By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
In a life studded with tragedy and trouble, March 30, 2006, was an undeniably sweet day for Acie Mathews. Clad in a sleek leather trench coat, his hair twisted into little microdreads, Mathews pushed open the heavy wooden doors of courtroom No. 11, and strode into a flourescent-lit corridor. Beaming, he hugged his attorney and a private investigator who'd excavated evidence on his behalf. With the help of this two-man legal team, Mathews had just fought the law and won.
Some four years earlier the U.S. government, with much fanfare, had hurled a truckload of felony charges at the 30-year-old Mathews, a charismatic Hunters Point native, rap music promoter, and reputed gang boss.
They said he terrorized a Hunters Point public housing complex in 1999, shooting the place up like the digital thugs in Grand Theft Auto.
They said he shot and killed Marvel Despanie in 2000.
They said he'd been busted while driving around in a car with two handguns, two ski masks, and two sets of black leather gloves.
They said he conspired to sell at least 50 grams of crack cocaine.
And Mathews did it all, the feds charged, while serving as one of the leaders of a street gang called "Westmob," a drug ring that relied on copious quantities of mayhem to control its crack-dealing turf near the junction of Westpoint and Middlepoint roads in a crumbling Hunters Point housing project overlooking the bay. Mathews, the government claimed, was a key architect of the horrific black-on-black bloodletting that's beset the southeastern slums for years and the don of a low-budget black mafia bent on zombifying the community with crack or ripping it apart with gunfire. In short, they portrayed him as one of the most violent and dangerous men to ever emerge from one of the city's most violent and dangerous neighborhoods.
To take down Mathews and other alleged gangsters, the San Francisco Police Department teamed up with the feds for a landmark collaboration, forming a multiagency team of police detectives, FBI agents, and investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms dedicated to crippling the organization. After the task force cuffed Mathews and six of his comrades, federal prosecutors indicted the whole bunch on felony conspiracy charges carrying potentially epic sentences and multimillion-dollar fines.
When the indictments came down a total of 22 felony counts against seven purported Westmob members Mathews and his pals were staring at centuries in the joint; as an alleged ringleader Mathews alone faced five life sentences.
At the time law enforcement officials were eager to brag about bagging Mathews and his comrades, calling a press conference to crow. "This is a model for removing violent crime from the streets of San Francisco," the city's then-police chief, Earl Sanders, told the media. Today the feds and SFPD are still hyping the campaign in the media the San Francisco Examiner recently praised the effort and they've expanded their reach beyond Hunters Point, launching major anti-gang operations in the Sunnydale and Fillmore neighborhoods.
But on close inspection, the serious flaws and tragic failings of the collaboration have become clear. Mathews, for example, pled guilty to only a single weapons charge, and received a relatively brief eight-month jail sentence from Judge Martin J. Jenkins. For the prosecutors and detectives who'd devoted thousands of hours and huge amounts of taxpayer money to the case and touted it as a major step toward quelling the havoc gripping the town's grittier ZIP codes the final result really didn't live up to the hype.
And although the Mathews saga represents, arguably, the campaign's most stunning defeat, it's by no means the only setback. Around the time Mathews was first arrested, the task force used an analogous strategy to indict 17 alleged members of the "Big Block" gang, another Hunters Point drug ring, and the sworn foe of Westmob. Investigative screw-ups and some questionable prosecutorial decisions plagued the Big Block case, which eventually swelled to include more than 30 defendants, and in the end many of the alleged gangsters pleaded to minimal charges and got away with short prison terms.
What's most worrisome, though, is the unsavory blowback emerging from these anti-gang efforts. A review of hundreds of pages of court documents and numerous interviews with well-situated sources suggests federal prosecutors secretly cut a devil's deal: In their quest to take down Mathews and other supposed gang leaders, they essentially gave at least one self-confessed assassin a Get Out of Jail Free card. And they handed very sweet deals to other notoriously brutal thugs, including one man with a truly scary rap sheet. In short, the program wound up benefiting the very people it was supposed to stop.
"I think people in San Francisco ought to question the types of tactics the government is using," says Richard Tamor, a defense lawyer who represented a Big Block member. "No one ever sees the dark side of these prosecutions, the nasty shit that goes on to get these convictions. It's sugarcoated for the public."
The thing that always baffles outsiders is the proximity. The Westmob guys hung out where Westpoint and Middlepoint roads meet; their mortal enemies, the Big Block dudes, hung out a couple of blocks away on Harbor Road. The short distance separating the factions practically guaranteed frequent bloodletting cops assigned to the district figure the beef has generated at least 20 homicides.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
SF Weeklywas unable to locate Jones or his legal counsel. (We've opted to keep his identity secret for his own safety.)
Federal prosecutors wouldn't comment specifically on their use of Jones or any other informants in the Big Block and Westmob cases, though spokesman Macaulay says "in organized-crime cases we do use members of the organization because they're qualified to explain or describe the history and operations of the organization." According to Macaulay, prosecutors don't merely rely on the claims of informants, but corroborate their statements independently. Asked whether the feds were probing the slayings of Nitty and Laury, he declined to comment.
Five years after he died in a storm of bullets, Laury's death continues to haunt the residents of Westpoint Road. "I think about him every day," Terrell Porter, one of Laury's best friends, says. Porter, who has "BUMP" tattooed on his forearm in large black and red letters, is wearing an outsized T-shirt and sagging jeans. His voice is soft, little more than a whisper, his face blank. "He was a stand-up guy. He wasn't a gangbanger. He was trying to stop the violence." At the time of his slaying, Laury was helping a friend, filmmaker Kevin Epps, produce the documentary film Straight Out of Hunters Point; Epps wound up dedicating the movie to Laury and featuring his funeral prominently in it.
Laury's murder "tore me up," says his sister-in-law, Tessie Ester, an environmental activist and president of the local tenants' association. His sister, Barbara Bell, says,"It's still painful losing my little brother. I feel very hurt." Bell is troubled by the deal prosecutors made with Jones. "I don't think that's right. How are you going to give him immunity for killing somebody?"
There's another thing that disturbs folks here on the hill: Little has changed in the years since SFPD and feds swept through and cuffed Stepney, Mathews, and all the others. Despite all the time and money the task force invested in the Big Block and Westmob cases, bullets are still zinging through the projects on a regular basis as the feud or echoes of it grinds on. One recent victim was Laury's son, Tyrone Laury Jr., 14, who goes by the nickname "Lil' Bump." An unknown assailant blasted Laury Jr. one afternoon this spring as he stood on a graffitied stretch of sidewalk near the intersection of Middlepoint and Hare Street. The bullet tore through Laury Jr.'s torso, shredding his intestines, before punching a hole in his arm, according to the boy's mother, who asked that her name not be used in this story because she fears for her life. Thanks to five surgeries, her son survived but is now reliant on a colostomy bag.
Ester is thoroughly disenchanted. The anti-gang strategies of the feds and SFPD "aren't solving nothing. If they can pick up the dope dealers, then they can pick up the shooters with the guns. The police here are useless." She speaks while standing on a Hunters Point street corner, and as she talks an unmarked police car, a jet-black Ford Crown Victoria, rolls by.
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