Graffiti gang wars
Taggers face steep charges after months of police surveillance.

By George Schulz

AT A RECENT meeting of San Francisco's Graffiti Advisory Board, president Marc Bruno suggested inviting a graffiti artist or academic with expertise on the subject to speak to the group. Bruno figured an expert could offer new insight into the culture of and motivation behind graffiti.

Members of the 14-seat board, which includes a cross-section of city workers and concerned citizens, swiftly rejected the idea. One member said he didn't want vandals to be given a "platform." Another said she'd just as soon invite a drug dealer to speak to the board. There's nothing to understand about graffiti but how to stop it, they argued.

While the clash was little more than a footnote in the city's ongoing war against graffiti, it was telling.

Call it art, call it crime, call it a sociological phenomenon, but the bottom line is that graffiti drives a lot of people nuts. The city responds to more than 4,000 complaints about graffiti a year and spends $2 million to remove it from public and private property. City workers sandblast and paint over spray paint, fix windows defaced with glass-etching cream or cutters, and replace street signs marred by stickers and tags. BART alone has a budget of more than $1.5 million a year for graffiti cleanup.

Now District Attorney Terence Hallinan is mounting a landmark legal assault on those who wield Krylon and permanent markers. The D.A.'s Office is pursuing a raft of felony charges – conspiracy, gang membership, and vandalism – against eight alleged graffitists, five of whom are purported members of a gang called Kill Until Killed (the name is slang for "paint until painted over"). If found guilty, the alleged taggers, who are looking at a total of 24 charges, could end up doing between 18 and 21 months in state prison for spray painting – which would be the longest sentences ever for graffiti in San Francisco.

"I think that there's a strong community interest to hold accountable an organized group of graffiti taggers who think that the city is their playground," assistant district attorney Harry Dorfman says. "We also want to let the other taggers in town know there's a consequence for what they do.... Even though I can't get all of them, the word will get out in the tagging community."

The case is a product of the kind of multi-agency police probe usually reserved for Mafia families and hard-core drug rings. Over a six-month span, the San Francisco Police Department and its partner agencies, including the Oakland Police Department and BART police, placed members of KUK under surveillance, staking out their homes, tracking their cars, and even eating next to them in restaurants. The graffiti trail led cops up and down the West Coast and across the country to Minnesota and New York.

Early on Oct. 28, 2002, San Francisco police finally concluded their investigation with the arrests of David Lieberman and Dustin Long. The police had received a call from a witness who saw Lieberman and Long tagging. Police say the suspects were in possession of spray-paint cans and wide-tipped permanent markers at the time of their arrests. Patrol officers later found the men's purported "tags" – "Abhor" and "Dels," respectively – on 10 Market Street businesses and Muni bus stop shelters, according to police reports.

On the day of Lieberman's and Long's arrests, police from BART's Together Against Graffiti unit raided Lieberman's residence in San Francisco. BART police next served a warrant to alleged KUK member Casey Watson at his Oakland home. Shortly afterward, more residences in San Francisco and Oakland were hit with search warrants based on evidence gathered from the two initial raids and photos of graffiti from around the city believed to be the work of KUK.

During the raids, police retrieved sketchbooks, photos, spray-paint cans, markers, and "other items that fill boxes of evidence," according to police reports. Police allege that tags and throw-ups (larger, full-color tags) found in the seized sketchbooks appear to match graffiti found everywhere from mailboxes near Lieberman's home to the sign over a teller window at the city's auto impound office. Investigators are convinced they can identify the work of KUK, citing as evidence their own photos of graffiti throughout the Mission District depicting a cat with Xs for eyes and a KUK logo, as well as "Abhor," "Vic20," and "Sleaze" throw-ups in vacant lots, desolate alleys, and on the sides of delivery trucks.

Based on evidence gathered in the raids and police photos, eight suspects were hit with indictments, including five alleged members of KUK as well as the crew's supposed "associates." In addition to Lieberman, these include Chris Lindig, Camille Johnson, Josh Lazcano, Dave Larsen, Casey Watson, Colin Carlton, and Keegahan McHargue.

Lieberman, tall and slender with a boyish face, would fit nicely in a Norman Rockwell painting if it weren't for the tattoos snaking up his arms to his neck. It would be difficult to peg him as a stereotypical gang member. He admits he's been busted for graffiti before but says that generally the charges have been dropped or he's gotten "a slap on the wrist." The severe charges he faces now are shocking to him.

"As a whole in San Francisco, I've never really been prosecuted like this," he says. "It's a pretty artistic city."

All of the suspects have been hit with felony conspiracy and felony graffiti vandalism charges. Dorfman estimates the property damage at close to $20,000, and each individual will be charged on the basis of how much property damage he or she allegedly perpetrated. Dorfman is also charging five defendants – the supposed KUKers – with gang membership, which could stiffen sentences dramatically.

But the prosecutor may have some legal difficulty when it comes to defining KUK as a gang.

The California Penal Code defines criminal street gang as a group of three or more people, whether formal or informal, that commits one or more criminal acts from a list of 25 activities including felony vandalism (one of the least-threatening activities on the list, depending on your point of view). Gang charges pass muster when suspects engage in a "pattern of criminal gang activity," defined as two or more activities from the list, or are convicted of a felony "for the benefit of any criminal street gang." Dorfman can argue the latter as long as he proves individual charges exceeded $400 in damage or proves conspiracy to commit felony vandalism.

Dorfman sees no problem in applying the penal code's gang definition to KUK. He says there's nothing in the code that says groups must commit violent crimes along with vandalism in order to be defined as a gang.

Camille Johnson's attorney Maitryea Badami disagrees. She insists the penal code was specifically designed to target gangs that engage in vandalism among a variety of illegal activities. "The statute was defined to control violence in turf warfare in street gangs," Badami says. "The fact that graffiti was included in that list was because some street gangs used graffiti to establish their turf. Our issue is that this doesn't meet the original intent of the statute." If Badami is right, all or at least a significant portion of the charges could be dropped when she heads to state court in November to file a motion to dismiss the trial.

Even without new graffiti coming from Lieberman and the others, there's no doubt it's still ubiquitous in the Mission and other parts of the city – even beyond the commissioned Altoids billboards depicting urban art that run along Mission Street. What kind of example Lieberman and his friends will become to taggers everywhere is partly up to the Oakland and San Francisco judges who will determine their fate in coming months.

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November 12, 2003