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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
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Page 4 of 5

The witnesses in both cases posed a bigger challenge. While the code of the underworld forbids snitching, police detectives and federal agents proved remarkably effective at getting Big Blockers to reveal the inner workings of the group and to implicate one another in various crimes — the specter of a triple-digit prison term has a way of loosening lips. In exchange for leniency, many Big Block soldiers turned informant and began blabbing about the misdeeds of both gangs.

When Bevan and the other prosecutors constructed their indictments, they drew heavily from the testimony of these "cooperating defendants." The gangsters-turned-informants turned out to be both a boon and a liability. Sure, they possessed firsthand information about all the drug dealing and mayhem. But on more than one occasion, the forensic clues gathered at the crime scenes contradicted their claims.

That's what happened with Mathews. A Big Block member/informant fingered him for the murder of Marvel Despanie, who was gunned down while sitting in a burgundy Mustang. The shell casings and damage to the car, however, proved it couldn't have happened the way the informant claimed. There was another problem: The rival gangster was himself an obvious suspect in the crime.

In a scathing legal brief, Mathews' attorney, Robert Waggener, blamed prosecutors for relying on testimony "the government knows to be false." Waggener declined to be interviewed for this story.

"Corroboration is the key," explains Steven Gruel, a former federal prosecutor. "Any material fact you get from an informant must be corroborated many times over."

"As far as Boobie goes, a lot of those informants were out-and-out liars," says Stepney's former lawyer Joseph O'Sullivan. (O'Sullivan represented Stepney in earlier matters, but not in the federal case.) "Many of the informants contradicted each other. I don't think those informants would stand being cross-examined."


One can get a sense of what kind of extraordinary deals the government cut with the gangsters who agreed to cooperate by sifting through the thousands of pages of legal documents sitting in the federal courthouse in San Francisco. But you can get only a sense, since much of the paperwork is thoroughly redacted, or filed under seal, making it totally off-limits to the public. The deals are sealed theoretically to protect the snitches, but it also stops the public from reviewing many of the details of the plea arrangements. This much, though, is certain: Some of these "cooperating defendants" are very ruthless people who spent very little time residing in prison cells.

One guy who got a sweet deal was Laprell Kent, a key Big Block lieutenant. Early on in the investigation, the task force bugged Kent's phone and discovered he was constantly blabbing about killing people. He wanted a rival named John "Gotti" Sears dead, wiretap transcripts indicate. "If someone sees Gotti, someone needs to whack his motherfucking ass," Kent told a fellow Big Block member. (As far as we can tell, Sears is still alive.) He called around looking to borrow a car so that he could "hang out the window and spray" bullets at enemies, according to the transcripts, and at one point apparently helped a friend locate a gun secreted behind his mother's house.

The most serious charge against Kent emanated from a rolling shootout with a foe in July 2001. That incident allegedly started when Kent encountered Frank "Nitty" Hall at the McDonald's restaurant next to the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street. The run-in led to a high-speed car chase, with Nitty, a purported Westmob member, jumping in his car and speeding toward the nearby 280 freeway, and Kent giving chase. "We," Kent said during one tapped phone call, made a "U-turn and got behind Nitty on the freeway." Both cars pulled off the freeway and onto surface streets near the Dogpatch neighborhood when Kent — or another person in the car — began shooting, according to court records.

"I got down on that nigger," Kent told an unidentified ally over the phone, adding later in another call that somebody in Nitty's car had returned fire, saying, "They did a little lightweight buzz-back." In the indictment, prosecutors said Kent "fired one or more shots from his car" or "aided and abetted in the firing of shots." Three months after the gun battle, someone rubbed out Nitty on Cashmere Street in the Bayview District in an early-morning slaying that remains unsolved.

When Bevan and the U.S. Attorney's office indicted Big Block members, they stuck Kent with 23 felony charges — Stepney was the only person hit with more charges. But after Kent agreed to testify against other gangsters, prosecutors apparently handed him a generous plea deal sparing him from a lengthy penitentiary stay; the exact details of the arrangement remain classified. Today, according to numerous sources familiar with the cases, he's out of custody and living outside of San Francisco.

Seeking Kent's perspective, SF Weekly requested an interview through his attorney, Susan Raffanti. Kent didn't contact us, and Raffanti declined to comment for this story.

Tamor, the lawyer for Kim Ellis, devoted many hours to unearthing the buried criminal history of another informant, Curtis Holden, a Big Block associate charged with crack and gun felonies. As he started digging, Tamor realized he was looking at a man who'd done some remarkably brutal stuff. On the witness stand during a pretrial hearing, Holden, who goes by the nickname "Manip," as in manipulator, admitted to shooting a competing dealer, Alfonse Laforet, in the leg in 1991 — though he was quick to note that he didn't rob the wounded dealer. "I shot him, but I didn't take any money," Holden testified. He spent a mere eight months in lockup for the crime.

About The Author

A.C. THOMPSON

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