Travel Agent: A Veteran Private Investigator Goes on Trial. But Some Say It's a Set-Up

Officer Damon Jackson spotted Ladarius Greer in the Tenderloin, near Turk and Mason, on Oct. 9, 2009. Cops knew Greer as a member of the Western Addition Page Street Gang, and knew that there was a no-bail warrant for his arrest out of Solano County. After confirming the warrant, Jackson — a member of the San Francisco Police Department's Gang Task Force — approached Greer, cuffed him, and drove him to police headquarters at 850 Bryant St. Greer didn't know it then, but he was about to become a key player in an unusual battle between law enforcement and a veteran private investigator.

It started on Easter Sunday 2009, when a rival gang member shot Greer several times at a bus stop on McAllister and Fillmore. A day later, while recovering in the hospital, Greer told Jackson that the person who shot him was a 19-year-old named Phil Pitney. Jackson taped that conversation with a recorder hidden in his jeans, and a couple of days later, he arrested Pitney, who was charged with attempted murder.

The prosecution wanted Jackson to serve a subpoena on Greer as a witness to testify against the man who tried to kill him. But when Jackson caught up with Greer in the Tenderloin that October, Greer told the officers that Pitney's defense investigator had been harassing him. Steve Vender, a 58-year-old private investigator, kept calling and leaving messages, he said. Greer even played one for the cops.

“Ladarius, this is Steve Vender, Phil Pitney's investigator working for his attorney Eric Safire,” Vender's message began. “We went to court today and the D.A. told the court that there is a no-bail warrant out for you out of Solano County. So I thought I'd pass that along. The last day they have to bring Pitney to trial is Oct. 13 … So it's October and it's a good time to visit the Fresno Riviera and stay well. If you ever want to talk to me, I'm at [this number]. All right.”

The cops recorded that message, and told Greer to save incoming calls from Vender. Then, in what must have seemed like a miraculous turn of fortune for Greer, his Solano Couty arrest warrant disappeared. Dispatch suddenly had no record of it. No one could explain what happened. So Jackson served the subpoena requiring Greer to show up in court for Pitney's trial, and then let him go.

A few days later, when Pitney's trial began, Greer was nowhere to be found.

That November, a grand jury indicted Steve Vender on a felony charge for attempting to dissuade Greer, a witness, from testifying in court. It's a serious charge against anyone, but especially for an investigator. If convicted, Vender could lose his P.I. license and face the loss of 20 years of credibility. It's very rare for the D.A. to charge an investigator with a felony — in fact, it's unheard of, says Floyd Andrews, a defense attorney and former D.A. who has worked with Vender. He and others see the charges as payback for being a good investigator.

“The idea they couldn't find the warrant is ridiculous,” Andrews says of the October 2009 encounter with Greer in the Tenderloin. He thinks the cops conspired with Greer to get dirt on Vender and then released him, even though he had an active no-bail warrant, after he gave up the message from Vender. “That was a set-up.”

Vender is known as a tenacious defense investigator. In 2006, he helped Andrews defend alleged gang member Daniel Dennard, who ended up beating a murder charge and walking free. Over the years, he's found missing witnesses and dug up dirt against key witnesses for the prosecution, helping to tear apart a handful of high-profile cases, some of which took years to put together. “It's absolutely payback,” says Andrews, who has hired Vender on many occasions. “'Don't be too effective or we'll come after you.'”

The indictment is devastating for Vender, but it could also have a chilling effect on the defense, says Eric Safire, the attorney who represented Pitney and hired Vender. “It is not the way the system is supposed to work,” Safire says. “It is a direct attack on the Constitution.” The charge against Vender “is a result of mine and Steve's successes,” he says, because for years the two of them have been “throwing monkey wrenches in the prosecution's cases.”

D.A. spokesperson Alex Bastion wouldn't comment about the allegations of retaliation, saying only that, “in order to protect the integrity of the justice system, it is vital to ensure that witnesses are not prevented or dissuaded from testifying in court.”

Though police couldn't find Greer to testify for the trial, a jury still convicted Pitney of attempted murder. He got 40-years-to-life. The cops did eventually find Greer a month later — just in time to have him testify at Vender's grand jury hearing.

When Vender was indicted in November 2009, he spent a day in jail. His bail was $75,000. Eventually a judge lowered it to $25,000 after Vender delivered more than 30 letters of support to the court from lawyers, judges, and investigators. But for four years, Vender had the felony charge hanging over his head.

This Jan. 16, the case went to trial.

The only evidence the D.A. had was the recorded voicemail to Greer, but prosecutors say it speaks for itself. Michael Maffei, the assistant district attorney who tried Vender, broke down the message into three parts.

Maffei argues that Vender tells Greer he has a no-bail warrant out for arrest to imply that if Greer comes to court to testify, he will be arrested and won't be released on bail. Secondly, Vender mentions the last day of trial, an implicit suggestion to lay low until then. And, lastly, Vender tells Greer, “So it's October and it's a good time to visit the Fresno Riviera and stay well,” which means Greer had better skip town, according to the D.A.

In Maffei's closing arguments, he told jurors that Vender is like a mobster intimidating a witness.

Vender never testified about what he meant to say in the voicemail, and declined to comment for this story. The closest thing to an explanation was a comment he gave to Kate Moser, a reporter for The Recorder, in 2010: “As you are aware, Fresno is a land-locked city in the Central Valley … It's a ridiculous notion to think that Steve Vender can pick up the phone and tell violent gang members with a criminal history to disappear to a place that doesn't exist.”

The defense maintains that Vender was only doing his job. Safire wanted Vender to find Greer, take a statement, and get him under subpoena. The voicemail, by this reading, was nothing more than an attempt by Vender to make inroads with Greer. When Vender did find him, Greer didn't want to go to court for either side. As for the part about the Fresno Riviera, Vender's attorney Cris Arguedas argued during the trial that was a reference to a previous conversation Vender had with Greer, in which Greer mentioned he had family in Fresno, and Vender joked about the charms of the Fresno Riviera.

On the stand, Safire told the court he wanted Greer as a witness for the defense. “I didn't want him in the Fresno Riviera,” Safire tells SF Weekly. “I wanted him under subpoena if I needed him.”

Even with all the support Vender had, a top-notch law firm working pro bono, and years of preparation, on Jan. 27 a jury returned 11 guilty votes. One lone juror voted not-guilty. It was deadlocked, so the judge declared a mistrial. Vender had narrowly escaped a felony conviction.

But the saga of private investigator Steve Vender doesn't end there. On Feb. 27, the case goes back to court, where the D.A. will most likely charge Vender again and start a whole new ordeal. Greer may have another chance to testify — if the cagey witness can be found. And the lawyers for Vender, the longtime private investigator whose career hangs in the balance, will have another chance to explain what he meant in that infamous voicemail.

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