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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

Page 3 of 5

Issuing a tough-talking press release, the federal government trumpeted the convictions as a major success. "This investigation and prosecution demonstrates that, with the help of our federal and local law enforcement partners, we are firmly committed to a safe environment for all — no matter how long it takes," U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan, the top federal prosecutor for Northern California, said in the statement. "Long-term prison sentences may very well await those who would inflict fear and violence on our citizenry."

Joe Ford, the head FBI agent for the region, added: "The Big Block investigation began in 2000 and is one of many ongoing investigations to combat violence on our streets. It is important to disrupt gang activity at all levels, to include leadership as well as those committing the acts of violence."

"With the so-called end of Big Block, is the violence stopping?" asks lawyer Tamor, who represented Kim Ellis. "Is it stemming the drug trade? No. I think it's just as bad." Indeed, in the years since the task force busted Big Block and Westmob, the city's homicide numbers have surged — from 62 in 2001 to 94 last year — and most of the victims are young black men, and much of the carnage is occurring on the same streets Stepney and company once terrorized.

What the press release didn't mention was that a number of Big Block members got relatively light sentences: people like Kenny Adams, who was charged with peddling crack and shooting a 15-year-old boy in the back with a machine gun. Adams is already out of prison. Or Deante Broussard, who got 37 months for "accessory to possession of machine guns" for his involvement in a shooting. After doing a relatively short stint, Broussard was promptly rearrested — for kidnapping a man at gunpoint and stealing his car. Or Hanai Ibrahim, who was accused of plotting hits, participating in crack deals, and providing weapons to other Big Block members. He got four years.

At least one law enforcement figure is unhappy with the way some defendants wriggled away. "I'm very disappointed," says this person, who worked on the cases and has requested anonymity. "Everybody was looking at major time, but how much did they actually end up doing?"

When the task force went after Westmob, investigators focused much of their attention on Acie Mathews, whom they perceived to be the organization's big fish. "Mathews is their leader in terms of going out and committing violent acts," wrote an FBI agent in an affidavit, painting him as a brainy, merciless thug, who distributed crack and engineered stunning acts of violence, at one point sending an armed platoon of "at least 30, possibly up to 50 people" rushing onto Harbor Road in an audacious assault mission. The task force claimed Mathews killed Marvel Despanie, popped off rounds at Gregory Garrett, and illegally possessed a stolen handgun, not to mention the ski masks and gloves needed to carry out a hit or heist.

Led again by Assistant U.S. Attorney Bevan, prosecutors dropped nine felonies on Mathews, most of which carried harsh prison sentences and huge fines upon conviction. But the only allegation that stuck was the stolen firearm charge, the crime for which Judge Jenkins gave Mathews an eight-month sentence. Though it's true that some other Westmob defendants got stiff sentences — and some are still in court — the case against Mathews collapsed almost entirely.

The government should get kudos for the Big Block campaign, not criticism, argues the source close to the prosecutions. "The federal government was really effective with Big Block," says the source. "George Bevan got the major players, the people who made Big Block rise above the other gangs. That case was well done — people fell hard." Westmob, on the other hand, "wasn't handled with the same gusto."

At the U.S. Attorney's Office, spokesman Luke Macaulay says, "We believe these cases removed some of the most violent offenders from the community," adding that "the cases sent a message to the community that these kind of crimes can carry very long sentences."

A multitude of factors contributed to the government's failings in the Big Block and Westmob cases, starting with the purported misconduct of a veteran San Francisco cop assigned to the task force.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a bulwark against unreasonable governmental intrusion, requires police, in most cases, to get judicial authorization before searching a home. To get that authorization, an officer must present a judge with a written affidavit truthfully explaining why a search is justified. And that, federal Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled in July 2003, is where police inspector Matthew Hanley screwed up.

It went back to a 2001 raid on the South San Francisco apartment rented by Aisha McCain, a Big Block member and one of Stepney's girlfriends. Known within Big Block by the code name "Florida," the apartment functioned as a crack lab and safe house. But Judge Patel found Hanley had employed misleading language when seeking the search warrant for the raid, and barred prosecutors from using a heap of evidence collected at the location, including 17 Baggies of rock — a total of 466 grams — two digital scales, coke-encrusted cookware, and a Pyrex beaker with drug residue.

Obviously, the judge's decision aided McCain, Stepney, and their collaborators. "The police officer's refusal to abide by the U.S. Constitution blew apart the government's case," McCain's lawyer, Shana Keating, says. "I think Judge Patel was highly offended."

In court documents, Hanley and Bevan said they collaborated on the search warrant and didn't intend any sleight of hand. "I don't think there was anything disingenuous," maintains the SFPD's Captain Kevin Cashman. "Inspector Hanley is one of our finest inspectors and deserves a lot of credit" for the Big Block case.

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