parish of the same name, the school sits under the jewellike, Spanish colonial St. Cecilia Cathedral, a monument to respectability towering above a nearly suburban, residential locale.

A warm, vivacious divorcee, Debbie was accepted wholeheartedly into the tight, largely blue-collar network of St. Cecilia families, most of whom lived in the Sunset. Debbie's oldest son, Robert, eventually became a star athlete and class heartthrob. Mexican on his father's side, Irish on his mother's, Ramirez had dark hair, olive skin, and full, sensuous lips, but it was his eyes that made girls swoon. Sad and pensive beneath imperiously arched brows, they hinted at a sensitive soul that Ramirez rarely revealed.

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