The last days of Gary Murphy
He was a felonious biker – and a doting dad. He'd done prison time, then cleaned up his life. Why can't the cops find his murderer?

By A.C. Thompson

I'M LOOKING AT two photos. In the first a bearish man straddles a massive Harley-Davidson chopper, the machine's chrome-plated exhaust pipes gleaming, its gas tank and fenders emblazoned with glittery orange flames. His brown hair is tied in a tight ponytail. A wash of black tattoo ink spills from his pecs onto his shoulders and rolls down a pair of pale, muscular arms.

In the second photo the same man blasts the camera with a huge toothy grin. Next to him sits a beautiful little girl in a forest green dress, his daughter. It's her fourth birthday. She's holding aloft a gift from Dad.

The pictures are of a man named Gary Vincent Murphy, known to friends as "Murf."

They reflect, to some degree, the parallel dimensions he inhabited: Murphy was both a hell-raising biker who racked up 11 felony and misdemeanor convictions and a doting father.

Was is the key word.

At approximately 10:45 on the morning of June 12, 1998, the 41-year-old was slain by an unknown assailant who pumped a pair of bullets into his torso, puncturing his esophagus and ripping through his right lung, aorta, and trachea. The execution took place in a city-funded halfway house in the Sunset District, a facility where Murphy lived.

The killer vanished.

The case puzzled homicide detectives from the start. "We don't really know the motive," then-lieutenant David Robinson told the press at the time. "It could have been something from his past."

Five years later, as Mayor Gavin Newsom tours crime scenes and the press pummels the homicide unit for its inability to crack cases, Murphy's murder remains unsolved. His friends and family fear his case has gotten the back-burner treatment, that capturing his killer isn't particularly important to the San Francisco Police Department. I was intrigued by that aspect of the story. It made me wonder: in the city of San Francisco, can there be any justice for an outlaw?

Let's face it, there hasn't been any public pressure on the department to bring in Murphy's killer, or killers. With his extensive criminal history and imposing, renegade image, Murphy definitely wasn't a mediagenic victim. In stark contrast to, say, Laci Peterson, the attractive, young Modesto woman whose murder continues to generate headlines nationally, his mysterious death merited only a couple of brief newspaper stories before dropping completely off the media radar.

The homicide inspectors on the case, Antonio Casillas and Thomas Walsh, have 13 other cases in various stages of adjudication, plus a mounting number of unsolved cases to pursue. They're overworked, and they lack the resources to do the job. And they face a tough standard: they need hard, cold evidence to make an arrest, stuff that will stand up under withering examination in a court of law. I'll stipulate to that.

But as I began to look into this case, I realized it was a genuine pulp fiction potboiler, involving – depending on whom you believe – a pin-covered voodoo doll, three ounces of speed, a pair of snooping private dicks, and a pugilistic grandma who kept $12,000 stuffed in a cracker box.

There were, in other words, more than a few tantalizing leads in the case. And I walked away wondering why the cops didn't seem to be putting more than a token effort into following them up.

The biker

"He was just great," says Murphy's friend Angela, a striking, vampiric beauty who poses for biker-chick calendars. "He was a funny guy. He'd play practical jokes on everybody."

Angela, who asked me not to use her real name, says Murphy "loved motorcycles, tattoos, playing pranks. He loved life."

Life had been pretty raw, at times, for the downwardly mobile son of a prominent Boston-area lawyer named Robert Murphy. At 16, Gary Murphy bailed on his affluent suburban existence, hitchhiking to San Francisco to hook up with an older brother, a player in the West Coast drug trade. Cocaine, heroin, and speed came to play starring roles in Murphy's daily routine, and by 41, he'd spent many years shuffling in out of county jail and state prison.

As a con, Murphy was an outsider among outsiders. He was, by all accounts, a Harley-riding motorcycle freak and a man who trafficked in sizable quantities of methampehtamine, but people who knew him say he wasn't affiliated with the Hells Angels or the Mongols or any other outlaw biker organization. You could call him a free agent.

He accumulated a fairly lengthy rap sheet: eight misdemeanor convictions and three felony convictions, including, in 1991, a receiving-stolen-property charge that sent him to prison for several years.

Despite the grief the drug game had brought him, Murphy had trouble resisting its gravitational pull when he was released from prison in early 1996. He quickly got back into moving meth. His final run-in with the law occurred in November 1996, when, court records indicate, he was popped in San Francisco with three ounces of crank and a stack of 21 $100 dollar bills. He was still on parole – "on paper" in convict-speak – from his previous prison term when he was busted.

Murphy was running a serious operation. He had police scanners tuned to SFPD frequencies and a log book with the radio shorthand used by the police narcotics squad. He had the requisite scales and plastic baggies, and a decent amount of meth.

In court Judge James Warren let Murphy off easy. Thanks in part to supportive letters from two state Justice Department officials and a former probation officer, Murphy managed to avoid another trip to the pen, instead getting a year in a halfway house. Under the terms of the sentence, if he fucked up, he'd be shipped back to prison for four years.

It was a wrist-slap sentence. In many counties, Murphy would've been immediately thrown back in a cell for violating conditions of his parole. Even by lenient San Francisco standards, his punishment was pretty light.

Murphy moved into the Sunset halfway house where he'd eventually be slain. Located about block and half from Ocean Beach, the house, known only as the Twelve-Step Program, sits on a tranquil, nearly silent street. It's a bulky, slightly run-down building painted a couple different shades of off-white, with a gray shingled roof and a front yard full of clover. Murphy lived in a minuscule room scarcely larger than a prison cell. A beat-up wooden desk and a bed took up most of the floor space.

It seems he finally got his proverbial shit together during his days in the program. After years of living like a modern-day pirate, Murphy dramatically transformed himself: he still roared around town on his hog, a $45,000 showpiece cycle, but now he was clean and sober and adjusting to life as a working stiff. "He did his time, and he wanted to live a different life," explains Joe, another friend who also requested that I not use his real name.

Murphy focused his attention on his young daughter, who was five years old at the time. The girl, whose name we're withholding, was born in 1992 while he was doing time. The girl's mother was Alicia Brumini, whom Murphy had dated in the early 1990s.

Three months after the baby entered the world, Brumini made a permanent exit, fatally overdosing on methadone, according to sources I spoke to. The girl's maternal grandmother, Bonita "Bonnie" Ford, a tough, auburn-haired Oaklander then in her 50s, stepped in and began raising the tyke.

"All he cared about for the year before he died was [his daughter]," says Murphy's younger sister, Christina Murphy Mazgelis, a Massachusetts real estate agent. "He really wanted to do so much better."

His affection for children was palpable. Photos of his child and Mazgelis's daughter, Cassandra, covered the walls of his little room. According to Joe, "he really loved [his daughter]. She was a real bright spot in his life. She told him, 'I love you like a million stars.' "

A home video made at the time showcased the warm personality lurking beneath Murphy's hulking, tough-guy exterior. In the video Murphy circled the city asking complete strangers to congratulate his niece, then six, for taking the training wheels off her bicycle. In one scene he read from a copy of the San Francisco Examiner doctored to include a news story about Cassandra's big day. "Hi Cassandra. I love you," he told the camera, his lustrous dark hair hanging midway down his back. "In about 10 years you'll be ready for a Harley, huh?"

After Murphy graduated from the Twelve-Step Program in 1997, he was hired on to manage the house, where he continued to live while overseeing 12 residents.

The cop

When Murphy was murdered, the obvious question was whether the killing was connected to his former profession as an illicit-substance salesman – murder, as underworld chronicler Charles Bowden has noted, "is inevitable in a business lacking access to courts and contract law." Perhaps Murphy owed somebody a bunch of money for the meth seized by the SFPD. Maybe he ripped somebody off or tried to grab a piece of someone's market share. That sort of thing markedly increases one's chances of dying a horrible death.

Five years later homicide inspector Casillas won't offer any theories. Sitting in a tiny interview room at the homicide office, surrounded by boxes of case files stacked face-high, Casillas is cagey. "The investigation, first and foremost, is open," says the veteran cop, who carries two cell phones and a text pager, which go off constantly during our hour-long conversation. "There are a number of substantial leads, but they have not yet led to a set of facts that are believed to be sufficiently compelling to assure a conviction. You don't make an arrest if you don't think you can convict.... This case is difficult because it's a very tedious process of linking little pieces of the puzzle together."

Casillas says there were "few eyewitnesses" to the killing, and at this point he and his partner, Walsh, are hoping "people who are in a position to provide evidence decide it's in their best interest to do so." In other words, the Murphy case isn't exactly at the top of the priority list; basically, they're waiting for someone to come to them with a tip.

Outside of confidential police files, there's very little information available about the end of Murphy's life. According to the medical examiner's sketchy one-paragraph investigative report, he was found "lying on his left side, dressed in a black tee-shirt and black sweatpants."

The M.E.'s report simply says "a male suspect was seen at the residence on 6/11/98 and again on 6/12/98." Cops found a few bullet casings scattered around the house. They told the Examiner that "a man who was not a resident was spotted running from the scene and is considered a suspect."

There's a clear possibility here, one that would be almost impossible to overlook. Maybe Murphy was a confidential police informant.

After all, he received a conspicuously wimpy sentence in his meth case. Often people cooperating with the cops get that sort of special treatment, and it would explain why he wasn't sent back to the pen.

But if the people in his prior orbit knew, or even suspected, he was ratting them out, they wouldn't have been happy. I put the question to Casillas point-blank: could Murphy have been killed because one of his connections in the drug business discovered he was a snitch? The detective pauses, takes a breath, and says, "That's a good question." But he doesn't answer it.

Hunting for clues, I pull Murphy's court file.

Court transcripts list Frank Passaglia as the prosecutor on Murphy's meth case. Passaglia, the records indicate, publicly pressed for a stiff sentence, not a sweet deal. At Murphy's sentencing hearing, on Oct. 31, 1997, the prosecutor told Judge Warren, "The People's recommendation in this matter is now – and always has been – state prison for the term of three years."

In an interview Passaglia, now a lawyer in private practice, says he doubts Murphy was a snitch. "As far as I know he wasn't an informant," Passaglia tells me. "There was no evidence presented by any cop that he was assisting them in any way."

Murphy's attorney, Stephen Eckdish, confirms that. "I wasn't involved in any deal, and to my knowledge there was no deal struck in this case," Eckdish says.

An adroit local private investigator, a guy who's been around the Hall of Justice for eons, does little to clear up the issue. "You'll never be able to tell if he was a snitch from reading the court file," the P.I. tells me. "The cops in this town keep their snitches close, real close. Even the prosecutor might not know the guy was a snitch."

Then I get a new tip. Two credible sources say he may have been collaborating with law enforcement in exchange for a break in a different, earlier case.

With question marks everywhere, I formally ask the SFPD to release any documents detailing activities Murphy undertook for the cops. I figure if Murphy was an informant, there are probably memos and reports saying as much collecting dust in department file cabinets.

A few weeks later the department responds with a two-sentence letter. It reads: "The San Francisco Police Department will neither confirm nor deny" that Murphy was an informant. This nonanswer, the letter continues, is necessary, "when the disclosure [of information] would endanger the safety of a witness or other person involved" in an investigation. Interesting. If there was no record of Murphy feeding information to the SFPD, I'd expect the department to say just that. Is this ambiguous response a sort of confirmation?

Angela, who knew Murphy through much of the 1990s, is adamant that I'm asking the wrong question. "He was definitely not an informant," she tells me. "I know he wasn't, 'cause that wasn't how he lived his life. He was a stand-up guy."

The grandmother

Angela may be right. It's entirely possible Murphy's murder had nothing to do with drugs.

At the time of his death, Murphy was embroiled in a no-holds-barred custody dispute with Bonita Ford over his child. He asked the court for the right to raise his daughter. Ford, who'd cared for the girl since she was a baby, resisted. The situation turned ugly. Real ugly.

Ford is not your average granny. Judging from the extensive paper trail she left in local courts, the woman has a propensity for behaving badly.

In 1995, the girl was kicked out of her preschool for reasons that remain unclear – but apparently Ford felt ripped off by the school, Montclair Village Children's Center.

The dispute got so heated that the preschool director eventually sought a restraining order against Ford. "During a contract dispute between Mrs. Ford and Plaintiff beginning on July 13, 1995, Mrs. Ford has left numerous messages of a harassing and threatening nature," the preschool director, a woman, stated in a petition requesting a restraining order. "The messages have been left on [an] answering machine, been delivered in letters, in person and delivered by third party. It is distressing."

In one call Ford allegedly said she'd get the "last laugh." In another Ford purportedly told the director she'd "pay" for her "dishonesty."

Ford, however, denied the allegations, informing the court it was she who was the victim. "I have been subjected to severe harassment," Ford argued in a formal response to the charges filed in Alameda County court. "I have received as many as 20 harassing telephone calls, in both male and female voices, calling me 'Bitch' and warning me that I better mind my own business and to 'stay away.' "

The grandma also claimed she was the target of black magic. "I found a VOODOO doll, in my likeness, on my front step. The doll had several large pins stuck into it," she stated, attaching a photo of the doll to her declaration.

The preschool fiasco wasn't the only personal conflict that dragged Ford into court. About a year later her husband, Jeffrey Ford Sr., from whom she was separated, also asked the court for protection from the woman. According to his request for a restraining order, Bonita Ford came to his house one day "and created a disturbance – throwing tools and a telephone around the house" before trying to hit him first with a shovel and then a sledgehammer.

It wasn't the first time Bonita Ford had gotten violent, claimed Jeffrey Ford Sr., who told the court she'd attacked him repeatedly over the "last 25 years," recently threatened him with kitchen knives, and left him a phone message saying he "would be 6 ft under."

Jeffrey Ford Sr. believed his wife had an intimate connection with the criminal realm. He'd known since 1989 that Bonita Ford "had a [convict] boyfriend, and that she was spending money on him, visiting him in jail, etc," he said in court documents.

This gentleman, according to Jeffrey Ford Sr., "once wrote her a letter saying he would kill me."

As for Murphy, his relationship with Bonita Ford was a mess as well. An already tense situation deteriorated dramatically when Bonita Ford found herself in trouble with the law in late 1997. Raiding her Oakland hills home, local cops confiscated a bunch of pot plants that had been growing in the backyard.

Ford apparently thought Murphy dropped the dime on her, tipping off the cops about her marijuana garden.

After the raid Ford called Angela's apartment looking for Murphy. No one was home, but Ford left a scalding message on the answering machine. "This message is for Gary," she said, according to court documents. Murphy, Ford continued, "called the police on me and I know it was him."

Then she addressed Murphy directly: "We know where the call came from, Gary."

"I want nothing to do with you," Ford ranted. "You've put me in a box. I don't even know where I'm going to live. You come and call the police on me. You've lied to me, you manipulate [your daugher]."

In the end no charges were filed against Ford.

Murphy responded by petitioning Alameda County family court for custody of his daughter. In a sworn declaration he outlined the conflict:

"While I was incarcerated, I kept in touch by writing letters to [my daughter]. When I was released, I began to visit [her] frequently at Bonnie's discretion. She allowed me to visit [my daughter] at times without interfering. At other times, she would become possessive of [the girl] and ask me not to come around. I abided by her requests, but it has become increasingly difficult to set up visitation times with [my daughter]. Bonnie has expressed to me that she does not trust me.... My goal from this point on is to live a normal drug free life and care for my daughter on a daily basis."

During one face-to-face confrontation at Ford's place, the grandmother angrily let him know that "she had a gun, and that her son's pitbull was in the house," according to Murphy's declaration.

Murphy's friend Joe says Ford blamed the ex-con for the death of her daughter. "I know [Ford] was really angry. There was a lot of animosity," recalls the friend.

Ford publicly reacted to Murphy's legal move by hiring a lawyer to challenge him in court. She also was quietly cooking up other plans of action.

The private eyes

Mike Spencer met Ford at the Cantina, a Mexican restaurant on Park Boulevard in Oakland in early February 1998. Between sips of a margarita, Ford explained her situation to Spencer, a licensed private investigator she had found through an ad in the Yellow Pages.

She portrayed Murphy as an incorrigible asshole who was still actively involved in the drug trade. She needed Spencer's help to keep Murphy from gaining custody of the girl.

Spencer, then a fairly green P.I. who'd only been licensed for about two years, bought Ford's story. "My initial take on her was very sympathetic. I thought it was awful that this guy who was a convicted drug dealer and ne'er-do-well was going to get custody of this beautiful little girl," Spencer says today.

The two came to an agreement. For $1,000 Spencer would surveil Murphy with the intention of catching him engaging in criminal activity. Ford would take the documentary evidence to Murphy's parole officer, who, in all likelihood, would ship him right back to San Quentin.

From the beginning Ford allegedly made ominous comments about fixing Murphy. "She was thinking about having one of her sons plant like 500 hits of acid" in Murphy's car, Spencer would later tell San Francisco police detectives under questioning, according to a transcript of the interview.

Still, Spencer, an industrious former journalist, went to work for Ford, building a dossier on Murphy, including his birth date, social security number, driver's license number, and criminal history. Over the span of several weeks, Spencer and an associate tailed Murphy, tracking his comings and goings. They found he spent his weekdays at the halfway house and his weekends with Angela at her apartment downtown. He rode passenger in a couple cars, a brown 1981 Chevy and a green late-model Lexus. He took his daughter on outings in Oakland. He didn't, however, seem to be doing anything illegal.

The lack of results didn't please Ford. Spencer responded by offering to add another P.I. to the team, a guy tight with the SFPD. That man was John Nazarian, a colorful, controversial private investigator who'd been at the center of one of the more sordid police scandals of the 1990s.

In local law enforcement circles, Nazarian's name is synonymous with the Foxglove case, a vast murder-conspiracy plot involving a clan of Gypsies who allegedly poisoned a string of elderly men using the heart drug digitalis. Nazarian, reportedly hoping to score a Hollywood movie deal about the sensational case, somehow weaseled a key 42-page investigative report out of the police detectives assigned to the crime. The report eventually wound up in the newspapers, the Gypsy probe went down the crapper, and the cops in question were charged with misconduct.

Now Nazarian promised to use his skills to further the Get Gary campaign.

On Feb. 17, 1998, Nazarian and Spencer met with Ford at her home. As the girl played with a friend in another room, Ford told the private detectives she wanted Murphy behind bars before March 17, when he was scheduled – per the judge's orders – to start having unsupervised visits with the girl.

Nazarian named a price: $12,000, plus an $8,000 bonus if they did it by mid March. Spencer says Ford grabbed a Ritz cracker box, pulled out $12,000 in cash, and paid the men on the spot.

She also made some very interesting remarks, according to the private detectives. Nazarian, who now lives in Los Angeles, would later memorialize the sit-down in a memo sent to the SFPD, saying Ford wanted to see Murphy dead.

Ford, according to Nazarian's memo, which I obtained, "told us of 'plans A, B, & C.'.... She told myself and Mr. Spencer that she was 'well connected' and would stop at nothing to put Mr. Murphy away. She did mention the 'k' word and we told her we could not hear that stuff and did not want to know her other plans. She told us of a 'convict' she could use to help her with this issue but was going to put her nickel on me, John Nazarian."

Spencer corroborates Nazarian's version of events. He says, "She was very cryptic, but she was hinting at doing really illegal things like planting drugs, or 'If Gary wasn't in the picture.' "

In March 1998, Spencer and Nazarian severed their ties with Ford, whom they found to be a constant pain in the ass.

Spencer learned of Murphy's demise, which came less than a week after the court granted him custody of the child, by reading the newspaper.

The investigation

The two P.I.s took their tale to Casillas at homicide, telling the detective and another officer, who's since left the force, of their creepy dealings with Ford. But the police probe – evidently – went nowhere.

"We had the decency to approach the cops, and the cops, especially Casillas, treated me like I was something on the bottom of their shoes," Spencer rails. "Now, five years after John and I provided them with an awful lot of leads and information, it seems strange to me that this case is still open. It seems to me the San Francisco police don't work really hard to solve homicides, especially when the victim is unsympathetic."

Nazarian says the police "ended up looking at Mike and I like we did something terrible. We're fucking P.I.s – we're not thugs; we're not goons."

Casillas admits the probe has moved slowly, but he blames the lack of progress on "evidentiary hurdles" and a dearth of resources. "It is true that resource constraints have impacted Mr. Murphy's case, just as they have impacted many other cases," the detective tells me.

He won't name Ford – or anybody else, for that matter – as a suspect. "We have talked to her. If she's around, we'd like to talk to her," the detective tells me. "If you see her, ask her to call me."

I have trouble pinning down an address or phone number for Ford, but I do locate her husband, Jeffrey Ford Sr., who lives in an vast, multilevel house in a posh neighborhood in the Oakland hills. I speak to him while standing in his driveway on a pitch-black February night.

He's separated from his wife but remains in contact with her and his granddaughter, and he insists Bonita Ford will not to talk to me.

"The whole thing was very unsettling for us, especially in light of the fact that we lost a daughter as well," Ford says. "It was a pretty traumatic situation for us. We've got a granddaughter we're raising with no parents."

I bring up Spencer's claims. He explodes, shouting, "That's outrageous! Why would he make up some bullshit like that?" Bonita Ford, he continues, played absolutely no role in Murphy's death.

In his opinion Murphy's murder was drug-related. "The conclusion that everybody had was that he was turning on people," he says. "That's what the street was saying."

But there's one area in which Jeffrey Ford Sr. and the pals of Gary Murphy are in total sync. None of them recalls much SFPD interest in the case.

Ford says he talked to SFPD detectives in 1998, not long after the murder, "and never heard another thing from them. I never did know what happened." And he doesn't seem too concerned about it.

I've now spoken to five people who were questioned by Casillas and his fellow officers. Many of the interviews were conducted over the phone, the least effective way to do an interview. Most were brief – 5, maybe 10 minutes.

Passaglia, the prosecutor, didn't even know Murphy was dead until I called him. The SFPD never contacted him. If I were a detective, it would seem that Passaglia, who spent a year dealing with Murphy in court and was well acquainted with his criminal record and ties to the underworld, would've been one of the first people I'd talk to. Murphy's lawyer, Eckdish, took it upon himself to phone the homicide unit. He had one short conversation with the inspectors.

All of this makes me wonder how seriously the SFPD takes this case.

The people who loved Murphy have been thinking the same thing. His sister, Christina Murphy Mazgelis, is deeply angry. "To this day I think they dropped the ball, and I want an answer," she tells me. "I think they thought he was some bad dude from San Quentin, which he wasn't. If my brother had gone to law school and followed in my father's footsteps, I think they would've followed this through to the end."

She weeps, just slightly, during our conversation and says, "When [the murder] happened, I kind of gave up on life itself. Every day I think about it."

Many of Murphy's associates, his friend Angela says, were never contacted by homicide. "What investigation?" she bitterly asks. "I didn't know there was one. The trail's gotta be cold by now."

E-mail A.C. Thompson

February 25, 2004