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Did SFPD brass order a cover-up in Fajitagate? They didn't really need to.

Wednesday, Mar 26 2003
The two men have had the hell beaten out of them. Jade Santoro's nose is broken in three places. There's a gash on the side of his head that requires three stitches to close, and he's got bumps and bruises all over his body. Blood gushes from his face and he can barely see.

But as Santoro and his buddy, Adam Snyder, stand on Laguna Street just up the hill from where it intersects with Union, the nightmare is almost over. Or so it must have seemed. Snyder, who's in better shape than Santoro is, has called 911 on his cell phone; in a couple of minutes three or four cops arrive.

And then something unexpected happens.

As Snyder stands shivering in the middle of the street, telling an officer about the brutal beating he and his friend have just experienced, the pickup truck in which their beer-guzzling assailants had fled moments earlier suddenly re-emerges at the intersection, heading west on Union.

"We looked into the window, and we could see the guys that were in there," Snyder later tells a grand jury investigating the episode. "We saw the license plate, and both Jade and I both reacted, and said, 'That's them. That's them.'"

Santoro pipes up and tells the assembled cops, "There they go right there," according to his grand jury testimony. "We said, 'Go pull them over. Those are the guys that, you know, kicked our ass.'"

Thus begins Fajitagate.

Who would have dreamed that the three suspects in the truck, intercepted a block and a half from where the infamous Nov. 20 incident took place -- an incident reputedly triggered by Snyder's refusal to surrender a bag of steak fajitas -- were off-duty cops? Or that one of them, Alex Eric Fagan, 23, was the son of Assistant Chief Alex Fagan Sr., the SFPD's second-in-command?

If the newly unsealed grand jury transcripts in the police scandal stemming from the events of that night demonstrate anything, it's that the elder Fagan and his boss, Chief Earl Sanders, may have done little to obstruct the police investigation of Fagan's son and the other accused officers, David Lee, 23, and Matthew Tonsing, 28. They didn't need to -- not with so many of the department's underlings apparently willing to bust a gut doing it for them.

The Blue Wall of mutual protection that separates the fraternity of cops from everyone else isn't unique to San Francisco, but seldom is it more exposed than in the 1,350 pages of testimony ordered released to the public by Superior Court Judge Kay Tsenin.

Until now, the media have generally focused on the political wrestling between Mayor Willie Brown and District Attorney Terence Hallinan over the indictments of Sanders and Fagan, and the DA's subsequent dismissal of cover-up charges against them. But the picture that emerges from 11 days of testimony by 42 witnesses before the grand jury could scarcely be more damning of the SFPD, even if its two top cops appear to be off the hook.

The cops accused of beating Santoro and Snyder will have their day in court. So will five other members of the department, including Deputy Chiefs David Robinson and Greg Suhr, accused in the alleged cover-up. The others are Capt. Greg Corrales, Lt. Ed Cota, and Sgt. John Syme. But regardless of the outcome, the grand jury testimony, made public despite objections by the younger Fagan's lawyer, delivers a belly punch to the old-boy network at the SFPD. That's because, willingly or otherwise, those doing most of the punching are the cops themselves.

Not one but three police investigators detail how SFPD brass threw stumbling blocks in their way. Initially, Robinson and Suhr are alleged to have tried to prevent subordinates from talking to the cops involved in the fracas. Later, Suhr is said to have engaged in an end run around one particularly aggressive investigator. Others are accused of providing information about the incident that didn't square with what internal affairs investigators already knew. For that matter, the internal affairs unit, responsible for probing police misconduct, wasn't even notified until more than two hours after the off-duty cops were detained shortly after 2:30 a.m.

But perhaps the most disturbing of the transcripts' revelations is the insensitivity with which the presumed victims, Santoro and Snyder, appear to have been treated by police after it became clear that the suspects were cops. For instance, the transcripts show that soon after the cops were detained, Snyder and Santoro asked the investigating policemen to let them identify the men they say mugged them -- referred to as a "cold show" in police parlance -- but were denied the chance. Santoro was then taken to San Francisco General Hospital. Snyder says the police again refused to let him identify the suspects after he arrived at the Northern police station, where he and the alleged assailants were taken separately.

But that was only a whiff of the kid-glove treatment afforded the cop detainees following the incident. They were not handcuffed, their clothes were not confiscated to be analyzed for blood or other potential evidence, and they weren't given a urine test for possible alcohol consumption for more than four hours. They weren't even hauled away in a squad car. Instead, one of their police brethren was dispatched to drive them to the station in David Lee's truck. Arriving there, not only were they not segregated from each other, as is customary, but they were allowed to keep and use their cell phones.

Snyder told the grand jury he suspected something was amiss in the way the detainees were being treated shortly after they were pulled over. He could see the pursuit from where he was standing. And after the truck was stopped, he thought it strange that within two minutes, the lights on the squad car next to it were turned off. He asked the officer standing beside him, "Is that normal? Like do they turn lights off like that?"

There was no response, he says.

Five or 10 minutes later, he says, after making sure Santoro got in the ambulance, he turned, expecting to see the suspects being brought back up the street, only to discover that they, their truck, and the squad car were gone. Meanwhile, Snyder was kept sitting in the street for another 20 minutes, he says. "I was freezing ... I didn't understand why I had to sit out there so long." The officer explained that someone "had to come and take my statement, and take pictures of where everything was."

At the station, the waiting continued.

After about 45 minutes, with no one telling him anything, a cop walked in the room "and I asked him what was going on, like 'Why am I here?'" Snyder says. "'Do I need to [identify] these guys, or anything, or are they in the station?'" But he says he got no answers. Still not having been allowed to identify the men he accused of mugging him, Snyder says he finally left the station and got back to his car, parked near where the incident occurred, sometime after 9 a.m.

Meanwhile, the detained cops were faring better. In young Fagan's case, it isn't difficult to imagine why. At about 4:30 a.m., an aide to Alex Fagan Sr. called with news that his son had been involved in a fight and was at the station. According to the grand jury transcripts, the assistant chief rolled into action, placing a series of phone calls: one to his son, another to longtime friend and attorney Jim Collins, and a third to Ed Cota, the station's watch commander that morning and one of the officers indicted in the alleged cover-up.

Although perhaps understandable from a father's perspective, Fagan Sr.'s acknowledged advice to his son on the phone in the wee hours of Nov. 20 is nonetheless remarkable coming from someone entrusted with overseeing day-to-day operations of San Francisco's 2,300-member Police Department. "I told him not to say anything to anybody, that he was not to talk to anybody until he talked to Jim Collins," Fagan related to the grand jury, insisting that he played no role in the department's handling of the matter.

(Such stonewalling tips are especially notable given his track record. Just two years ago, while commanding the same Northern Station where his son was detained, Fagan was suspended for a month without pay after he got in two traffic accidents on the same day and walked away from one of them after promising to return but then disappearing. His 1990 confrontation with CHP officers responding to an argument between him and a female companion along Interstate 280 in San Mateo County is legendary. Fagan was arrested after he grabbed one officer and resisted an attempt by another to place him in a hold.)

Collins told him to make sure he stayed out of the picture in his son's case and that the lawyer would take care of things, Fagan told the grand jury.

As for the conversation with Lt. Cota, the assistant chief says he made clear that he was staying away from his son's situation and that it should be handled like any other. Asked by Assistant District Attorney Albert Murray if Cota gave him any additional information related to the incident, Fagan replied, "I don't believe so. I don't recall. I just recall telling him to handle it by the books, and make sure that all the notifications were made, and I think I -- I know I said to make sure [internal affairs] was notified, but I do not recall him giving me any information."

But the testimony of another police participant appears to at least call into question just how impartial and by the book the department's strategy for handling the case proved to be during the critical early hours. Sgt. John Fewer, the first person to contact internal affairs -- even though he was otherwise unconnected to the case -- told the grand jury that Cota was upset upon learning that the department's in-house gumshoes had been notified.

Fewer testified that Cota "wanted to know by whose authority or what right did I have to call [internal affairs chief] Hal Butler and the last words out of his mouth before he slammed down the phone were, 'Now it is all fucked up.'"

About The Author

Ron Russell


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