S.F. Chief, 3 Top Aides Indicted

Times Staff Writers

Police Chief Earl Sanders and three of his top brass have been indicted by a grand jury for their alleged involvement in a cover-up of an off-duty assault by three police officers outside a local bar, authorities said Friday.

Sanders and the others reportedly have defended the officers' role in an early-morning brawl that began when a bartender leaving work was ordered to surrender his take-home dinner -- a bag of steak fajitas.

Six others were also charged, including the three officers who allegedly instigated the street brawl and a captain, lieutenant and sergeant. One of the officers is the son of the department's No. 2 man, who also stands charged.

All the high-ranking officers apparently face allegations that they downplayed the severity of the case and conspired to obstruct justice -- a cover-up. The details of the charges will not be known until the indictments are unsealed in the days ahead.

"This is really an unprecedented situation," said City Public Defender Jeff Adachi. "I don't believe there is anywhere else in the country where you've had top [police] brass indicted like this."

All of the 10 indicted officers, except the chief, arrived by van and car at police headquarters south of Market Street on Friday afternoon to turn themselves in. The chief also was booked and released.

Late Friday, Mayor Willie Brown spoke before an emergency meeting of the city's Police Commission, imploring his appointees not to suspend Sanders and his commanders. Brown, who appointed the chief, asked the commissioners to request that the state attorney general's office conduct the disciplinary internal investigation into the actions of the command staff.

After meeting for about two hours in closed session, commissioners issued a statement saying the panel took Brown's request seriously and that, for now, Sanders remains in control of the Police Department. The commission will meet again Monday to consider the matter.

Brown's appearance before the commission was just one measure of the unusual turmoil in this city, where the mayor and Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan, who sought the charges against the police, have engaged in a long-simmering personal feud.

Hallinan is the scion of a famously radical San Francisco family and a prosecutor whose low conviction rates and shoot-from-the-hip style sometimes get him in trouble with voters. Brown is the former Assembly leader known for his fund-raising skills and ability to outwit his opponents. The two colorful politicians had long been allies, but began to feud when both were up for reelection four years ago. Brown blamed Hallinan for the city's crime problems and, in turn, the district attorney was friendly toward Brown's opponent in the bitter 1999 election.

Partisans said the indictments were Hallinan's revenge on Mayor Brown. Others called the move a racist volley fired by the white district attorney at African Americans on the force, including Sanders, who is the city's first black police chief. Still others termed the indictments political grandstanding by Hallinan, who faces reelection this fall and who they say has mayoral aspirations.

But in a city where elected officials usually rush to hold news conferences and bask in the glow of cameras, both Brown and Hallinan spent the day seemingly running for cover.

Reports surfaced late Thursday that indictments had been returned against several officers, including an assistant police chief and the three patrolmen involved in the fracas. On Friday, the San Francisco Sheriff's Department confirmed that Sanders and three of his top brass also had been implicated. Hallinan abruptly canceled a noon news conference, and he would not comment on Sanders' possible involvement. A spokesman for his office said it would be breaking the law to discuss the case until the warrants had been served.

Brown, a longtime friend of the chief, was corralled as he walked to his car from City Hall.

In answer to questions about how a city could operate with a police chief who is under indictment, Brown responded: "I can assure you that you are as safe as you ever were, no matter what the grand jury did."

But officers at San Francisco's Hall of Justice, which houses the police and prosecutors' offices, didn't seem so sure. On Friday, rank-and-file officers stayed out of the hallways for fear of being cornered by the press.

"This place feels like it's in a tailspin and nobody knows which way to go," said one veteran officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We don't know who's calling the shots. We're without a rudder. We're waiting for some Al Haig character to come out and declare he's in charge."

Elsewhere in the city, police said they were going about their patrols, serving warrants and looking after public safety.

Among those indicted were patrol Officers Alex Fagan Jr., 23; Matthew Tonsing, 28; and David Lee, 23. The three were involved in the November altercation. Over nine days of testimony, the San Francisco County Grand Jury heard from 42 witnesses, some of whom described how the officers got into a fight with two men -- Jade Santoro and Adam Snyder -- outside a bar after closing time the morning of Nov. 20.

Snyder told investigators the officer demanded his bag of steak fajitas as he left his bartending job. Santoro suffered a broken nose in the ensuing brawl.

The three officers have been indicted on an assortment of felony assault and battery charges, authorities said. The felony assault offenses carry prison terms of two to four years, and could include more time if aggravating circumstances are proved.

Also indicted were Chief Sanders; Assistant Chief Alex Fagan, father of the officer involved in the brawl; Deputy Chief David Robinson, who supervised Tonsing and Lee; Deputy Chief Gregory Suhr; Capt. Greg Corrales; Lt. Edmund Cota; and Sgt. John Syme, who led the response to the fight.

They all have been charged with conspiracy to commit a felony, which could carry a prison sentence of 16 months to three years, according to those familiar with the charges.

After they turned themselves in Friday, the six command officers were released by a judge on their own recognizance. All three of the officers involved in the brawl made bail.

Freya A. Horne, an attorney who represents Tonsing, said she was not surprised that her client was indicted. But she said she was shocked that the Police Department's command staff also was implicated. "This is so clearly politically motivated," she said. "I've been practicing here for 25 years, and I've never seen anything like this."

Normally outspoken San Francisco politicians appeared to be in shock at Friday's developments. Many asked the same question: Who's in charge?

Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a longtime Brown opponent and mayoral candidate, called the indictments "a black eye for the city, no matter what the outcome is. It's a black eye for the mayor in his last year of office and it's demoralizing for the average cop on the street, who is honest and who works hard."

Chris Cunnie, president of the San Francisco Police Officers' Assn., on Friday called news of the indictments political shenanigans on the part of the district attorney. "It's like a witch hunt," said Sgt. John Colla, who has 25 years with the force and works in a station in North Beach. "It's unfortunate that politics had to get mixed up with this."

At City Hall, mayoral spokesman P.J. Johnston reacted with anger to the indictments and to Hallinan's silence.

"Certainly, charges of obstruction of justice are very serious charges, and Mayor Brown is not making light of that," he said. "But if the district attorney intends to prosecute the top members of the San Francisco Police Department for a felony, he damned well better have good evidence to support it."

Mark MacNamara, a spokesman for Hallinan, said that Friday's news conference was canceled because "the warrant process is not completed. He said Hallinan would not comment until Monday at the earliest.

MacNamara also said the indictments would remain sealed for at least 10 days and that the grand jury transcripts would stay under wraps for three weeks.

The Rev. Amos Brown, a former San Francisco supervisor and president of the local branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, condemned the indictments as politically motivated. "We challenge the district attorney -- in the words of Joe Friday in 'Dragnet' -- to give us the facts that warrant this kind of indictment," he said.

Brown, a local Baptist minister, cited the long and distinguished careers of Chief Sanders and Deputy Chief Robinson, also an African American, and said, "People who look like me have been disproportionately under attack" in San Francisco.

The police investigation into the brawl had been mired in controversy.

Several of the top brass had gone on record as defending the three officers, and Lt. Joe Dutto, who led the investigation, had complained that his job was made more difficult because of restricted access. In January, Dutto was transferred to the department's vice squad, a move that Hallinan criticized.

On Friday, a former San Francisco mayor and onetime police chief, Frank Jordan, echoed those concerns.

"What bothers me is that whenever an incident like this occurs, the Police Department has to give some sense that they are professionally on top of the situation and make the public understand that they are going to be fair," Jordan said. "But that didn't happen."

Sanders, a 37-year veteran and former homicide detective, last year assumed the reins of a department with one of the lowest rates nationwide of solving serious crimes.

Should he leave his job, a close confidant of Brown said Friday that Deputy Chief Heather Fong is the most likely candidate to take his place on an interim basis.

Already, the indictments have had a ripple effect on the streets of San Francisco.

On Friday, an attorney representing a client arrested by Fagan Jr. said he is filing to have charges dropped in light of the legal actions against the officer.

He said Fagan and other officers tortured his client, Orlando Bacon, after an alleged purse-snatching incident last summer. The lawyer, Joe O'Sullivan, alleged that Fagan stuck a gun in Bacon's mouth and also broke several of his ribs.

"This," he said, "is an officer who acted criminally and viciously."


Times correspondents Imran Vittachi, Michelle Munn and Carol Pogash contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World