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Catch and release: Did the SFPD lose track of a star witness? 

Wednesday, Dec 23 2009

The indictment of private investigator Steve Vender on a felony witness-tampering charge last month has caused plenty of grumbling in the clubby circle of San Francisco's criminal-defense lawyers. District Attorney Kamala Harris' prosecution of Vender, who works to exonerate defendants in high-profile criminal cases, is being interpreted by this crowd as an assault on suspects' rights to strong legal representation.

But before all is said and done, Vender's case could also bring a fair share of embarrassment to police and prosecutors. That's because transcripts of the grand jury proceedings that led to his indictment, reviewed by SF Weekly, raise serious questions about whether cops turned loose — and then lost track of — the star witness in an attempted-murder trial for the sole purpose of spying on Vender and Eric Safire, one of the defense attorneys with whom he works.

Ladarius Greer was to testify at the October trial of Phil Pitney, an alleged Western Addition gangster who shot him in the head last April. On Oct. 9, San Francisco police officers collared Greer after learning from the district attorney's office and SFPD dispatch center that a no-bail warrant for his arrest on a probation violation had been issued out of Solano County. (According to the grand jury transcripts, since 2006 Greer has been arrested on suspicion of attempted rape, resisting arrest, identity theft, auto theft, and felony child endangerment, and has a conviction for carrying a concealed gun.)

Given his vital role in the upcoming trial, not to mention that the outstanding arrest warrant required him to be held safely in police custody, one might have expected the SFPD to keep Greer close to hand. Instead, officers let him go. Why?

SFPD Officer Damon Jackson testified before the grand jury that Greer, once arrested, informed him and other officers of an allegedly intimidating voicemail that Vender had left on his phone several days earlier. In the phone message, Vender told Greer about the warrant for his arrest and made a cryptic statement that police suspected was intended to dissuade him from testifying: "It's a good time to visit the Fresno Riviera and stay well."

Immediately, Jackson told the grand jury, "I felt that we had a problem." Jackson said police then conferred with Greer about strategies for gathering further evidence of witness intimidation, such as having him record future conversations with Vender. "We had thrown about options at the time," Jackson told the grand jury. "We had said, well, let's make a phone call to him. We threw out any number of options, none of which we did."

And that no-bail arrest warrant? Mysteriously, Jackson told the grand jury, officers could no longer find it in the computer system. So Greer, having discussed various means of further incriminating both Vender and Safire, was released. He then disappeared. Pitney's trial proceeded without him, resulting in a conviction despite Greer's absence. Greer was arrested again on Nov. 11 after the trial was over. On Nov. 17, Vender was indicted based on the "Riviera" phone message.

So who's to blame for Greer's absconding act — Vender or the cops? Assistant District Attorney Wade Chow took pains to assure the grand jury that "there was nothing nefarious about the fact that Ladarius Greer was released ... despite the fact that the warrant actually was in existence." Safire thinks otherwise. "He was released on a felony warrant in exchange for his cooperation against Steve and myself," the attorney, who has not yet faced criminal charges stemming from the incident, told SF Weekly. "They tried to turn him into a police agent against us. It's appalling."

CLARIFICATION: Since news broke of P.I. Steve Vender's allegedly intimidating phone call to Ladarius Greer, numerous publications have reported, as we do above, that Greer was shot in the head by Phil Pitney. Defense attorney Eric Safire and district attorney's office spokesman Brian Buckelew inform us that Greer was in fact shot in the hand and leg.

About The Author

Peter Jamison


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