It’s a late-night Oxygen Channel story if there ever was one. A group of birthday girls hire themselves a few hunky strippers to dance for them on a Thursday night at a bar. One hunky stripper violates dancer protocol by cutting in front of another and dancing first while the ladies still have dollars to tuck into the boys’ thongs. After the pelvic polka ends, the two men get into an argument outside the bar, in which the slighted stripper palms the other’s head and shoves him.
Minutes later, the line-cutting stripper ends up in a busy four-lane street where he is hit by a Pontiac 6000 traveling at fifty-plus miles an hour. He’s pronounced dead at the scene. Crime scene investigators collect his body, his GBX boots, and six artificial-zebra-skin hats.
Months later, police make a stranger-than-fiction discovery: The man driving the car that killed the stripper was yet another male stripper who’d danced at the bar earlier the same evening. True story. Happened in March in front of the Chapter Two bar on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito.
But it was only two weeks ago that the district attorney filed charges against 26-year-old Anthony Lewis, aka Lil’ Ant, for a felony hit-and-run resulting in the death of 28-year-old Kerry Walker, aka Mr. Novocaine, a father of two. El Cerrito cops had to deal with what one detective described as a group of “Stevie Wonders” where no one saw anything. Eventually, police got an anonymous tip that led them to Lewis, who confessed in a jailhouse interview, police say.
The charging of Lewis doesn’t strike Walker’s dad, Charles Hall, as justice. While Lewis now faces three years in prison for the hit-and-run, John Stringer — the strapping 220-pound stripper nicknamed Q who scuffled with the smaller Walker outside the bar — escaped prosecution. Hall wouldn’t directly accuse Stringer of causing his son’s death, but he did say, “I don’t think it was just the driver by himself. … There was a reason for my son being out in the street.” Hall believes his kid, whom he insists would have avoided a fight, was either chased or pushed into the street.
Hall points to what at least one witness told police. A young woman who’d turned nineteen two weeks earlier was at the bar’s strip show with her aunt that night. She told El Cerrito detectives she saw Q push Walker in front of the speeding car and that people were covering up for him.
The detectives turned over that information to Contra Costa County Deputy District Attorney Harold Jewett, who supervises the DA’s homicide unit. In Jewett’s mind, there just wasn’t enough evidence to persuade twelve jurors. For one thing, witnesses gave conflicting statements, Jewett said. One said she saw Stringer push Walker; another saw Q reach to grab him as if to pull Walker back from the street. Still other witnesses, according to Jewett, said Walker threatened to go to his car and get a gun. A push or a grab is a reasonable physical response to being threatened, the deputy DA says. Stringer told police during an interview that he felt comfortable talking to them because he knew he “did nothing wrong,” and that he even yelled at Walker to get out of the way when the car came speeding toward him.
Q couldn’t be reached for further comment; he didn’t return messages left at his new 800 number.
Riding on Empty
If anyone understands how hard it is to persuade twelve jurors of anything, it’s Dave Hollister. He’s the deputy district attorney who spent the past two years of his life investigating and prosecuting a gang of rogue Oakland cops known as the Riders, who were accused of beating up and framing suspects. After 55 days of agonizing deliberations, the jury acquitted three of them — the fourth, Frank Vazquez, remains a fugitive — on eight charges and failed to reach a unanimous decision on the remaining 27 counts, causing a mistrial.
Hollister sounds like a guy who would like to see the case retried with a different jury. As news reports and his own interviews with six of the jurors indicated, there were three jurors, including the foreman, who seemed set to declare the officers innocent no matter what anyone said. “That’s a problem we’re going to have to deal with,” Hollister says.
But when, Dave? During jury selection for the retrial? And is there going to be one? When pressed, Hollister defers to a higher power. “It’s Tom’s call, clearly,” he says. That’d be Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff, who’s expected to announce his decision on October 15.
It’s tough to say for sure what he’ll decide, but conventional wisdom favors the Riders. Unlike his Frisco counterpart, Terence Hallinan, Orloff isn’t a political showboater: he’s a career prosecutor preoccupied less with politics than with the practical question of whether he can win next time around. And one thing that will certainly play into Orloff’s decision is the fact that his leading man Hollister — the only lawyer in the office who worked on the Riders criminal case from beginning to end — now works in Plumas County and won’t be available for any sequel. And as we all know from Hollywood, the sequel rarely is as good as the original, anyhow.
The Perps Walk
In the outrage over the Riders verdict, nearly forgotten is the other troubling legacy of the cops’ misadventures: Because the officers were suspected of framing innocent people, their involvement in legitimate busts has allowed guilty — okay, probably guilty — convicts to walk free.
Take the case of Eric Darnell Spencer, a would-be music producer with C Note Records and a suspected coke dealer, according to county records. Spencer led something of a charmed life in the criminal justice system. He beat a murder rap in 1992 at age 19 despite an eyewitness account identifying him as the gunman. Then, in the fall of 2000, a judge declared a mistrial in a felony drug and gun possession case against him after defense attorneys used the Riders scandal to discredit Officer Matthew Hornung. Although Hornung was just one of several officers to execute a search warrant at Spencer’s house, he was the cop who found the half-kilo of crack in a paper bag in the backyard.
Thanks to the Riders, Spencer was a free man. Weeks later, the free man was arrested for his alleged role in a drive-by shooting. The jury deadlocked after two of the shooting victims changed their stories, reportedly fearing retaliation. Spencer’s luck ran out last year when he was shot and killed in broad daylight on an East Oakland street, but his children inherited some of it: They wound up with dad’s cut of the $10.5 million Oakland paid out to 119 Riders plaintiffs in a civil settlement earlier this year. Individual settlement sizes are confidential, but plaintiffs attorney Jim Chanin says they ranged from about $10,000 to $580,000.
It’s Been a Long Ride
Charges were filed in November 2000 against three rogue Oakland cops. Here’s the outcome, by the numbers.
Potential jury pool: 680
Eligible jurors from that pool: 113
Final number of jurors: 12
White jurors: 8
Black jurors: 0
Time from jury selection to first witness: 16 weeks
Duration of testimony: 33 weeks
Prosecution witnesses: 47
Defense witnesses: 37
Longest testimony by a witness: 9 days
Exhibits marked into evidence: 350
Pages of jury instructions: 122
Pages of verdict forms: 76
Duration of jury deliberations: 17 weeks plus
Three cops acquitted on: 8 counts
Hung jury on: 27 counts