The Ex Cries "Rape"
It's not unusual for S.F. cops and the DA's Office, known for their mutual distrust (if not outright hostility), to use the press for advantage in their ongoing rivalry. What is unusual is a Page One, above-the-fold story in one of the major dailies where one side says the other let a violent crime occur -- based on leaked privileged documents and anonymous comments, corroborated by a source with a sizable ax to grind.
That's what happened in the Nov. 4 Ex. "S.F. cops blame DA for rape case" read the headline above the story by veteran reporter and columnist Scott Winokur. "Police say suspect would have been behind bars if they'd had warrant" was the subhead.
While DA Terence Hallinan and his narcotics chief, Donna Lee, dallied needlessly over police requests for an arrest warrant for a suspected teen-age crack dealer in May and June, Winokur wrote, the drug suspect participated in the gang rape of a teen-age girl in late July. The DA's "inaction," Winokur stated in his lead, "may have allowed" the rape.
Setting aside the specious conclusion, it's pretty powerful stuff. Winokur devotes more than 1,000 words to the story, a sizable amount for a daily. But he never answers the question, Why?
Corruption? Never suggested. Incompetence? Steve Cook, the assistant managing editor who supervised Winokur on the story, said last week that the story's point was "not that the Examiner blamed the DA for the rape." Instead, it was to describe "part of the criminal justice system in San Francisco that most people don't get a look at."
That it did, though perhaps not the look Cook intended. What this story did -- and did not -- say is instructive.
Over the next couple of 'graphs, in classic pyramid style, Winokur expanded on his lead sentence with more details, all shaded against Hallinan. Then, for "balance," he gave space to Hallinan spokesman John Shanley and Hallinan himself (who had the presence of mind to express sympathy for the rape victim, who was never identified because of her age and the nature of the crime) before speaking in his own defense.
They said police had given them inadequate evidence. They also pointed out that, even if the suspect had been arrested when police first asked for authorization, as a juvenile, he would have been released in days, plenty of time before the rape happened. Finally, if officers had been so worried about the danger he posed, they could have executed a warrantless arrest on the spot.
The cops' side takes up the remaining two-thirds of the story, starting with the only police source quoted by name, Capt. Greg Corrales, commander of the precinct where the alleged drug dealing and rape took place. Corrales offered well-tailored, point-by-point refutations, which Winokur recorded with little elaboration, even when they raised new questions about the situation.
First, a warrantless arrest was possible, Corrales conceded, but it would have had to have been carried out on the street, in public view. That, concluded Winokur, "might have further strained police-community relations," which "have been [tense] ... since the 1995 police slaying of drug suspect William Hankston Jr." An intriguing twist, but it's never pursued.
Corrales told Winokur the DA's criticism was "totally bogus." As for why the DA didn't handle the matter in a timely way, " 'They just didn't want to find time to do it.' "
Winokur identified Corrales as the head of narcotics when the drug suspect was fingered and "now commanding officer at Ingleside Station." Winokur neglected to mention that Corrales had been transferred out of narcotics to the relative Siberia of Ingleside as punishment for his participation in the August raid of the S.F. Cannabis Buyers' Club; the raid had angered both Police Chief Fred Lau and Hallinan, who had publicly expressed embarrassment over the position Corrales had put him in.
In an interview last week, Winokur said he saw no need to tell readers Corrales' history with Hallinan: "I asked Corrales if his criticism of the case had anything to do with his demotion. He denied it," Winokur said, "The cops didn't sic me on [Hallinan]. It was a slam-dunk story."
Then there's the matter of Winokur's extensive access to law enforcement documents, including a detailed description of the victim's account of the rape to police investigators and how police drove her around until she identified her alleged attackers, including the purported leader of the group. Winokur wrote that this last nugget came from "an internal district attorney's memorandum obtained by The Examiner." In fact, that memo had been faxed to the Ex by the DA's Office in an effort to convince the paper to hold the story because sex-crimes prosecutors feared the Ex story would jeopardize the rape prosecution.
And what had worried prosecutors?
Among the goodies the never-identified narcotics officers passed on to Winokur was the victim's phone number at her new home outside the city, where her father had moved her, out of fear for her safety. Winokur called to ask the father "how he felt" about the allegations that his daughter's rape had been the DA's fault, Winokur explained last week. Winokur didn't get the response he was looking for, though. Instead, the father erupted in anger over that fact that Winokur had his home number. The father in turn called the DA to say that he was withholding his daughter's cooperation, a development Winokur put at the very end of his story without mentioning the father's furious reaction to his query.
"We don't feel particularly happy" about upsetting the man, said Assistant Managing Editor Cook. But, he claimed, the damage had already been done; running the story didn't change things.
Last week, DA spokesman Shanley said the story was "way out of left field. It's more about certain officers having a political beef, and, rather than going through normal channels, they involve a rape victim and her family." He called it "the sleaziest mode" of using the press to get even.
The assistant DA at the center of the controversy is Lee, who handles narcotics prosecutions. She never commented to Winokur for the story. Reached a few days ago, she broke her silence to say that the initial evidence against the drug suspect, which would have supported the first warrant, was inadequate to sustain a case as it was presented to her.
"Everything in the buy program was a mess," she said, referring to the operation in which the suspect was identified. Corrales had set it up before his demotion, without informing the DA or Police Chief Lau, Lee said. Lau declined comment except to issue a vague statement from his spokeswoman, Barbara Davis.
"A couple of cops were assaulted, so they were even more motivated," Lee recalled. "They wanted 100 percent prosecution." When the program was abruptly terminated, police "showed up with the boxes of evidence on my doorstep without prior notification." Among the problems, tapes were "inaudible or the tape machine broke down," Lee said, and critical records were missing. The rape suspect's file was among the incomplete ones and wasn't delivered to her in usable form until Aug. 8, nearly two weeks after the rape.
In an interview last week, Corrales said of his role in the story: "When I was in Narcotics, I just had to bite it. The Narcotics Division has to work closely with the DA's Office. Once I got transferred out to Ingleside, I was able to say" what had happened. "It's up to others to reach their conclusions."
He denied feeding the story to Winokur. "I don't know who contacted him. If I was going to drop a dime, there are other reporters I've worked with."
But in the future, will they bite?
Phyllis Orrick can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.