A former San Francisco police officer who has been indicted along with five current officers pleaded not guilty in federal court today to conspiring to violate civil rights and steal property, money and drugs seized during searches and arrests.
Reynaldo Vargas, 45, of Palm Desert, was granted release on a $50,000 bond by U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Laporte and ordered to return to court Wednesday for a status conference before U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, the trial judge assigned to his case.
Vargas and five current officers were named in two separate federal grand jury indictments announced today by U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag. The five other defendants are due to make an initial appearance before Laporte in San Francisco on Friday.
The indictments, issued under seal on Tuesday and unsealed today, charge the men with conspiracy and federal civil rights violations related to alleged illegal searches of single-room occupancy residential hotel rooms and theft of seized property and drugs between 2009 and 2011.
Vargas, who wore a grey suit in court, voluntarily surrendered to U.S. marshals this morning and was briefly in custody for processing before he was released this afternoon on the bond, which will be co-signed by his mother in federal court in Riverside on Monday.
His attorney, Harry Stern, declined to comment specifically on the charges after the hearing, but said, “The government gets an indictment by dragging witnesses before a secret grand jury and asking leading questions.
“This indictment is a piece of paper. Actual evidence is a different matter and I look forward to reviewing that,” Stern said.
Police Chief Greg Suhr said at a news conference, “Our department has been shaken,” and announced he has suspended the five officers without pay.
“I don’t know that it gets any worse than this,” Suhr said. “My officers know I will not have dishonest cops among us…. They sully the ranks of the honest men and women out there doing the job.”
If convicted, the officers will be fired, Suhr said.
The investigation was triggered after San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi began in March 2011 to release a series of video surveillance tapes from single-room-occupancy hotels that allegedly showed plainclothes officers conducting illegal searches during drug busts.
Adachi alleged the videos contradicted the accounts of the incidents given by officers in reports and court testimony.
“Today’s indictments are confirmation that the constitutional rights of San Franciscans matter,” Adachi said this afternoon.
“My hope is that this sends a message loud and clear to everyone in law enforcement that this type of conduct will not be tolerated,” he said.
Adachi said that about 100 felony cases were dismissed in 2011 because the alleged misconduct.
A probe of the allegations was transferred to Haag’s office after San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said he had a conflict of interest because he was police chief at the time of the incidents.
Gascon said today, “I am relieved to know that the officers have been indicted, after I referred the matter to federal authorities.
“It is extremely disappointing that the officers violated the trust of the community and tarnished the reputation of all the hard working men and women in uniform,” he said.
In one indictment, three officers formerly assigned to the Police Department’s Southern Station are accused of conspiracy against civil rights and deprivation of rights in connection with illegal searches of residential hotel rooms in 2010 and 2011.
Those officers are Arshad Razzak, 41, and Richard Yick, 37, of San Francisco, and Raul Eric Elias, 44, of San Mateo.
The indictment alleges they conspired to “injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate” hotel occupants by entering and searching their rooms without legal justification. The officers are accused of two additional counts of illegally searching two rooms in December 2010 and January 2011.
Razzak and Yick are also each charged with two counts of falsifying police reports and an informant payment record.
In the second indictment, Vargas and two other officers formerly assigned to the Police Department’s Mission are accused of three conspiracies: plotting to violate civil rights by stealing money and property from people arrested; conspiring to sell drugs; and scheming to steal seized money, property and drug evidence from the Police Department.
The other defendants in that case are Sgt. Ian Furminger, 47, of Pleasant Hill, and Officer Edmond Robles, 46, of Danville.
The indictment also accuses the three men of selling marijuana in 2009 and stealing more than $5,000 worth of property from the Police Department in 2009 and 2010. Furminger faces an additional count of extorting property from an unnamed individual.
San Francisco Police Officers Association President Mark Halloran said in a statement, “These indictments are apparently based on the questionable testimony of unreliable informant witnesses.
“However, we do understand that these are nonetheless serious charges. It is important to remember the accused officers will have their day in court since federal grand juries hear only one side of the story,” Halloran said.
Julia Cheever/Sasha Lekach, Bay City News