Get Out of Jail Free

In the process of taking down the city's baddest gangsters, prosecutors and cops set some very scary people free.

Even today — with many of the original Westmob and Big Block figures in the ground, in cells, or in the witness protection program — locals say the conflict continues to smolder; recent shootings probably trace back to the long-running feud.

Almost everyone involved in the ongoing feud is African-American. Most are males, ranging in age from the teens to the mid-30s. They grew up together, played sports together, went to the same schools together — poor, desperate kids living in the maze of decaying, barracks-style public housing developments stretched across the Hunters Point hill.

In one way or another, most knowledgeable folks trace the origins of the war to the mid-1990s, when the friendship between Douglas "Boobie" Stepney and the Mathews brothers — Acie and his big brother Chris — soured. Some portray the falling-out as a business dispute.

In the early 1990s, Chris Mathews founded RBL Posse — RBL stands for "Ruthless by Law" — one of the few San Francisco rap outfits to enjoy commercial success. In cartoonish tough-guy rhymes backed by simplistic synth riffs, Chris Mathews, who lost an eyeball to gunfire, painted himself as a gore-craving psycho ("Call me Charles Manson," he rapped on one track) enamored of firearms, pot, and "bitches." Stepney, who thought of himself as a hip-hop impresario, helped out RBL on the business side during the group's low-budget early days, promoting the act and even appearing on the cover of the first album despite the fact that he didn't rhyme, DJ, or concoct beats.

The way Stepney told it, RBL dissed him by cutting him out of the money and bailing on the 'hood when the royalty checks started rolling in. "They got some money and said they didn't want us around," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001. "... They showed a lot of disrespect to me and my family."

What started as a personal beef cleaved the neighborhood in two — and continued to divide people long after the Mathews brothers moved across the bay and into a modest home in Antioch. Either you were loyal to Stepney, or you were allied with Acie and Chris Mathews. Stepney, a cerebral figure who favored gem-encrusted medallions, dubbed his crew Big Block and launched a record label with the same name; the other side, whose ranks included David Hill, the man accused of murdering police officer Isaac Espinoza in 2004, called itself Westmob. Both groups were into drugs and guns, but there was a difference — Big Block was a structured, hierarchical outfit built around the leadership of Stepney, while Westmob was more a loose collection of toughs.

By the late 1990s, spent ammunition littered the tree-lined streets of Hunters Point. As the body count ballooned, law enforcement began plotting the downfall of the gangbangers.

If you've seen HBO's The Wire or The Sopranos — or any of Martin Scorsese's mafia flicks — then you're familiar with strategies the feds and SFPD employed in attempting to dismantle Big Block and Westmob. In the summer of 2001, the task force got judicial authorization to tap the cellphones of key Big Block figures and began listening for juicy conversational tidbits. They staked out stash houses and hangouts and drug "turfs." They drew up weblike organizational charts listing the members of the gangs and the roles they played.

Listening in on a call between two Big Block members, the task force heard plenty of coded discussions about cooking up and selling crack — they referred to an ounce as a "zip"; a kilo was a "whole bird" — as well as talk about gunplay. "I just had to flat two niggas, dog," said one Big Block member, apparently referring to a shooting that wounded two people. "I'm heated," said another person picked up on the wire. "I'm going to go get my gloves and my 9." Another gangster described a hit on Westmob members during which two guys jumped out of the car and said "trick or treat" before unloading on the victims.

Armed with this intelligence, the task force pounced. On August 31, 2001, some 200 FBI agents and S.F. cops clad in flak jackets and equipped, in some cases, with assault rifles, fanned out across Bayview and Hunters Point with arrest warrants for Stepney and a gaggle of other Big Block figures. "That's the way you do it," says a source close to the prosecution. "You need wiretaps, witness protection — all the tools in the federal toolbox."

As Assistant U.S. Attorney George Bevan typed up the indictments, he put Stepney's name first, signifying the man's importance in the Big Block hierarchy. The gang leader had stepped into the major leagues of criminality, charged with conspiring to run a major crack-distribution ring and using "violence, intimidation, and armed assaults against other drug traffickers and rival gangs" to protect his profits. Bevan and company hit Stepney with a total of 27 felonies.

These were not petty offenses. In addition to charging him with distributing sizable amounts of crack, prosecutors accused Stepney of orchestrating a shooting on Westpoint Road during which several Big Block members hopped out of a green van and began blazing away at Westmobbers with a pair of heavy combat weapons — a fully automatic AK-47 and a semiauto AR-15; police recovered the weapons not far from the scene of the shooting.

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