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.

The most serious charge against Kent emanated from a rolling shootout with a foe in July 2001. That incident allegedly started when Kent encountered Frank "Nitty" Hall at the McDonald's restaurant next to the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street. The run-in led to a high-speed car chase, with Nitty, a purported Westmob member, jumping in his car and speeding toward the nearby 280 freeway, and Kent giving chase. "We," Kent said during one tapped phone call, made a "U-turn and got behind Nitty on the freeway." Both cars pulled off the freeway and onto surface streets near the Dogpatch neighborhood when Kent — or another person in the car — began shooting, according to court records.

"I got down on that nigger," Kent told an unidentified ally over the phone, adding later in another call that somebody in Nitty's car had returned fire, saying, "They did a little lightweight buzz-back." In the indictment, prosecutors said Kent "fired one or more shots from his car" or "aided and abetted in the firing of shots." Three months after the gun battle, someone rubbed out Nitty on Cashmere Street in the Bayview District in an early-morning slaying that remains unsolved.

When Bevan and the U.S. Attorney's office indicted Big Block members, they stuck Kent with 23 felony charges — Stepney was the only person hit with more charges. But after Kent agreed to testify against other gangsters, prosecutors apparently handed him a generous plea deal sparing him from a lengthy penitentiary stay; the exact details of the arrangement remain classified. Today, according to numerous sources familiar with the cases, he's out of custody and living outside of San Francisco.

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.

Seeking Kent's perspective, SF Weeklyrequested an interview through his attorney, Susan Raffanti. Kent didn't contact us, and Raffanti declined to comment for this story.

Tamor, the lawyer for Kim Ellis, devoted many hours to unearthing the buried criminal history of another informant, Curtis Holden, a Big Block associate charged with crack and gun felonies. As he started digging, Tamor realized he was looking at a man who'd done some remarkably brutal stuff. On the witness stand during a pretrial hearing, Holden, who goes by the nickname "Manip," as in manipulator, admitted to shooting a competing dealer, Alfonse Laforet, in the leg in 1991 — though he was quick to note that he didn't rob the wounded dealer. "I shot him, but I didn't take any money," Holden testified. He spent a mere eight months in lockup for the crime.

Since 1993, Holden told the court, he'd lived a dual existence, moving large amounts of coke while at the same time funneling information to the cops. For much of the '90s, Holden acknowledged, he'd pushed two to four kilos of coke per month. And while collaborating with the police force, he continued to behave brutally. In 1995, cops arrested Holden for allegedly kidnapping another dealer, beating him severely and locking him in the trunk of a car, before trying to extort the dealer's family for ransom money. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges in the case. In fact, between 1994 and 2001 the authorities busted Holden 10 times for various offenses, many of them felonies, but they chose to prosecute him only on a couple of occasions. Holden's bond with the SFPD kept him out of prison, explains a law enforcement source knowledgeable about the dealer. "He's a vicious motherfucker," the source says, adding that the man's name came up during investigations into two homicides in the mid-1990s.

"Curtis Holden did all kinds of bad shit," says Tamor. "He played the system well. He got paid. He was able to run around and be a kilo-sized drug dealer. ... If some of the allegations about Holden are true, is it right to give him a pass and let him do what he was doing before?" the lawyer asks. "Is that right? I don't know. As a defense lawyer, I think it's the lazy way to do police work."

When it comes to the Big Block and Westmob cases, court records show Holden was a key witness, providing testimony about numerous allegations. And for this help, Holden got a nice reward: Though he could've spent anywhere from 20 years to life in prison for his crimes, he walked out of prison a free man in April.

We were unable to contact Holden, and his lawyer, John J. Jordan, did not return our phone calls seeking comment.

In the eyes of Gruel, the ex-prosecutor, "Informants are the lifeblood" of an organized-crime case. "You need somebody who can tell you how the organization works, who the players are, how to get inside. ... If you want to get the management, the upper echelon of an organization, you need informants."

A third Big Block figure who got a major break is a man who pled guilty in 2004 to illegally possessing a 9 mm Ruger pistol and received a 24-month sentence. Court documents filed by prosecutors reveal that this person, whom we'll call John Jones, cooperated with the government. They also reveal that he participated in the drive-by slaying of 32-year-old Tyrone "Bump" Laury in 2001. According to the legal briefs, Jones "admitted his own and the others' involvement in Laury's murder — identifying himself as the driver" and two other people "as the shooters." Prosecutors — at either the federal or local level — have yet to charge anyone for Laury's murder.

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