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A Tangled Web Has S.F. Stuck

Investigators are investigating investigators as new details of alleged police cover-up emerge.

March 09, 2003|Tim Reiterman and John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — It was just a simple bag of steak fajitas.

But before San Francisco police investigators were through, they knew not only who cooked the takeout food but also how much it cost, who ordered it, who ended up eating it and what role it played in a bloody early morning brawl involving three off-duty police officers, including the son of the department's No. 2 man.

The fajitas were one tiny piece of an investigation that began with a common street fight and has escalated into a citywide scuffle, San-Francisco style. It has wreaked political havoc and threatens the careers of Police Chief Earl Sanders and several of his top aides, as well as the political fortunes of the district attorney.

The police probe, which Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan last week branded a cover-up of "Watergate" proportions, had produced an investigative file with the heft and detail of a murder investigation.

The telephone-book-sized case file, which was obtained by The Times, demonstrates that after the initial hours the probe was conducted under the close scrutiny of the very man who now alleges a cover-up: Hallinan. He and his prosecutors met at least twice with police officials and investigators and sent them notes. At one point, they directed them back to the streets to get additional evidence.

The file documents also show how the by-the-book police supervisor conducting the investigation repeatedly clashed with department supervisors, who he thought were impeding his efforts, before he was transferred.

The case file is "Exhibit 1" in the state attorney general's examination into whether Hallinan mishandled the grand jury that indicted police brass on conspiracy charges even after Hallinan himself said there was not enough evidence.

After the indictments Feb. 27, Sanders took a medical leave and six aides temporarily stepped down without pay. They pleaded not guilty last week to conspiracy charges, and the three junior officers pleaded not guilty to assault and battery charges.

The day he was indicted, Sanders hand-delivered the nearly 500-page police file and other documents to the state attorney general's office to make his case that the department had conducted an honest investigation. He asked Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer to determine whether Hallinan abused his prosecutorial discretion and whether the state should intervene.

Lockyer, who also is reviewing grand jury transcripts, is expected to decide this month.

The brawl started outside a Union Street bar when three rookie officers allegedly accosted two strangers, demanding their fajitas. Records show that within three hours, the department had notified internal affairs and had set into motion a criminal investigation of its own patrolmen.

Heat's On From Start

From the very start, the heat was on because one of the trio was the son of Assistant Chief Alex Fagan Sr., who that night was being feted at a local steakhouse. After one day, a San Francisco Chronicle story raised allegations that the probe was being botched.

Mayor Willie Brown soon characterized the incident as "mutual combat" and the police chief defended his investigation, comparing critics to those who vilified Jesus Christ. A police captain called the victims' version of events "ludicrous."

But less than a week after the incident, the department's probe was expanded to include the actions of not only the patrolmen involved in the brawl, but also the subsequent actions of officers who responded.

Suddenly, investigators were investigating investigators.

Leading the inquiry was Lt. Joe Dutto, who doggedly pursued every detail. At the request of Hallinan's office, he didn't just want to know whether patrolman Alex Fagan Jr. attended a party for his father that night before the brawl. Dutto wanted the guest list, the program, how much people drank and what the toasts were about.

He wanted cell phone records and e-mails. He summoned so many people for pointed questioning that cops began calling their union representatives.

His transfer in mid-January to the department's vice squad set off yet another round of allegations of cover-up. Within 10 days, Hallinan had brought the case to a grand jury of 19 local residents to do the job he no longer trusted the police to do themselves.

Late Call Is Trouble

Just before 3 a.m. on Nov. 20, Lt. Edmund J. Cota got the call at home from a sergeant: There was "a problem with Fagan's kid."

A bartender and a friend complained to police that they were attacked by three "frat types" after they left the Blue Light Cafe. One of the assailants approached the pair saying, "Gimme that food." In the ensuing fight, the victims were kicked and punched and one suffered a broken nose.

As police interviewed the victims at the scene, they pointed to a passing pickup truck and said, "That's them! Those are the guys!"

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