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Choirboy case goes soap opera

It's not 'The Sopranos,' but an attack on Yale choristers has sparked drama in San Francisco.

January 17, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — It began with an a cappella version of the "The Star-Spangled Banner" performed by a crew of Ivy League choirboys in town on a West Coast tour.

What it has triggered is another San Francisco-style political dust-up -- complete with the usual personal mudslinging, calling into question the actions of both the chief of police and the mayor.

After performing at a New Year's Eve party held by the daughter of two longtime city police officers, members of the Baker's Dozen singing group from Yale University were allegedly attacked outside by a group of San Francisco prep-school graduates.

Several Yale students were injured, one suffering a broken jaw and another a concussion. But what might have gone down as a schoolboy scuffle -- maybe over women, maybe over beer -- soon blew up into a bicoastal fracas fueled by local politics.

First, one victim's father, an influential New York investment banker, criticized police for the slow pace of the investigation and hired a politically connected local law firm to pressure officials into action.

Yale President Richard Levin called the incident "appalling," telling the student paper, the Yale Daily News, that "my only hope is that there is a thorough investigation."

Then came the usual cacophony of competing San Francisco voices.

Police Chief Heather Fong, often criticized as ineffectual, drew barbs from victims' families when she said the investigation was slowed because the victims couldn't identify their attackers.

"I found her statement shocking," Sharyar Aziz, the New York banker whose son suffered a broken jaw, said Tuesday. "I was in a state of disbelief [that] the chief of police of a major city would make public comments I knew in fact were untrue."

Aziz said his son and other victims told him that several suspects had been detained the night of the party but released. He added that 19 members of the group remained in San Francisco for three days after the incident but were never even contacted by police.

"I called the Police Department the day after the attack, and they didn't even have a case registered," Aziz said. "I just found that highly unusual."

Police say that the younger Aziz was not at the scene when they arrived and that they only later received a call about his injuries.

"Just like the chief has said, officers detained some potential suspects when they arrived, but they were released because there was not enough evidence to charge them," said Sgt. Steve Mannina, a department spokesman. "The victim running around making the most noise about this was not even there."

Mayor Gavin Newsom quickly stepped in to defend his police chief.

After calling the elder Aziz to reassure him that the investigation was continuing, he suggested during a TV interview that there was fighting on both sides during the incident.

Newsom also said alcohol had apparently been consumed at the party: "Why were these kids -- they're all underage -- why are they in a home with a lot of liquor? Where did they get the liquor?"

That comment has brought return fire from the party hosts.

One of them, Leanna Dawydiak, a police sergeant on leave from the force, criticized Newsom for a former relationship with a 19-year-old woman.

"Who the heck does he think he is?" she steamed in an interview Tuesday. "Talk about kids drinking! Here you have a guy who's over 40 taking underage girls to bars where they're drinking stuff that sure looks like alcohol."

Dawydiak and her husband, Reno Rapagnani, now retired from the department, have a high-profile past.

The couple were accused -- and later exonerated -- of leaking personnel data in the infamous "Fajitagate" case, another recent scandal in which a bartender was attacked by three off-duty officers over a plate of Mexican take-out.

An attorney representing the Aziz family suggested that such goings-on are typical for San Francisco, which he said at times can be "a major soap opera."

"It speaks to the provincial nature of San Francisco," said the attorney, Matt Gonzalez, who narrowly lost to Newsom in the 2003 mayoral election and is rumored to be eyeing another run this fall. "There's so many interrelated personalities."

Peter Ragone, a spokesman for Newsom, said many people were trying to make political hay of the mayor's role in the investigation.

"This case has become a vehicle for many people in this town to settle old political scores and promote new political opportunities," he said.

"What we need to do is send away the political hacks and high-priced lawyers and let the police and city officials do their job," he added.

Some supervisors have suggested that Newsom should spend more time trying to lower the city's high unsolved-murder rate than talking about a high-profile assault case.

"His outrage needs to be re-proportioned toward the most severe crimes and less to those that affect his own political image outside San Francisco," said Supervisor Ross Mirkirimi, who represents a high-crime district.

Responded Ragone: "Ross Mirkirimi can't walk and chew gum at the same time. What he doesn't understand is that the mayor of a major American city has to be able to focus on more than one thing at once."

Authorities say that charges in the New Year's Eve incident could come in the next several days.

After weeks of public pressure, San Francisco police investigators recently traveled to Los Angeles to interview the victims, who were performing there.

But Aziz said an arrest won't change his perception of San Francisco.

"My son and his twin sister were planning on spending the summer there," he said. "They're no longer going to be doing that."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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