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Walking the Line 

The SFPD says Daniel Dennard is a gangster, thief, and killer. There’s just one problem: They can’t prove anything.

Wednesday, Mar 21 2007
As Daniel Dennard steered his white Pontiac sedan along Cargo Way, a lonely industrial road leading to Pier 96 on the eastern waterfront, he noticed the gold minivan in his rearview mirror advancing on him. Dennard had grown up in tough neighborhoods around the Bay Area — including Hunters Point and the infamous Geneva Towers housing projects in Visitacion Valley — and he feared the worst. In the 'hood murder is often preceded by a car chase. He figured the driver of the minivan was coming to kill him and his passenger, longtime friend Jovan Reed.

Dennard, then 20, pressed the gas pedal to the floor, pushing the car to 70 miles per hour. The minivan matched the pace. Dennard tried to coax more speed out of the car, but couldn't. As the minivan pulled alongside, Dennard swung the Pontiac left on Jennings Street, slamming into a storage shed. It was all over now. A man, later described by a witness as a "tall and skinny" black male in his mid-20s, bounced out of the minivan brandishing a handgun. He began firing, the hollow sound of bullets punching through the air, the clink of shell casings cascading onto the asphalt.

Police later found Dennard and Reed lying on the pavement about 100 feet from the Pontiac, blood leaking from bullet holes in both men's bodies. One slug buried itself in Dennard's lower torso above his right hip, while five or six bullets clipped Reed in various places.

Amazingly, both men survived the ordeal. Luckily, says Dennard, the shooter "didn't have no "big boy,'" or assault rifle. "I couldn't have taken a big boy. He had a little .40 or something. ... He was about seven steps away from me, shooting as I sat in the car."

The November 2004 bloodletting wasn't Dennard's first encounter with the authorities. Far from it. In fact, in the months preceding the incident San Francisco police officers arrested or detained him at least 15 times.

The cops didn't think there was anything random about the attack. For the police department, the shooting was just one more piece of evidence suggesting Dennard was involved with the Oakdale Mob. The band of young black and Samoan men allegedly control the drug trade in the entropic Oakdale public housing projects, which stand on the bayside flats of Hunters Point, not far from Candlestick Park.

The attempted execution was only the beginning of Dennard's woes. Since then he's seen his face on "WANTED" posters hung up around Hunters Point and been arrested repeatedly on felony charges. Then late last year the police department and City Attorney's office opened up a controversial new front in the battle against gun violence, seeking a legal injunction barring Dennard and other alleged members of the Oakdale Mob from hanging out in a four-block area around the Oakdale complex.

Dennard's family, friends, and legal team say there's just one problem with labeling him as a gangster: It's completely wrong. Sure, his supporters say, Dennard is a rough-edged kid who grew up in a gritty neighborhood, but he's no gangbanger. They describe him as a victim of overzealous law enforcers who harassed him, sought to slam him into a state penitentiary cell on minimal evidence, and effectively exiled him from the neighborhood.

His backers are also quick to point out one very salient fact: The authorities haven't been able to convict the guy of anything.

Despite Dennard's conviction-free criminal record, the SFPD insists Dennard is one of the baddest dudes currently walking the streets — and the department's Gang Task Force says it still has its eye on him.

"He's a killer," says one cop. "A stone-cold killer."

The Oakdale Mob's "turf" is the Oakdale housing development, a collection of boxy wood-paneled buildings thrown up 54 years ago that are owned and maintained by the San Francisco Housing Authority. Officially, the projects are known as the Hunters Point A West development, but most people who live there simply call the complex Oakdale, since the 130-odd apartments sit on a weed-ridden stretch of Oakdale Avenue.

Residents have long complained about two things: the dilapidated state of the property — in 2006 a task force of city inspectors documented "egregious and pervasive" housing code violations throughout the two- and three-story structures — and the number of bullets flying around.

Most of that gunfire can likely be traced to decades-old feuds. Today, there's serious animosity between the Oakdale guys and dudes who live nearby in subsidized housing complexes on Harbor Road and West Point Road. At this point, insiders say, the three-way dispute is all about revenge. When a member of one faction is hurt or killed, his homeboys strike back ruthlessly at the suspected assailants.

Members of the Oakdale Mob are suspected of at least 12 killings over the past three years, according to City Attorney Dennis Herrera. In an effort to stop the bloodshed, Herrera's office went to court last September and sued to obtain an injunction preventing 22 members of the gang — most of whom don't live in Oakdale — from coming near the housing complex.

Deputy City Attorney Machaela Hoctor, who drafted the gang injunction and argued its merits in court, views it as a boon for the long-neglected area. Since a preliminary injunction went into effect a few months ago, Hoctor says it's brought a measure of calm to once chaotic streets. "It's been really wonderful to see the beginning of the transformation of the community. The residents are really thankful. It's really great to see kids out there playing, riding their bikes on the streets, and playing on the basketball courts," she says.

To be labeled as a gang member by law enforcement is like having a scarlet G tattooed on your record. The gang designation is a tremendously powerful law enforcement tool. Gang members convicted of crimes face extended prison sentences; like sex offenders they must register with the police when released from jail or prison. Now, even people who've never been convicted — like Dennard — can be banned by the civil courts from associating with other purported gangsters or from setting foot in certain areas.

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