Crime-lab fiasco led to alleged drug dealers being freed

Tong Van Le and his wife, Phan Nguyen, went through hell over Nasser Market, the Bernal Heights liquor store they once owned. After Le lost his life defending it, police say Nguyen was forced out by drug dealers who took over the store. Those responsible have yet to pay any price, and SF Weekly has learned that the Deborah Madden crime lab catastrophe is partially to blame.

Just months after Le obtained a liquor license and began running the Crescent Avenue store in 2008, he was held up and robbed at gunpoint. Le reported the incident to the cops and identified the alleged perpetrators; in September 2008, he was followed to his Novato home and fatally shot. Six people have been charged with murder and conspiracy in Marin County for killing Le to prevent him from testifying in the robbery case. They have yet to go to trial.

With her husband gone, Nguyen — who speaks very little English — became the store's sole owner. According to police, she turned the management of the store over to a man named Alaa Nasser with the understanding that he would share profits with her. But Nguyen saw none of the money. "It was almost like a takeover," SFPD Inspector David Falzon told the Bay City News.

According to the District Attorney's office, Nasser and his codefendant, Jacqueline Gutierrez, used the store as a front for drug sales. The SFPD opened an investigation, and in August, undercover officers purchased marijuana from Nasser and Gutierrez four times. The two were arrested and charged with four counts of selling marijuana, but on the morning of March 10 — the day after the Madden scandal broke — the charges against them were dismissed.

"The case was dismissed because the preliminary hearing couldn't go forward," D.A. spokesman Brian Buckelew says. "With the crime lab closed, there was no criminalist to testify. Nobody was there."

Buckelew says that the D.A. may still refile charges against Nasser and Gutierrez: "The case is one among many that are undergoing a secondary review for recharging once the scope of Madden's misconduct is fully identified." It could come down to officers testifying as to what the marijuana they bought looked and smelled like, he said.

In the meantime, the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center is negotiating a purchase price for the store, hoping to convert it into a local produce market and job-training site for youth. SF Weekly was unable to locate Nguyen for an interview.

 
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