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.

At the U.S. Attorney's Office, spokesman Luke Macaulay says, "We believe these cases removed some of the most violent offenders from the community," adding that "the cases sent a message to the community that these kind of crimes can carry very long sentences."

A multitude of factors contributed to the government's failings in the Big Block and Westmob cases, starting with the purported misconduct of a veteran San Francisco cop assigned to the task force.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a bulwark against unreasonable governmental intrusion, requires police, in most cases, to get judicial authorization before searching a home. To get that authorization, an officer must present a judge with a written affidavit truthfully explaining why a search is justified. And that, federal Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled in July 2003, is where police inspector Matthew Hanley screwed up.

Prosecutors gave a sweet deal to one of the men who participated in the killing of Tyrone Laury.
Prosecutors gave a sweet deal to one of the men who participated in the killing of Tyrone Laury.
U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan: "Long-term prison sentences may very well await" gang members.
Courtesy of AP Wide World Photos
U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan: "Long-term prison sentences may very well await" gang members.

It went back to a 2001 raid on the South San Francisco apartment rented by Aisha McCain, a Big Block member and one of Stepney's girlfriends. Known within Big Block by the code name "Florida," the apartment functioned as a crack lab and safe house. But Judge Patel found Hanley had employed misleading language when seeking the search warrant for the raid, and barred prosecutors from using a heap of evidence collected at the location, including 17 Baggies of rock — a total of 466 grams — two digital scales, coke-encrusted cookware, and a Pyrex beaker with drug residue.

Obviously, the judge's decision aided McCain, Stepney, and their collaborators. "The police officer's refusal to abide by the U.S. Constitution blew apart the government's case," McCain's lawyer, Shana Keating, says. "I think Judge Patel was highly offended."

In court documents, Hanley and Bevan said they collaborated on the search warrant and didn't intend any sleight of hand. "I don't think there was anything disingenuous," maintains the SFPD's Captain Kevin Cashman. "Inspector Hanley is one of our finest inspectors and deserves a lot of credit" for the Big Block case.

The witnesses in both cases posed a bigger challenge. While the code of the underworld forbids snitching, police detectives and federal agents proved remarkably effective at getting Big Blockers to reveal the inner workings of the group and to implicate one another in various crimes — the specter of a triple-digit prison term has a way of loosening lips. In exchange for leniency, many Big Block soldiers turned informant and began blabbing about the misdeeds of both gangs.

When Bevan and the other prosecutors constructed their indictments, they drew heavily from the testimony of these "cooperating defendants." The gangsters-turned-informants turned out to be both a boon and a liability. Sure, they possessed firsthand information about all the drug dealing and mayhem. But on more than one occasion, the forensic clues gathered at the crime scenes contradicted their claims.

That's what happened with Mathews. A Big Block member/informant fingered him for the murder of Marvel Despanie, who was gunned down while sitting in a burgundy Mustang. The shell casings and damage to the car, however, proved it couldn't have happened the way the informant claimed. There was another problem: The rival gangster was himself an obvious suspect in the crime.

In a scathing legal brief, Mathews' attorney, Robert Waggener, blamed prosecutors for relying on testimony "the government knows to be false." Waggener declined to be interviewed for this story.

"Corroboration is the key," explains Steven Gruel, a former federal prosecutor. "Any material fact you get from an informant must be corroborated many times over."

"As far as Boobie goes, a lot of those informants were out-and-out liars," says Stepney's former lawyer Joseph O'Sullivan. (O'Sullivan represented Stepney in earlier matters, but not in the federal case.) "Many of the informants contradicted each other. I don't think those informants would stand being cross-examined."

One can get a sense of what kind of extraordinary deals the government cut with the gangsters who agreed to cooperate by sifting through the thousands of pages of legal documents sitting in the federal courthouse in San Francisco. But you can get only a sense, since much of the paperwork is thoroughly redacted, or filed under seal, making it totally off-limits to the public. The deals are sealed theoretically to protect the snitches, but it also stops the public from reviewing many of the details of the plea arrangements. This much, though, is certain: Some of these "cooperating defendants" are very ruthless people who spent very little time residing in prison cells.

One guy who got a sweet deal was Laprell Kent, a key Big Block lieutenant. Early on in the investigation, the task force bugged Kent's phone and discovered he was constantly blabbing about killing people. He wanted a rival named John "Gotti" Sears dead, wiretap transcripts indicate. "If someone sees Gotti, someone needs to whack his motherfucking ass," Kent told a fellow Big Block member. (As far as we can tell, Sears is still alive.) He called around looking to borrow a car so that he could "hang out the window and spray" bullets at enemies, according to the transcripts, and at one point apparently helped a friend locate a gun secreted behind his mother's house.

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