When a reporter would not betray his source, police came to his home with guns and a sledgehammer
The banging jolted Bryan Carmody awake. Outside his San Francisco home Friday morning, the longtime journalist saw a throng of police officers with a sledgehammer, trying to break down his front gate.
Carmody told the eight to 10 officers he would only let them in with a search warrant. Police confirmed a judge signed off on their barging into his home. Then the officers drew their guns and scoured his residence. When police left, they carted away his notebooks, computers, cameras, phones and even his fiancee’s iPod from her college days.
“I knew what they wanted,” Carmody told The Times. “They wanted the name.”
A few weeks before, he said two San Francisco police officers — a sergeant and a lieutenant — knocked on his door and “cordially” asked him to identify the source who shared a confidential police report into the Feb. 22 death of San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi.
“Of course, I politely declined,” Carmody said of the visit from police last month. He had the same response Friday.
After police came into his home, officers handcuffed him for six hours as they collected his equipment. A receipt certifying his release from custody confirms he was handcuffed from 8:22 a.m. to 1:55 p.m. The search warrant for his home said officers were investigating “stolen or embezzled” property.
It was unclear whether he was handcuffed because of the guns he says he legally owns. Carmody said the guns were locked in a safe, and he said that over the hours-long search, it was evident officers didn’t view him as a threat. At one point, some police took off their bulletproof vests on account of the heat, he said.
While he was shackled, officers got a second warrant to search his newsroom, where police seized a thumb drive, CDs and, inside a safe, the sought-after police report about Adachi’s death.
Carmody, 49, said he has not shared the name of his source with anyone, and no markings on the document could be traced to the person who provided it.
Fellow journalists in the Bay Area and beyond were outraged by the search of Carmody’s home and office. And the incident provided a new wrinkle into the evolving aftermath of the unexpected death of Adachi, who left behind a legacy of championing civil rights.
Initial reports said the 59-year-old public defender had been traveling when he suddenly had a heart attack.
Carmody remembers his goal as a reporter on the story was to figure out where exactly Adachi died. But soon, salacious details emerged that were difficult to confirm. “There were leaks happening all over the place,” he recalled. He ultimately obtained an incident report that detailed Adachi’s final moments.
The San Francisco Chronicle also obtained a copy of the report, but not from Carmody.
The document, as reported by KGO-TV in San Francisco, detailed that shortly before his death, Adachi had dinner with a woman named “Caterina” who was not his wife, then returned to an apartment he arranged to use for the weekend. The woman called 911 for emergency medical help, and Adachi was taken to the hospital, where he died. Later that night, officers went to the apartment and found “alcohol, cannabis-infused gummies and syringes believed to have been used by the paramedics,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Photos of the apartment circulated online by KTVU and other outlets. The city medical examiner would later conclude Adachi died of an accidental overdose of cocaine and alcohol.
Carmody said he called up his clients and sold the fruits of his news-gathering, which included the police report. He told the Chronicle that he sold the package to three TV stations.
Amid a public mourning, city officials chastised police for allowing the details of a confidential report to end up in the headlines. The police launched an internal investigation into the report’s leaking, which led to Friday’s raid at Carmody’s home.
“The citizens and leaders of the City of San Francisco have demanded a complete and thorough investigation into this leak, and this action represents a step in the process of investigating a potential case of obstruction of justice along with the illegal distribution of confidential police material,” police spokesman David Stevenson said in a statement Saturday to The Times.
The city’s public defender’s office, which Adachi once led, said in a statement that “all of the criminal justice and City Hall leaders agree that the release of police reports in this fashion is wrong and we hope that the truth of who leaked the police report will emerge so that it doesn’t happen again.”
The FBI was not involved in the search. Katherine Zackel, a spokeswoman for the agency, said two agents were present solely to interview the journalist.
To Carmody and his attorney, the raid smacks of impropriety and an invasion into the work of a professional reporter.
“It’s designed to intimidate,” said his lawyer, Thomas Burke. “It’s essentially the confiscation of a newsroom.”
Burke, a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine who has previously represented the Los Angeles Times, said under usual circumstances, journalists would receive a subpoena and retain an attorney to help secure protections. That process also is efficient for detectives, he added, because of the time and resources required to search through phones, hard drives, computers and notebooks.
“So much information has nothing to do with the purpose of their investigation,” Burke said. “If you are looking for one piece of information, that’s why you issue a subpoena.”
The affidavits that police used to search Carmody’s home were filed under seal, so it’s unclear what investigators told the judge to secure the warrants. Burke said he did not know whether the judges were aware Carmody was even a journalist.
The search has brought Carmody’s business, North Bay News, to a halt. As a freelance videographer for nearly three decades, he works through the night to supply the locations, video, images, and on- and off-camera interviews that feed the beast of local TV news. The search warrant documents show police collected check stubs from Fox, Disney and CBS, among others.
He estimates that police hauled off between $30,000 and $40,000 worth of equipment, along with personal photos. Without functional equipment, he cannot work — so his friend Aaron Lee started an online fundraiser to collect donations.
Carmody is insisting on protecting his source’s identity. And he swears he never paid the person for the police report. “No,” he said, “not even a cup of coffee.”
10:35 a.m.: This article was updated with the final cause of Adachi’s death as reported by the medical examiner.
This article was originally published at 7:35 p.m. on May 11, 2019.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.