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.

Prosecutors would eventually add more charges to the indictment, accusing Stepney of engineering a March 2001 assassination attempt on Acie Mathews. In that instance, according to an FBI affidavit, two Big Block triggermen "fired numerous rounds from high-powered assault-type rifles, including a machine gun, into a vehicle they believed Mathews was riding in." Mathews, however, wasn't in the car. His girlfriend was driving with a 5-year-old girl riding in the passenger seat. The woman was seriously wounded; the child miraculously emerged unscathed.

The federal justice system is infamous for its incredibly harsh sentences — nonviolent marijuana growers have been known to get 100-year penitentiary terms — and Stepney was facing several lifetimes in prison for his alleged participation in the shootings and starring role in the crack biz.

Yet in the end, when Stepney finally pled guilty in December 2005, he went down for 23 years — it was a lengthy sentence to be sure, but far less time than many dope traffickers get. Stepney, who is 33, copped to only two charges: conspiring to distribute over five kilos of cocaine and conspiring to carry firearms; as part of the deal he admitted to participating in the attack on Mathews' girlfriend, and supplying the artillery used in two other shootings. Another Big Block member who refused to cooperate, Kim Ellis, 31, also got a bunch of time, accepting a 20-year sentence on a coke charge.

Issuing a tough-talking press release, the federal government trumpeted the convictions as a major success. "This investigation and prosecution demonstrates that, with the help of our federal and local law enforcement partners, we are firmly committed to a safe environment for all — no matter how long it takes," U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan, the top federal prosecutor for Northern California, said in the statement. "Long-term prison sentences may very well await those who would inflict fear and violence on our citizenry."

Joe Ford, the head FBI agent for the region, added: "The Big Block investigation began in 2000 and is one of many ongoing investigations to combat violence on our streets. It is important to disrupt gang activity at all levels, to include leadership as well as those committing the acts of violence."

"With the so-called end of Big Block, is the violence stopping?" asks lawyer Tamor, who represented Kim Ellis. "Is it stemming the drug trade? No. I think it's just as bad." Indeed, in the years since the task force busted Big Block and Westmob, the city's homicide numbers have surged — from 62 in 2001 to 94 last year — and most of the victims are young black men, and much of the carnage is occurring on the same streets Stepney and company once terrorized.

What the press release didn't mention was that a number of Big Block members got relatively light sentences: people like Kenny Adams, who was charged with peddling crack and shooting a 15-year-old boy in the back with a machine gun. Adams is already out of prison. Or Deante Broussard, who got 37 months for "accessory to possession of machine guns" for his involvement in a shooting. After doing a relatively short stint, Broussard was promptly rearrested — for kidnapping a man at gunpoint and stealing his car. Or Hanai Ibrahim, who was accused of plotting hits, participating in crack deals, and providing weapons to other Big Block members. He got four years.

At least one law enforcement figure is unhappy with the way some defendants wriggled away. "I'm very disappointed," says this person, who worked on the cases and has requested anonymity. "Everybody was looking at major time, but how much did they actually end up doing?"

When the task force went after Westmob, investigators focused much of their attention on Acie Mathews, whom they perceived to be the organization's big fish. "Mathews is their leader in terms of going out and committing violent acts," wrote an FBI agent in an affidavit, painting him as a brainy, merciless thug, who distributed crack and engineered stunning acts of violence, at one point sending an armed platoon of "at least 30, possibly up to 50 people" rushing onto Harbor Road in an audacious assault mission. The task force claimed Mathews killed Marvel Despanie, popped off rounds at Gregory Garrett, and illegally possessed a stolen handgun, not to mention the ski masks and gloves needed to carry out a hit or heist.

Led again by Assistant U.S. Attorney Bevan, prosecutors dropped nine felonies on Mathews, most of which carried harsh prison sentences and huge fines upon conviction. But the only allegation that stuck was the stolen firearm charge, the crime for which Judge Jenkins gave Mathews an eight-month sentence. Though it's true that some other Westmob defendants got stiff sentences — and some are still in court — the case against Mathews collapsed almost entirely.

The government should get kudos for the Big Block campaign, not criticism, argues the source close to the prosecutions. "The federal government was really effective with Big Block," says the source. "George Bevan got the major players, the people who made Big Block rise above the other gangs. That case was well done — people fell hard." Westmob, on the other hand, "wasn't handled with the same gusto."

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