Fly Vern is trippin’. He feels like he’s gonna throw up. “See, I’m sweatin’,” he mumbles, wiping his clammy hands on his trousers as he soaks up the bad memories at the scene of his alleged crime. “It’s hard. It’s the first time I seen this. I mean, man,” he says, his voice momentarily trailing off. “But I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Vernon Joseph walks purposefully to the north side of the building and gazes up a dank enclosed stairwell of the two-story fourplex at 1464 71st Avenue. “They said it was up here that I put the gun under the recycling bin,” Vernon says, pointing to a three-foot-wide landing at the top of the stairs. “I mean, just lookin’ at this place is hard. … This is where my life will never be the same, right here. All from one officer.”
It was the evening of December 29, 1995, around 8 o’clock. Vernon had come to East Oakland with his two younger half-brothers, Darrold and Derrick, to help a friend move. Things were lookin’ up for Vernon. A hip-hop fanatic who used to break-dance back in the day, he was poised to appear on a local gangsta rap compilation under the name Fly Vern. In the meantime, he was getting by doing construction jobs for his carpenter father, living with his mother in San Leandro, and planning to marry his longtime sweetheart, Crystal.
What Fly Vern didn’t know was that two Oakland cops were watching the apartment from a hidden location across the street. According to the police officers, six or seven black men were hanging out on the street yelling “herb” at cars driving down the narrow one-way block. The street barkers acted as couriers, running up to the second-floor apartment and giving money to a large African-American man, who gave them back plastic bags filled with pot. Police later identified the man with the weed as 26-year-old Vernon J. Joseph Jr., a convicted felon previously busted on a drug rap at age nineteen who then graduated to robbery.
After an hour’s surveillance, the two cops decided to move in and called for backup. As the other officers arrived, everyone scattered. One cop rushed the apartment where Vernon was staying, while the other guarded the back stairwell to prevent anyone from escaping. That’s when the outside officer said he saw Vernon Joseph open a door at the top of the stairwell, pull a gun out of his waistband, and place it beneath a yellow recycling bin. The officer didn’t get a direct look at the face of the gun-handler, but he recognized Vernon from his earlier surveillance. Fly Vern was easy to identify because of his distinctive braided hairstyle, green Starter jacket, and tall, heavyset build — six feet, and 235 pounds.
The cop later said he took cover behind a car and yelled “Code 7,” police lingo meant to inform his partner that the suspect had a gun. The upstairs partner later testified that the next thing he saw was Vernon Joseph walking into the apartment through the door by the stairwell, where he immediately detained him. The cops didn’t find any weed on Vernon or in the apartment, but the upstairs one said he saw Darrold throwing something out the bathroom window, although he later changed that to the bedroom window. Police say they recovered eleven Baggies of marijuana in the vacant lot next door.
After detaining the Joseph brothers, the two cops drove them to a parking lot down the street, where they ran Vernon’s name for warrants or priors. That’s when the officers found out that Vernon Joseph was on parole from a 1991 robbery conviction in Solano County. According to Darrold, the two cops then decided they were gonna put the gun on Vernon and bust Darrold for selling weed. “That’s what they were sayin’ in the car,” alleges Darrold, who now works at a bank in Pleasanton. “This was like a raffle of ‘Who’s gonna catch a case today?'” Vernon remembers one cop, the mean one, going to the trunk of the patrol car. The cop returned holding a gun, and not just any gun either, but an Intratec 9mm assault pistol. “You know this gun is yours,” Vernon says the cop told him. But the cop persisted, in spite of Vernon’s adamant denials. “He said, ‘Who you think they gonna believe — me or you?'” Vernon says. “‘We gettin’ all niggers off the street, and people’s that’s got records. We cleanin’ up the streets of Oakland any way we have to.'”
The cop’s name was Frank Vazquez, and whether or not that’s what he said, that’s exactly what happened — the jury believed him. Because none of the suspect’s fingerprints were found on the gun, the only direct link between Fly Vern and the gun was the testimony of Officer Frank Vazquez. But that was enough for the jury, which found Vernon guilty. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey W. Horner sentenced him to eight years in prison, which included time added because of two prior felony convictions.
Vernon has continually insisted on his innocence, telling all who’d listen that Vazquez set him up. But no one except for his family believed him — not the jury, not the judge, not the California Court of Appeals.
Of course, this all happened years before anyone in Oakland had heard of the Riders, a group of four rogue cops who allegedly beat up suspects, planted drugs and guns on them, and then lied in police reports to cover up their wrongdoings. The four alleged vigilantes were Matthew Hornung, Jude Siapno, Clarence “Chuck” Mabanag, and the man who put Vernon Joseph behind bars — Frank “Choker” Vazquez.
Because of Vazquez, Vernon Joseph served nearly five and a half years in prison — more than twice as much time as of any of the ninety-odd Riders victims who later had their cases dismissed by the district attorney. His case goes back three years before the official timeline of when the four Riders allegedly transformed themselves from lawkeepers to lawbreakers. Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff believes the cops didn’t really turn vigilante until the fall of 1999, when they began working the same West Oakland graveyard shift. But there are plenty of indications that Frank Vazquez went bad long before then.
In the mess that is the Riders scandal, the case of Vernon Joseph stands out from those of the other alleged victims. His was one of the rare cases that actually went to a jury trial. For that reason, it now provides a unique, if unsettling, glimpse into how much trust the justice system places — or perhaps misplaces — in police officers.
Vernon Joseph made his share of mistakes, but perhaps his biggest mistake was insisting upon his innocence. Fly Vern trusted the system instead of playing it. He underestimated the power of a cop’s word over a judge and jury — even a cop he believed to be crooked.
Other defendants knew better. In practically every one of the Riders cases, suspects who now say they are innocent pleaded guilty to something to avoid jail or serve a reduced prison sentence. In truth, not all of them were innocent, something the district attorney’s office knew when it dismissed all those cases after the scandal broke.
As for Vernon, he ultimately got his freedom too, but at a much heavier price. While more than one hundred plaintiffs await their payoffs in the Riders legal sweepstakes, the guy who did more time in jail than any of their alleged victims might not see a dime.
Frank Vazquez was a short man with a short fuse. What the five-foot-six officer lacked in size, he made up for with machismo. On the streets, where weakness will get you or someone else killed, Vazquez adopted the persona of a pit bull.
Being a cop wasn’t his first career. For years he served in the air force and then as an air traffic controller. By the time he became a police officer in July 1992, he was about to turn 36. He was married with a couple of kids, and owned a house in Suisun City. He wore an earring and sported a tattoo of his wife’s name, Pilar, on his shoulder.
Street thugs called him “Choker” for his purported fondness for wrapping his fingers around their necks. Police union attorney Michael Rains, who is representing fellow Rider Mabanag in the criminal trial, says Vazquez “talked a lot of shit” but ultimately was all bark and no bite, a master of intimidation who never crossed the line into criminal conduct.
Vazquez earned both praise and criticism from the department brass for his aggressive style. In 1999, he won a medal of merit for his work getting guns off the street. The following year, shortly before authorities believe he fled the country to avoid prosecution in the Riders case, he won another medal of merit. He also got bounced around the department, from East Oakland to West Oakland; from the gang unit, to community policing, to undercover drug work.
Then, in October 1999, Vazquez descended upon West Oakland as a patrol officer on the “dogwatch” shift and the Riders were born. His style became so problematic that his supervisors referred him to the department’s Early Intervention System because of repeated complaints about his conduct on the job. Nonetheless, he remained a field training officer, a veteran who teaches rookies fresh out of the police academy how to be real cops — at least until the day that a disillusioned rookie named Keith Batt spilled his guts to Internal Affairs and the Riders’ alleged exploits came to light.
And what exploits they were. Batt said Vazquez once paid off an informant with a crack rock and told the rookie to keep his mouth shut about what he’d seen. Another time, Batt said Vazquez lectured him and fellow trainee Steve Hewison, “If you’re a coward, I’ll terminate you. If you’re a snitch, I’ll beat you myself. And if you’re a criminal, I’ll put you in handcuffs, put you in the back of my car, and take you to jail myself.”
On Batt’s final morning on the job, July 3, 2000 at 2:15 a.m., he allegedly witnessed the veteran officer do something eerily similar to what Vernon Joseph accused Vazquez of doing nearly five years earlier. He and four other officers, including Batt and Siapno, chased down two suspects, Wali Hardy and Wilearl Pickins, who fled on foot after crashing a stolen ’84 Cutlass into a traffic pole. At the time, Hardy was on parole for robbery. When Vazquez and Officer Bruce Vallimont caught up with Hardy, they emptied a pepper spray can into his face and beat his legs and arms with their batons, according to their police report.
“I observed a handgun sticking out from the right side of Hardy’s waistband,” Vazquez wrote. “Hardy ran through the bushes growing on the median, and as he came out onto the street, I observed his left hand move to the front of his body and immediately the handgun dropped to the ground below him.” In a later supplemental report, Vazquez added that Hardy spontaneously confessed to him in the hospital, “I was in a stolen car, if I had the gun in my hand, you would have killed me, that’s why I threw it down.” Hardy, however, told interrogators that he never had a gun on him. Of course, no one would have believed the 25-year-old parolee if Keith Batt hadn’t corroborated his story. Batt, who was on the scene when the chase began, said Vazquez couldn’t have seen Hardy drop a gun. The implication was that Vazquez had planted one on him.
Four years before, the weapons case against Vernon Joseph also depended heavily on Frank Vazquez. He was the only eyewitness to actually see the defendant with the Tec-9. There was no physical evidence, but Deputy District Attorney Scott Patton did have a corroborating witness: Eric Richholt, the officer’s partner of four years. Richholt provided two key pieces of testimony. One, he verified that Vazquez yelled “Code 7” to him from the parking lot to warn about a perp with a gun. Two, he reported seeing Vernon walk into the apartment from the rear door.
But the cops couldn’t keep their stories straight. Vazquez testified that when he retrieved the gun, he immediately unloaded it and put the magazine and bullets in his pocket before entering the apartment. Richholt said he saw it fully loaded when Vazquez brought it inside.
Then there were the seeming contradictions within Vazquez’ story. Vernon’s lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Maxine Fasulis, showed the jury how the officer’s account changed radically from his original police report to what he ultimately said at the trial. In his report, Vazquez put himself at the northeast corner of the building when he saw Vernon hide the gun. But anyone who visits the property can immediately tell that it’s impossible to have an unobstructed view of the stairwell from the northeast corner. One month later, at the preliminary examination, Vazquez testified that he was in the parking lot ten to twelve yards from the defendant — which would have given him a better view, although not necessarily a totally unobstructed one. Finally, at the trial, Fasulis alleged that Vazquez now claimed that he was right next to the stairwell doorway, to make a physical ID possible. “Somewhere along the line, he figured out that his story wasn’t going to fly and that he needed to change it,” she argued in her closing statement.
Fly Vern didn’t take the stand in his own defense, because to do so would have exposed him to cross-examination about his previous drug and robbery convictions. But if he had testified, Vernon would have said that Vazquez’ whole story was bunk. The officer never was lurking at the foot of the stairwell, because he busted into the apartment through the front door with Richholt. And Vernon insists that he was in the bathroom when the cops stormed in. As far as Vernon could tell, Vazquez either planted the gun himself, or found it and decided to pin a case on the nearest felon. “It was all fictitious,” Vernon says.
Vernon says Deputy District Attorney Patton had offered him a sixteen-month plea bargain in his case. Considering the stakes, it was not a bad offer. But Vernon held his head high and took a risk that few Riders victims dared — insisting upon his innocence and having his day in court.
Fly Vern’s decision left his public defender with little choice but to attack the credibility of the two police witnesses. But the prosecution went on to demonstrate just how hard it is to succeed with such a defense. “Is it sufficient for a defense attorney to stand up here and tell you that the police are lying, without more?” Patton asked the jury. “Is that sufficient in a case like this to give you reasonable doubt? Because that’s all she’s done. She’s stood up here and told you that Officer Vazquez and Officer Richholt are perjurers and liars, that they came in here, four- to five-year veterans of the Oakland Police Department … and they risked their careers by … perjuring themselves on the witness stand.”
Of course, that’s exactly what Vazquez and the other Riders are now being accused of — framing likely looking suspects with drug and weapons charges to “clean up the streets of Oakland.” But this jury didn’t know that. They deliberated for two hours and then asked to hear a read-back of all of Vazquez’ testimony. After the court reporter finished reading it back, jurors took less than two hours to render a guilty verdict in spite of the shaky performance by both cops.
Now Fly Vern was looking at spending the next eight years of his life in state prison.
On the day of his sentencing, Vernon Joseph had some shocking news for his lawyer: Another man was prepared to confess to being the owner of the gun Vazquez found beneath the recycling bin. Fasulis demanded to know the identity of this surprise witness. Vernon told her he was sitting right behind her.
The lawyer instantly recognized the man. He was Gary Roberson, a 34-year-old street-savvy hustler from East Oakland with 26 aliases, a history of petty dope arrests, and a felony burglary conviction. Vernon and his younger brothers knew him as Seahorse, their record producer. Seahorse had assembled a handful of local acts for a gangsta rap compilation released in 1996 called Undisputed Game. His roster included Fly Vern and his brothers, Darrold and Derrick, who performed as the Lugnutz. The Joseph brothers had grown up in San Francisco’s Lakeview neighborhood, home of thug rappers like Cellski, UNLV, and the late Cougnut, who died in a car crash last year shortly after signing a deal with Death Row Records. Cougnut used to chill with Fly Vern at his home. Vernon claims Cougnut even lifted one of his rhymes for the chorus of “Many Nights,” a song the late rapper performed with Cellski: “Many nights, many, many nights I cry/Many nights I dream about homicide/Many nights, many, many nights I cry/Many nights I dream about suicide.“
Fly Vern dreamed of becoming Lakeview’s latest hip-hop celebrity, courtesy of Roberson’s Seahorse Records. “Vern was gonna be his first major artist, and what we were gonna do is follow him,” Darrold recalls.
Fasulis had talked to Roberson a few times before the trial. He occasionally called her to see how things were going. If she expressed pessimism, Roberson would become agitated and say, “Well, that’s not right. They can’t convict him. He didn’t do anything.” But he never explained why he seemed so sure Fly Vern was innocent, and he always denied knowing anything about the gun. Now here he was, sitting in the courtroom on the day of Vernon’s sentencing, ready to fess up to letting an innocent man go down for a crime he didn’t commit.
Fasulis was both surprised and irritated, and asked Vernon why he hadn’t told her about this sooner. For one thing, Vernon said he had only found out from a family member whom Roberson confided in a few days earlier. But the other reason, Vernon told her, was that he didn’t think he was supposed to be talking to her since he’d been trying to fire her as his lawyer. After the guilty verdict, relations between the attorney and her client had become strained. In fact, Vernon had filed a handwritten motion to have Fasulis removed as his attorney for failing to adequately show the jury that Vazquez and Richholt were liars. “She has told me orally that you cannot impeach officers,” he complained in his motion. But Vernon thought there were so many obvious contradictions that Fasulis should have been able to impugn the officers’ testimony. For instance, at the preliminary hearing, Vazquez said he saw Richholt standing in the second-floor window; later on, Vazquez said he could hear Richholt, but not see him. Richholt said in his police report that the cops jumped the padlocked gate to get onto the 71st Avenue property; Vazquez said he walked “through the open gate.”
The judge denied Vernon’s motion to dismiss Fasulis, but he delayed sentencing long enough to give Fasulis time to interview Roberson and prepare a motion for a new trial. Two weeks later, she met with Roberson in her office. He told her he felt bad about letting Vernon take the fall. After their meeting, he signed a written declaration under the penalty of perjury: “On the evening of December 29, 1995, I was at the apartment complex located at 1464 71st Avenue. I had my gun, a Tech. 9, with me. I had this gun for protection. My brother was killed in a shooting in 1994. Before the police came on the apartment complex property, I put this gun under a yellow recycle bin. The police arrested Vernon Joseph. It was not his gun. The Tech. 9 was mine. Vernon Joseph had nothing to do with my gun. I did not tell anyone the gun was mine until after Vernon Joseph got convicted. I didn’t tell because I … didn’t want to get in trouble for having the gun.”
The prosecution’s theory about why Vernon hid the gun from police could just have easily applied to Roberson: As a convicted felon, he’d be in for some serious prison time if caught with a loaded firearm, and so he hid the gun to avoid getting busted with it.
Roberson’s confession also had troubling implications for the prosecution and the judge: If he was telling the truth, Vazquez and Richholt were lying. In the prosecutor’s closing argument, Patton had told the jury in no uncertain terms that they could rely on the word of the two police officers. In denying Fasulis’ motion for a mistrial, Judge Horner had expressed his belief that Vazquez had been “completely truthful and a credible witness.” Patton wasn’t about to let his latest trial victory go down without a fight. He pointed out that no one had ever testified to seeing Roberson on the 71st Avenue property that night. This was true; no one had ever testified to seeing him there. But two months before the trial, Roberson had admitted to Fasulis’ investigator, Tony Montemayor, that he had been at the property that night, visiting his cousin. And even Vazquez had testified that he saw six or seven African-American males loitering around the apartment building hawking weed, although he could only remember what two of them looked like.
Yet while Roberson’s criminal past gave him a reasonable motive to hide a loaded firearm, it also gave Patton a weapon with which to destroy his credibility. Once again, the question came down to: Who are you going to believe — the cops or the career crook? Patton told Judge Horner that Roberson was trying to abuse the system because he knew the district attorney wouldn’t be able to convict him. “Even if he admits in a judicial setting to placing the gun there, we’re in no position to prosecute that case because the officers … would have to admit during their testimony in any trial of Mr. Roberson that they were one hundred percent mistaken,” Patton said.
But Roberson’s fate wasn’t the main issue before Judge Horner, a tough career prosecutor appointed by Republican Governor George Deukmejian to the Superior Court bench in 1986. For Horner, the issue was whether the ex-con’s testimony would have changed the result of a future retrial for Vernon Joseph. The judge decided it wouldn’t, predicting that Roberson, whose rap sheet indicated that he had already failed to appear in 39 separate prior occasions, would never show up to testify. Even if he did, the judge figured he’d take the Fifth.
Horner was so convinced the confession was bogus on its face, he didn’t even bother to call Roberson to the stand before denying Vernon’s request for a new trial. A state appeals court later upheld his decision.
From his prison cell, Vernon stubbornly continued to fight for his freedom. In the fall of 1999, he penned a motion asking the superior court to obtain the trial transcripts necessary for him to draft a last-ditch appeal, arguing that they would show that the district attorney introduced perjured testimony. But on April 11, 2000, the court denied his motion.
Then, just three months later, disillusioned rookie cop Keith Batt snitched on Frank Vazquez and his buddies. The district attorney and the public defender began reviewing cases involving Riders officers, seeking to have the bogus convictions overturned in court.
When the story of the Riders first made headlines in September 2000, the name of one officer caught the attention of Mia Holloway. “I was on a lunch break reading the article,” she recalls. “I saw the name Vazquez, and a red flag went up. I remembered one of the officers being Vazquez in my brother’s case.” Holloway did a little more research and found out that the district attorney and the public defender’s office were reviewing suspicious Riders busts. Hoping they would look at her brother’s case, Holloway then called Assistant Public Defender Ray Keller, who was heading the Riders case review with his colleague Clif Taylor.
Vernon Joseph’s case seemed to fit Frank Vazquez’ pattern as described by Batt, particularly in the case of Wali Hardy, whom Vazquez had busted on a similar charge for a gun he “saw” Hardy drop to the ground. But Vernon’s case was also ancient history and promised to be a hassle for the public defender. Vernon had been busted way back in 1995, long before the officially agreed-upon timeline of when the Riders went bad. He’d also been convicted by a jury, and in the legal world jury convictions are sacrosanct — even when they’re based on the testimony of a crooked cop.
In District Attorney Tom Orloff’s theory of the Riders case, the four cops didn’t go bad until shortly before Keith Batt came along in June 2000. “My sense of the Riders situation, it’s something that developed in the months preceding when it broke,” he argues. “It was kind of a confluence of people coming together and certain circumstances that caused it to get going.” Orloff believed that happened in the fall of 1999, when all four cops worked the overnight “dogwatch” shift in West Oakland.
If anybody knew this timeline was a fiction, it was Keller. This was especially true for Vazquez, whom Keller and his colleagues had long regarded as a dirty cop. “Vazquez had all his police reports preprinted,” he recalls. “Vazquez actually typed and preprinted police reports, and all that was left was to put in clients’ names. And he would claim that the same facts and scenario happened time after time after time.”
Not only that, but Vazquez’ reputation went back way before the Riders. “Frank Vazquez has been known as a bad, unreliable cop for years,” Keller says. “It was not a surprise to anybody. The DAs knew. Vazquez’ cases settled cheaper than other officers’ cases. We would be in the course of negotiations and we’d say, ‘Well, you know, this is a Vazquez case,’ and all of a sudden deals got better.”
Nonetheless, Keller and Taylor had struck an informal agreement with Orloff in which January 1, 1999 was the cutoff date for dismissing suspicious cases involving the Riders. Keller says this deal was far more generous than he could have hoped for. “The reason we didn’t go back to ’94 for all of Vazquez’ cases was because he wasn’t a Rider then. The Riders were only active in West Oakland for about a four-month period of time. And so, when the scandal called the Riders broke … it could have been credibly argued we’ll review all the four months of arrests by these guys out of West Oakland. That could have been an argument or a position that Orloff might have taken. But I think frankly to avoid a lot of embarrassing litigation for OPD in part, they loosened up the time frames.”
The district attorney even let guilty people go free just because they’d been busted by one of the Riders. Prosecutors often knew the convicts were guilty because the perps in question had confessed to their probation officers after being convicted. But Deputy District Attorney Jill Nerone, who headed her office’s review of old Riders cases, said she disregarded post-conviction confessions made to probation officers. “Maybe in a way we’re bending over backward,” Nerone says. “But if these officers hadn’t been in a position to make the arrest … it never would have gotten to the point where they pled guilty and made a statement to the probation department.”
Most of the perps cut loose by the district attorney were small-time hoods arrested for possessing a handful of crack rocks. But there were exceptions, such as Eric Darnell Spencer, who probably avoided a prison sentence due to the Riders’ revelations, and later went on to allegedly take part in an attempted homicide. The jury deadlocked after two of the shooting victims changed their stories, apparently fearing retaliation. Spencer himself joined Oakland’s ever-growing list of murder victims earlier this year.
When Fly Vern’s sister Mia Holloway called Keller to discuss her brother’s case, he and Taylor were drowning in a backlog of hundreds of potentially trumped-up cases from after 1999. So Keller said he couldn’t look at the case right away, much to Holloway’s chagrin. “Basically what Ray Keller was saying was, ‘Well, it’s an old case,'” she says. “I kept calling him. … Just think, if I wouldn’t have saw that name in the paper, Vernon probably would have still been in there.”
Eventually Keller agreed to look at the case and brought it to the attention of Deputy District Attorney Richard Moore. After that, the district attorney himself reviewed the case, one of the few in which he took an active role. Orloff still believed Vernon was as guilty as they come. What convinced him of his guilt was Richholt’s testimony that Vazquez had yelled “Code 7.” “I don’t see why Vazquez yells ‘He’s got a gun’ unless the guy has a gun,” reasons Orloff, who says he doesn’t remember reading anything about Roberson’s confession.
Nonetheless, Orloff had to concede that if the Vernon case were again up for trial, his office couldn’t get a conviction without Frank Vazquez, who was by then a fugitive from justice. And even if Vazquez were available, prosecutors could never put him on the stand without a defense lawyer shredding his character.
On December 20, 2000, Keller had Vernon brought in from Vacaville prison for a court hearing in Oakland with three other guys busted by the Riders. Vernon thought he was finally going home. While the other guys got to go without any hassle, Vernon says Keller told him prosecutors wanted him to plead to a lesser charge. “I told him y’all might as well send me back,” he says he told Keller. “I told him I didn’t plead in the beginning — why would I? I mean, I’m innocent. So they sent me back.” Once again, he stood on principle, and suffered for doing so.
Keller continued talking to prosecutors about a deal in which they wouldn’t have to go head-to-head in court. Still, Orloff didn’t like the idea of a guilty man convicted by a jury turning around and suing the city of Oakland and its police department. So the district attorney put an offer on the table: If Vernon waives his right to sue, we’ll let him go free. Of the ninety-odd Riders busts dismissed with the blessing of the district attorney’s office, Vernon Joseph was the only one asked not to sue the city in order to go free.
Vernon says Keller advised him to take the deal, find a good lawyer, and take his chances on the outside. Throughout the review process of Riders-related convictions, Keller and Taylor had chosen to negotiate rather than sue. In fact, the public defender’s office did not once go to court to fight any of the cases the district attorney refused to dismiss. In contrast, following the Rampart police corruption scandal, the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office filed 62 contested habeas corpus writs, and plans to file more. Of course, the L.A. district attorney also was notoriously more resistant than Orloff to dismissing cases without a fight. “When we found cases that involved possible fabrication by these cops, the DA was conceding,” Keller says. “So really, what was left? It turned out, nothing.”
Keller said he couldn’t comment on the specific discussions between him and Vernon. But he did say the decision ultimately rested with his client. “Vernon Joseph’s lawyer doesn’t decide between having a contested habeas hearing and settling for the remedy on conditions. … Those kinds of decisions are made by clients, not lawyers.”
At an April 23, 2001 hearing, Vernon decided to take the district attorney’s deal. After his release, he moved in with his mother, and started looking for a good lawyer. “It’s like you been there almost five-and-a-half years, you got eighteen months left, you go to a courtroom,” he explains. “I mean, it’s like your freedom is right there. Anything coulda happened within them eighteen months of lockdown.”
At the very least, Vernon can say he survived life in the state pen. Some of his fellow inmates weren’t so lucky. One day during chow at Coalinga’s Pleasant Valley State Prison, a gang member got into a brawl with another inmate. “An officer just told him to freeze, got down, and shot,” Vernon recalls. “He didn’t give him a chance to get down or nothing. I’m eatin’, seeing brains all on the door and stuff. I mean, there was some horrible stuff — stabbings, riots, you know — I mean, it wasn’t no picnic.”
Within a year of the shooting, Vernon got transferred north to Vacaville, which was closer to his mother, who lived in Vallejo at the time. He woke up at six and worked eight hours a day doing various jobs, sometimes working in the kitchen or mopping floors or doing laundry, earning nineteen cents an hour. All the while, he was missing out on his musical career, his young nieces and nephews, and his fiancée Crystal, whom he still plans to marry. “To keep your sanity and go through this every day knowin’ that you didn’t do it, knowin’ that you was innocent, it’s hard. If you did it, the time would just go by just like, you know — but when you know every day that you didn’t do it,” he says, shaking his head and pausing mid-sentence, “then when they find out, now they still trying to screw you.”
Since getting out of prison eighteen months ago, Vernon has worked some odd jobs, including a stint as a cashier at Costco, and even a little security. He’s out of work right now, battling a lower back injury he says he suffered in prison. Besides, it’s not like prospective employers are knocking down his door so they can hire a high-school dropout and ex-felon.
He still writes songs, many of which now have to do with his case. One rap goes, “I been gone for a gang of years, but nothin’ changed/I’m ‘a still roll them gold thangs and still let my nuts hang/even though Vazquez set me up, had me stuck in the penitentiary/for something I didn’t do, it seemed like a century.”
Family members say Vernon bears the scars from more than five years in prison. He’s different now. Instead of being the boy who always had a grin on his face, he’s edgy, nervous, quiet. “Matter of fact, when he got out of prison and he came home, he’d walk up and down, like he was doin’ exercise,” says his mom, Pauline. “It was like he was in a cell, and he would go like he was marching in a circle … pacing the floor. I said, ‘You’re not in prison anymore, you don’t have to do that.'”
Vernon Joseph did more than twice as much jail time as any of the 116 “victims” in the federal class-action lawsuit against the city of Oakland and its police department.
“After you take five and a half years away from a guy, I don’t know if you can make it right,” sighs Vernon Joseph Sr., Fly Vern’s dad. “You can’t get those years back. I don’t care how much money you would give him — that wouldn’t give him that time back. And actually as far as I’m concerned he’s still doing time. He’s still got to get his head together.”
Not a day goes by that Vernon doesn’t think about his case. The FBI is still looking for Frank Vazquez, whom authorities believe is hiding out somewhere in Mexico. The criminal trial of fellow Riders Jude Siapno, Chuck Mabanag, and Matthew Hornung is approaching its third month in front of a jury and is expected to conclude before the end of the year. The district attorney is finishing up his review of old Riders arrests, and is contemplating dismissing a handful of remaining cases. The class-action lawsuit is nearing what many believe will be a multimillion-dollar settlement.
But no such settlement looms on the near horizon for Vernon Joseph, even though the case for his innocence has grown even stronger. In an episode that shows just how great a challenge Oakland Police Chief Richard Word faces in reforming his department, Eric Richholt and another Oakland vice cop were arrested last month for allegedly propositioning deputy sheriffs posing as hookers in a San Leandro brothel. Authorities also reportedly found cocaine and heroin, as well as hundreds of dollars in cash, inside the undercover police truck driven by Richholt. It was unclear, according to news accounts, whether the drugs and cash belonged to Richholt and his partner, or whether the officers had seized the drugs while on duty and failed to properly enter them as evidence. But what was very clear was that the sole remaining leg of the prosecution’s case against Vernon was now looking wobbly. Richholt’s testimony was the only glue that held the prosecution’s case against Vernon together after Frank Vazquez fell from grace.
Vernon has hired a lawyer, San Francisco attorney James Lebow, and filed his own lawsuit against the Oakland Police Department and the city. Since attorneys for the city have indicated they’re inclined to make Vernon abide by his no-sue pledge, Lebow has his work cut out for him. The attorney, who specializes in police misconduct cases, is busily combing case law and appeals-court decisions for an argument that could undo Vernon’s decision to sign away his right to sue in exchange for his freedom.
When asked why anyone should believe his story, a story told by an ex-felon with a financial motive to lie, Fly Vern pauses, like he can’t fathom anyone not believing him. “Why should they believe me?” he asks. “Because I’m innocent.”
If the case of Vernon Joseph proves anything, it’s that no one is completely innocent in the shadowy world of the Riders, where cops are criminals and criminals are victims. But in all likelihood Vernon was not guilty either. The system that put him behind bars for more than five years can’t say the same thing.