Earl’s Last Laugh

Exiled in retirement after Fajitagate, ex–Police Chief Earl Sanders has re-emerged with a fresh account of the infamous Zebra murders. And his critics are on the warpath.

In 1989, Sanders and Hendrix arrested and later helped convict two young black men, John "J.J." Tennison and Antoine "Soda Pop" Goff, in a gang slaying. The two men said they were innocent and had been framed by Sanders and his partner. After they spent more than 13 years in prison, a federal judge freed Tennison and Goff, concluding that Sanders and Hendrix engaged in misconduct by, among other things, withholding evidence that another man confessed to the killing.

Then, of course, there was Fajitagate, which defined Sanders' short and unremarkable stint as chief — a job most people assume he got because he was a Willie Brown crony. As a young attorney, Brown had worked for the plaintiffs in the Officers for Justice case. But Sanders and the volatile ex-mayor had a difficult relationship, those who know them say. Marcus Sanders, the ex-chief's son and an East Bay attorney, says that his father's being named chief upon Fred Lau's retirement in 2002 came as "a last-minute surprise." Upon Sanders' indictment in the Fajitagate brouhaha, Brown wanted him to quit immediately. Aiming to clear his name, Sanders balked, taking the medical leave.

Given such a tumultuous history, the former chief and his writing partner knew that their tale would upset some people. But neither man was prepared for the hostility The Zebra Murders has engendered, including suggestions by some that the duo may have even broken the law while researching the book.

After being appointed chief in July 2002, Sanders had eight boxes of materials related to the Zebra killings removed from police archives and brought to his office in the Hall of Justice. The boxes constituted an untapped treasure. They contained material the cops had assembled about the murders but that the district attorney's office did not require in prosecuting the three Zebra killers it brought to trial, including material related to several suspects who were never charged for lack of evidence.

But Sanders says he and Cohen never got to examine most of the boxes.

During his hectic first months as chief there wasn't time, he says. In November 2002, as he and Cohen were preparing to dig into the boxes, the Fajitagate scandal erupted. Upon his retirement in September 2003 (at which point, due to the medical leave, he hadn't been to the office in six months) the SFPD packed up Sanders' personal effects and shipped them to his home in Folsom.

Mistakenly included among those belongings was one of the Zebra boxes. To his surprise, its contents included the handwritten and dictated confessions of Zebra informant Anthony Harris and previously undisclosed details about the killers' plans the day before five of the victims were murdered in a single night.

Detractors have taken issue with Sanders' use of these long-forgotten police files after his retirement. Calabro, the ex-cop, who worked the Zebra cases during his career, acknowledges having petitioned Police Chief Heather Fong to investigate whether Sanders broke any laws. (He says he also sent missives to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the FBI, and District Attorney Kamala Harris.) Fong didn't respond to interview requests for this article.

Sanders says he received the material unsolicited and makes no apology for using it. Besides, he says, it wasn't as if the department didn't know he had it. Sanders says that while researching the book, he sought Chief Fong's permission for access to the other seven boxes of evidence still in police custody. Despite several overtures, she didn't respond, he says, "which I took to be a diplomatic way of saying no."

But last month, after Sanders' critics raised the issue, he did hear from Fong. He still had the one box sent to him accidentally, and the police chief sent him a letter demanding it back.

From Sanders' perspective, much of the hostility resulting from the book goes back to his involvement with Officers for Justice.

By his account, it was his idea to bring the police discrimination lawsuit. He says he thought of it one night in 1972 over a game of dominos at Gilford's house. At the time, there were fewer than 150 minority cops among SFPD's nearly 2,000 sworn officers. As homicide inspectors, he and Gilford were the highest-ranking blacks.

OFJ had been around since 1968, but fearing retribution from the mainline Police Officers Association, fewer than 50 of the minority cops had chosen to join, Sanders says.

The lawsuit was filed in April 1973, barely six months before the Zebra killings started. It began as a slam dunk for OFJ, with U.S. District Judge Robert Peckham issuing a preliminary order setting hiring quotas for minorities and ordering the Civil Service Commission to redress problems with its testing for police department hiring and promotion. (An unrelated lawsuit, affecting the San Francisco Fire Department, had just concluded with similar results.)

But it would be a long five years — culminating in a brief and rather bizarre trial with Sanders as the star attraction — before the historic consent decree that changed the face of the once predominantly white and male SFPD into the more gender- and racially diverse department that exists today.

As the face of the lawsuit during its later stages, Sanders is, perhaps not surprisingly, portrayed in his book as a civil rights role model. After all, the case was a landmark for affirmative action, resulting in the largest quota hiring ever ordered in the United States at the time, and setting a precedent for police departments around the country. Cohen, Sanders' co-author, contends that the case did for women and minority police officers what Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 desegregation case, did for minority schoolchildren.

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