When officers of the San Francisco Police Department's Gang Task Force put prominent private investigator Steve Vender in handcuffs the evening of Nov. 19, it marked the crescendo of a years-old rivalry between Vender and the authorities.
But Vender's indictment for trying to dissuade attempted murder victim Ladarius Greer from coming to court has raised the hackles of some in San Francisco's community of defense attorneys, including Eric Safire, a frequent employer of Vender who came close to being indicted for witness intimidation himself, and Stuart Hanlon, a prominent local attorney who is representing Safire.
They and others believe Vender's prosecution is meant to intimidate defense lawyers. Hanlon called the case against Vender "a political move," and said he doesn't think it's a coincidence that District Attorney Kamala Harris, who's running for state attorney general, got an endorsement from new SFPD Chief George Gascón the day after the Nov. 17 indictment.
"You don't sell lawyers and investigators to get political support," Hanlon told the Guardian. "I have a lot of respect for Kamala Harris ... but I don't support what she's doing here."
SFPD spokesperson Lyn Tomioka told us there is "absolutely no truth" to the suggestion that Gascón's endorsement had to do with the Vender case, calling the chief and prosecutor "partners in crime fighting." DA spokesperson Brian Buckelew called the allegation a "false and malicious insinuation" meant to distract from Vender's transgression: telling Greer in a voicemail that there was a warrant issued for him in Solano County and that it was a good time to visit the "Fresno Riviera."
Vender didn't tell Greer that he would be arrested if he came to court; nor did he tell him not to testify against Phil Pitney, the man accused of shooting Greer in the head in the Western Addition in April, according to a transcript of the voicemail. But he did seem to insinuate that the case would crumble if Greer didn't show.
"The last day they have to bring Pitney to trial is Oct. 13," Vender said. "They can dismiss and refile again, and start the whole process all over. But they can only do that one time."
Greer skipped the trial, but Pitney, represented by Safire, still got convicted for attempted murder and other charges and faces a lengthy prison term. Then, on Nov. 10, DA gang unit chief Wade Chow began presenting evidence of Vender's alleged witness tampering to a grand jury, which indicted him a week later.
Vender declined to comment publicly, but both Hanlon and Safire say he didn't do anything wrong. Hanlon said Vender was just being friendly to a key witness, like any investigator. "It was banter ...," he said. "These kids have no place to go. They don't leave."
But it might've been Vender's and Safire's history of zealous criminal defense that precipitated the indictment. Vender's sparring with SFPD dates back to 2006, when reputed Oakdale Mobster Daniel Dennard walked away from a murder prosecution after the star witness was killed. Vender told SF Weekly that the authorities, lacking evidence, "talked shit, talked shit, talked, and in the end they couldn't prove anything."
Then there was Jaime Gutierrez, acquitted of murder in back-to-back 2008 trials on self-defense grounds after allegedly blowing away Abraham Guerra, a man Vender discovered was a police informant. Recently prosecutors had to dismiss an attempted murder case against another man, Steven Campbell, in part because Vender dug up dirt on the victim and his girlfriend, a key witness.
Cops also question Safire's tactics and his close relationships with the reputed Western Addition gang-bangers he sometimes represents.