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Get Out of Jail Free 

In the process of taking down the city's baddest gangsters, prosecutors and cops set some very scary people free.

Wednesday, Jul 26 2006
In a life studded with tragedy and trouble, March 30, 2006, was an undeniably sweet day for Acie Mathews. Clad in a sleek leather trench coat, his hair twisted into little microdreads, Mathews pushed open the heavy wooden doors of courtroom No. 11, and strode into a flourescent-lit corridor. Beaming, he hugged his attorney and a private investigator who'd excavated evidence on his behalf. With the help of this two-man legal team, Mathews had just fought the law — and won.

Some four years earlier the U.S. government, with much fanfare, had hurled a truckload of felony charges at the 30-year-old Mathews, a charismatic Hunters Point native, rap music promoter, and reputed gang boss.

They said he terrorized a Hunters Point public housing complex in 1999, shooting the place up like the digital thugs in Grand Theft Auto.

They said he shot and killed Marvel Despanie in 2000.

They said he'd been busted while driving around in a car with two handguns, two ski masks, and two sets of black leather gloves.

They said he conspired to sell at least 50 grams of crack cocaine.

And Mathews did it all, the feds charged, while serving as one of the leaders of a street gang called "Westmob," a drug ring that relied on copious quantities of mayhem to control its crack-dealing turf near the junction of Westpoint and Middlepoint roads in a crumbling Hunters Point housing project overlooking the bay. Mathews, the government claimed, was a key architect of the horrific black-on-black bloodletting that's beset the southeastern slums for years and the don of a low-budget black mafia bent on zombifying the community with crack or ripping it apart with gunfire. In short, they portrayed him as one of the most violent and dangerous men to ever emerge from one of the city's most violent and dangerous neighborhoods.

To take down Mathews and other alleged gangsters, the San Francisco Police Department teamed up with the feds for a landmark collaboration, forming a multiagency team of police detectives, FBI agents, and investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms dedicated to crippling the organization. After the task force cuffed Mathews and six of his comrades, federal prosecutors indicted the whole bunch on felony conspiracy charges carrying potentially epic sentences and multimillion-dollar fines.

When the indictments came down — a total of 22 felony counts against seven purported Westmob members — Mathews and his pals were staring at centuries in the joint; as an alleged ringleader Mathews alone faced five life sentences.

At the time law enforcement officials were eager to brag about bagging Mathews and his comrades, calling a press conference to crow. "This is a model for removing violent crime from the streets of San Francisco," the city's then-police chief, Earl Sanders, told the media. Today the feds and SFPD are still hyping the campaign in the media — the San Francisco Examiner recently praised the effort — and they've expanded their reach beyond Hunters Point, launching major anti-gang operations in the Sunnydale and Fillmore neighborhoods.

But on close inspection, the serious flaws and tragic failings of the collaboration have become clear. Mathews, for example, pled guilty to only a single weapons charge, and received a relatively brief eight-month jail sentence from Judge Martin J. Jenkins. For the prosecutors and detectives who'd devoted thousands of hours and huge amounts of taxpayer money to the case — and touted it as a major step toward quelling the havoc gripping the town's grittier ZIP codes — the final result really didn't live up to the hype.

And although the Mathews saga represents, arguably, the campaign's most stunning defeat, it's by no means the only setback. Around the time Mathews was first arrested, the task force used an analogous strategy to indict 17 alleged members of the "Big Block" gang, another Hunters Point drug ring, and the sworn foe of Westmob. Investigative screw-ups and some questionable prosecutorial decisions plagued the Big Block case, which eventually swelled to include more than 30 defendants, and in the end many of the alleged gangsters pleaded to minimal charges and got away with short prison terms.

What's most worrisome, though, is the unsavory blowback emerging from these anti-gang efforts. A review of hundreds of pages of court documents and numerous interviews with well-situated sources suggests federal prosecutors secretly cut a devil's deal: In their quest to take down Mathews and other supposed gang leaders, they essentially gave at least one self-confessed assassin a Get Out of Jail Free card. And they handed very sweet deals to other notoriously brutal thugs, including one man with a truly scary rap sheet. In short, the program wound up benefiting the very people it was supposed to stop.

"I think people in San Francisco ought to question the types of tactics the government is using," says Richard Tamor, a defense lawyer who represented a Big Block member. "No one ever sees the dark side of these prosecutions, the nasty shit that goes on to get these convictions. It's sugarcoated for the public."

The thing that always baffles outsiders is the proximity. The Westmob guys hung out where Westpoint and Middlepoint roads meet; their mortal enemies, the Big Block dudes, hung out a couple of blocks away on Harbor Road. The short distance separating the factions practically guaranteed frequent bloodletting — cops assigned to the district figure the beef has generated at least 20 homicides.

Even today — with many of the original Westmob and Big Block figures in the ground, in cells, or in the witness protection program — locals say the conflict continues to smolder; recent shootings probably trace back to the long-running feud.

Almost everyone involved in the ongoing feud is African-American. Most are males, ranging in age from the teens to the mid-30s. They grew up together, played sports together, went to the same schools together — poor, desperate kids living in the maze of decaying, barracks-style public housing developments stretched across the Hunters Point hill.

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