Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Sacramento Tragedy

As a community activist dealing with the Filipino American youth for more than 30 years, Ben Menor has attended the funerals of many young Filipino Americans who died from suicide, homicide, disease or accidents. But no funeral in the past could match the emotionally-charged sight he witnessed on Wednesday, September 19, in Sacramento, California: a single coffin holding a 21-year old father and his 8-month old infant son.

It was only a few days before, on September 14, that young athletic Sean Paul Aquitania, Sr. buckled his son, Sean Jr., in a car seat and drove to visit a friend in southeast Sacramento county. When he got to the house, Sean Paul parked his car in front and left his son in the car as he would be away for only a few seconds. He walked to the door and pressed the doorbell. When the door was opened by two men, two other men quickly ran up the house and forced their way inside in what police believe was a drug-related home invasion robbery.

A scuffle occurred and Sean Paul was shot and killed by the intruders. As the killers fled the house, they saw Sean Paul’s parked car with the baby in the car seat. One of the men opened the car door and shot Sean Jr. in the head, killing him instantly with the same gun that had been used to kill his father.

Police authorities who arrived at the scene interviewed the two residents of the house who witnessed the murder of Sean Paul. They were not cooperative, the police said, as they did not provide the police with information about the gunmen other than their description as two young males, one African American wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and the other a Latino wearing a green shirt and a green Oakland A’s cap.

Before that fateful day, Sean Paul had been working at the local Cash & Carry store, but wanted a better life for his son and his fiancée, his son’s mother, 19-year old Monique De La Cruz. He was studying for his GED (a high school equivalent diploma) so that he could go to college and become a correctional officer.

Friends recalled the time when Sean Paul was 14 and his mother enrolled him in a boxing class offered by the Shotgun Boxing Crew in his Elk Grove neighborhood. According to his friend and trainer, Daniel Palpalatoc, Sean showed an early talent for boxing. When he turned 17, Sean had become proficient enough to participate in a Junior Olympic boxing tournament and win a bronze medal. “He was somebody,” Boxing Crew owner Benito Garcia said.

At a Sacramento press conference held on September 18, the mothers of Sean Sr. and Sean Jr. held back their tears as they spoke of Sean Paul’s love for and total devotion to Sean Jr. Sarah Aquitania, mother of Sean Paul, pleaded for anyone with information about the identity of the killers to call the police with the information. "Come forward. I beg you," she said. Please call the Sheriff's Department at (916) 874-5115 or Crime Alert at (916) 443-HELP. Callers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a reward.

Monique Dela Cruz spoke of her child with tears streaking down her face. "The smile on my baby's face was so precious. To think that someone could ..." She was overwhelmed with emotion that she could not finish her sentence.

At the Wednesday night funeral service, about 300 relatives, friends and leaders of the Filipino community came to pay their respects. They could only see the face of Sean Paul Sr. who was dressed in a burgundy red shirt. They could not view the face of Sean Jr. which was covered with a baseball cap.

Friends and relatives spoke at the funeral service about the deep love between Monique and Sean Paul. Monique’s aunt, Louise De La Cruz, shared her knowledge of their close relationship:

"They were the happiest couple I know. These two never fought, never squabbled and never disrespected each other. What they did do was laugh an awful lot. They -- maturely in their young years -- had an unwavering devotion to one another and somehow knew the key to life: 'As long as we have each other, we can be happy.' And they were."

The following morning, more than 700 people attended the funeral Mass at St. Rose Catholic Church, with hundreds joining the procession to St. Mary's Cemetery for the burial. After the funeral Thursday, family members thanked everyone for their outpouring of support and repeated their plea for people to provide information that would lead to the arrest of the killers.

In the meantime, family members have set up a Sean Aquitania Jr. Memorial Fund, c/o Bank of America, 940 Florin Road, Sacramento, CA 95831. Please contribute to support this devastated family.

Members of the Northern California Regional Chapter of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) plan to discuss the Aquitania tragedy and the senseless deaths of young Fil-Ams at the NaFFAA Region 8 Conference set for November 10 at the Bayanihan Community Center on Mission Street in San Francisco. For more information about attending this conference, please email: naffaanorcal@gmail.com.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Tears for Estrada

On the day the Estrada verdict was announced last week, a client who needed help in his claim for social security benefits in the Philippines professed sympathy for the former president, expressing his hope that he would be shown mercy because he had “suffered enough.”

Like most people, my client had not read the 212 page decision of the Philippine Anti-Graft Court (Sandigan Bayan) finding former president Joseph “Erap” Estrada guilty of plunder. If he had read the complete decision, he would have discovered the connection between his problems with the SSS and the plunder verdict. (For the transcripts, log on to http://www.manilamail.com).

It took six years for the Sandigan court to try the Estrada case, most of it due to delays caused by Estrada himself. At one point, he fired all his attorneys so that a mistrial could occur. But after the court provided him with new attorneys, whom he rejected, Estrada retained new counsel and proceeded with the case. His strategy then was to delay it until his closest personal friend, Fernando Poe, Jr. (FPJ), whom he personally coaxed into running, could win the presidency in the May 2004 elections and dismiss all the charges against him.

But when FPJ lost, Estrada had no choice but to proceed with the trial, with a strategy directed towards destroying the credibility of the court and depicting the trial as "politically motivated" to justify his removal from office. Very little was done by his lawyers to debunk the voluminous evidence presented in court.

Dozens of witnesses described how Estrada collected billions of Philippine pesos in "jueteng" protection money which, witnesses testified, they regularly delivered in cash to his Polk Street mansion in San Juan in Metro Manila. It was like a mob scene from "The Sopranos." Credible witnesses also testified that when Estrada was president, he directed his appointees in the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) and the Social Security System (SSS) to purchase a combined total of 681,733,000 shares of stock of the Belle Corporation worth P1,847,578,057.50 ($40-M).

Carlos Arellano testified that he was a childhood friend of Estrada who appointed him chairman and president of the SSS in 1998. On October 6, 1999, he received a call from Pres. Estrada instructing him to buy Belle Corporation stock. He said he hesitated to do so because the SSS had an investment committee which selected the stocks to invest in for the millions of Filipinos who had contributed to it. However, after further prodding from Estrada, Arellano purchased P900-M (pesos) in Belle stocks on October 21, 1999, just 15 days after he was directed to do so.

Federico Pascual testified that he was the president of the GSIS in 1999, appointed by Estrada, when he was instructed to purchase Belle shares. He hesitated to do the president’s bidding, he said, because the Belle Corporation was involved in jai-alai and gambling and had a “speculative flavor”. But after receiving another call from Estrada on October 9, 1999, he went ahead and authorized the purchase by GSIS of P1.1-B (pesos) in Belle stock.

A close crony of Estrada, Jaime Dichaves, facilitated the transaction. Belle Corporation executives testified that they issued a cashier’s check to Dichaves in the amount of P189-M (International Exchange Bank Check No. 6000159271 dated November 5, 1999) as his 10% commission for securing the purchase by SSS and GSIS of close to P2-B (pesos) in Belle stocks.

Bank executives then testified that Dichaves deposited the check into his account and issued a check in the same amount, which he then deposited in to the Equitable Bank account of “Jose Velarde.” Dichaves deposited an additional amount of P74-M (pesos) into the same account.

Clarissa Ocampo, an Equitable Bank manager, testified that she personally witnessed Estrada sign his name as “Jose Velarde” in withdrawing funds from the Equitable Bank, an allegation that was openly admitted by Estrada himself. Bank executives testified that other bank accounts in the same bank were in the names of Jose Velarde and Loi Ejercito (Estrada’s legal wife).

Bank executives also testified that it was from this same Jose Velarde account that Estrada purchased the “Boracay Mansion” near Wack-Wack Golf Club for the use of his favored mistress, Laarni Enriquez. The man who facilitated the purchase of this mansion was Jose Luis Yulo who, because of this “housing”
experience was then appointed Estrada’s Secretary of Housing, replacing the very competent Karina Constantino-David.

The evidence was just too overwhelming and too blatant for the Sandiganbayan justices to ignore. Estrada was guilty of plunder, beyond a reasonable doubt. Estrada had so much hubris (yabang) that he did not believe he would ever have to account for his actions so he did not care who knew what he was doing.
Unfortunately for him, stupidity is not a legal defense.

When GSIS and SSS bought Belle stocks in 1999, they were priced at P3.14 a share. One year later, on December 29, 2000, their value had sunk dramatically to 60 centavos a share. Two years later, they had gone down to 40 centavos a share. Now they are virtually worthless.

My client and millions of other Filipinos who deposited hard-earned money into the SSS and GSIS may never receive the funds they are entitled to because Estrada squandered their money, for a 10% commission to buy a pricey mansion for his mistress.

While I congratulate the Sandiganbayan judges for their courage in convicting Estrada, my only regret is that Estrada was never charged for his possible role in the abduction and murders of Bubby Dacer, Emmanuel Corbito and Edgar Bentain.

According to members of his family, Bubby Dacer was last seen in Malacañang where he was summoned by Estrada to explain why he was working with his political opponents to discredit him. Shortly after that confrontation where Estrada screamed at him, Dacer and his driver, Corbito, were abducted by members of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF) headed by Gen. Panfilo Lacson, tortured and executed. The PAOCTF soldiers who admitted killing Dacer and Corbito pointed to Col. Glenn Dumlao as their commanding officer.

Before he fled to the US, Col. Dumlao pointed to Col. Cezar Mancao and Col. Michael Ray Aquino as the officers who gave him the orders. Before they could point their fingers as to who directed them, Mancao and Aquino fled to the US upon instructions of Lacson. If Lacson had been fingered by Mancao and Aquino, would he have pointed the finger at Estrada?

Edgar Bentain was a casino worker at the Casino Filipino (located at the former Silahis Hotel in Manila) when he secretly released to the press the videotape of Estrada playing high-stakes poker with his crony, Atong Ang. The embarrassing videotape was then shown on TV. Shortly after his identity was
revealed, Bentain was picked up by uniformed men in front of the casino and was tortured and killed. Who gave the orders to kill Bentain?

Still feel sorry for Estrada?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Why Sgt. Barry Arrested Me

After I obtained the police report of my February 17, 2003 Walgreens arrest (for using a "counterfeit" $100 bill which turned out to be genuine), I learned the identity of San Francisco police Sgt. Jeff Barry.

I then connected the dots and tied our last unpleasant encounter in 1995 to his conduct in either directing me to be arrested or in allowing it to happen when there was no “probable cause" to do so.

What I could not understand is why he did so. How could he carry a grudge against me for so long and to that extent?
It was a minor tiff. Because he was in charge of the boys' athletic program at the parochial school both our sons attended, I had gone to see him in 1995 to ask him why his basketball coach had not allowed my son to play for even a minute during the three games I went to.

He in turn was upset about a no-guns policy of the City College Board of Trustees (where I sit as a Trustee) which he said endangered the life of his brother-in-law. Although we were both upset at that meeting, it should have been no big deal.

So why? Over the years, a few have suggested that it is in the nature of power to corrupt. When you have the absolute power to humiliate another human being you do not like, it can be very difficult to resist the temptation to exercise that power.

Still others have suggested that racism was involved. It was no accident that both Sgt. Barry and Officer Michelle Liddicoet are white and that I am Filipino. Had I been white, like then Supervisor Gavin Newsom, they never would have even considered arresting me.

One friend, who has frequent contact with white police officers like Barry, explained that many of them feel threatened by minorities, especially those they perceive to be superior to them in qualification and achievement. These damn minorities must be put in their place and lowered a peg or two or more.

Many of these police officers of Irish descent, my friend said, went to Bishop Riordan High School because they did not have the grades to go to Sacred Heart or Saint Ignatius. They went to college at either San Francisco State or a the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco, obtaining a bachelor’s degree and going no further.

Becoming a San Francisco police officer or a fireman is the most they ever aspired to be or could ever hope to be. That ambition was probably all right back when they knew that they could rise through the ranks to make it all they way to the top and someday be Chief of Police.

But times changed. Because of “affirmative action,” minorities were allowed to become police officers and firemen and even promoted to officer posts. The opportunities for promotion for the Jeff Barrys of San Francisco were narrowing. They may never make it to chief. All because of “those damn uppity minorities.”

About a week after news of my arrest was published in the papers, I received a call from Chief Earl Sanders, the first African-American police chief of San Francisco. He called to express his apologies for the actions of his police officers.

We had a long conversation as Chief Sanders explained the presence and prevalence of racism within his police force even with him as chief. “Some officers landed on Plymouth Rock,” he said. “Other officers had Plymouth Rock land on them.” We chuckled at that observation.

Sanders explained how racism works. When I’m wearing my police chief uniform, I get respect,” he said. “But when I’m not in uniform, I’m treated like a nigger". He even disclosed that whenever his well-dressed wife goes to Nordstrom’s, “she’s watched like a hawk by white salesgirls who think she’ll steal something.”

Sanders came to San Francisco from Texas at age 14, went to George Washington High School before earning a Bachelor's Degree in criminal justice and a master's degree in public administration from Golden Gate University. In 1964, he joined the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) and, seven years later, was promoted to inspector in the homicide detail, handling some of the City’s most famous cases, including the Zebra killings in 1973 and 1974 where he tracked down four black Muslims who had killed 14 whites.

After gaining fame for solving the Zebra killings, Sanders organized the Officers for Justice, a largely black group of police officers, and filed a civil rights suit that charged the San Francisco Police Department with failing to hire minorities and women and endangering the few that were in the department.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported: “When the Officers for Justice civil rights suit against departmental racism came to trial in federal court in 1978, then-Inspector Sanders testified that white officers had shown him a handful of bullets and described them as "nigger stoppers." Black officers could not rely on their white colleagues for backup on the street, he told the court.

"Earl was the leader," recalled Robert Gnaizda, a lawyer who helped bring the lawsuit and remained close to Sanders after the case resulted in a consent decree that opened the department to women and minorities. "He's beyond just being a police officer. He's a person of great integrity."

Sometime after he joined the SFPD in 1964, Sanders began a life-long friendship with a young African-American lawyer who also came from Texas. That lawyer was Willie Brown who went on to became an Assemblyman and then Speaker of the California Assembly for more than 20 years before he was elected Mayor of San Francisco. After Brown's election as mayor, he appointed Sanders as Assistant Chief and then Chief of Police after Fred Lau, the first Chinese American police chief, retired.

Now the police chief of San Francisco is Heather Fong, the first Chinese American woman to serve as police chief in San Francisco and probably in the US. At this rate, Sgt. Barry will never make it as police chief. No wonder he had me arrested and humiliated. Take that you damn uppity minorities!

Monday, September 3, 2007

Behind My Walgreens Arrest

There has hardly been a week in the past 4 1/2 years when I have not been asked about the time I was arrested by San Francisco police officers for passing what they thought was a counterfeit $100 bill at a Walgreens pharmacy near my home.

News of my arrest was widely reported in the local TV news and appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle Metro section, with a photo of me holding the $100 bill. That 2003 Chronicle photo was used again last week on August 29 to accompany the San Francisco Chronicle news report, "Man Arrested in '03 Bogus Cash Case Can Sue Police."

The article referred to the “for publication” decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on August 28, 2007, rejecting the San Francisco police officers’ defense of qualified immunity because, according to the 2-1 decision, they had no “probable cause” to arrest me.

Among the factors the Court cited as having “significantly decreased” the probability that I would knowingly use a fake bill was the fact that Police Sergeant Jeff Barry, the first officer to arrive at the scene, had known me for several years: “He knew Rodis was a member of the Community College Board, and he had interacted with Rodis personally, encountering him at activities associated with the elementary school that both Barry’s and Rodis’s children attended.”

Because Sgt. Barry knew me, the Court reasoned, I should not have been arrested. In truth, it was precisely because he knew me that I was arrested.

The story behind the story began in 1995 when my oldest son Carlo was selected to be a member of the St. Stephen’s Elementary School basketball team. He practiced basketball everyday to improve his ball-handling and shooting skills as he eagerly awaited the intramural tournament. But Carlo never got a chance to play because his coach played only the best 5 or 6 players on the team and Carlo wasn’t one of them.

After several games watching Carlo suffer in frustration on the bench, I went to see the principal, Sister Paulina, to complain. “This isn’t the NBA and the coach isn’t Don Nelson,” I said. The principal was sympathetic to my concerns and directed me to speak to the volunteer in charge of the boys’ athletic program, Police Sergeant Jeff Barry. I knew Sgt. Barry because his wife was a teacher at the school and their son, Sean, was my son’s classmate.

Sgt. Barry listened quietly about my concerns; I told him about how my son’s self-confidence and self-esteem had eroded because of his coach’s actions. Instead of responding to my concerns, however, he questioned me about a policy of the San Francisco Community College Board where he knew I was a
member. His brother-in -law is a member of the SF Community College police force, he said. “Why won’t you guys allow your police force to carry guns on campus?” he demanded to know.

I told him that the issue was decided before I came on the board and hadn’t been brought up since then. Sgt. Barry became quite agitated as he accused me endangering his brother-in-law’s life with our no-guns policy. He made it crystal clear to me that he would never vote for me until the policy was changed. I told him that I was sorry he felt that way.

When the school year ended, my wife and I pulled our boys out of that Catholic school and enrolled them in a public elementary school near our home.

On February 12, 2003, I went to the Walgreens pharmacy near my office to purchase items totaling about $42.62. When I handed the young cashier my $100 bill, she applied a counterfeit detector pen which showed that it was genuine.
Unconvinced, she called the manager, who examined the bill and applied the detector pen again. When it showed the same result, he left with my bill. I followed him to his office and waited for him. When he came out, he said it was counterfeit.

As we discussed his suspicion, I noticed that police officers had entered the store. A female police officer named Michelle Liddicoet approached me and inquired if I was the one who had used the counterfeit bill. I asked her how she was sure it was counterfeit. She said it was obvious from how it looked. She then asked me for my driver's license and I told her I was an attorney, with my law office a block away, and that I was an elected official of the city, facts to impress upon her that I would not be the kind to knowingly use a counterfeit bill.

"I know who you are. You should be ashamed of yourself," she said. The next words to come from her mouth were: "Put your hands behind your back." After Officer Liddicoet handcuffed me and placed me in the back of the police car, she sat in the front seat, directly in front of me. Before her partner could start the car, however, another officer went over to Officer Liddicoet and said, “Under the circumstances, I would appreciate it if you didn’t include my name in the police report.” Officer Liddicoet said "Yes, Sarge".

I did not recognize him so I wondered who he was and what circumstances he was talking about. I was then transported to the Taraval police station for further investigation. The handcuffs behind my back were removed but I was placed in a holding area with my left wrist handcuffed to a rail. I asked to call my wife but this request was disallowed. I could do it later after I was booked downtown, an officer told me.

After a US Secret Service officer had determined that my bill was genuine, I was released, I obtained a copy of the police report. Because it was not written by Liddicoet, it included the name of the "Sarge" who spoke with her: Sgt. Jeff Barry.

My arrest was the most humiliating and degrading experience of my life. Because an injustice was committed against me, I hired my friend, Larry Fasano, to file suit against Walgreens, the City, the SFPD and police officers Barry and Liddicoet.
Walgreens subsequently fired the white manager who called the police and replaced him with a Filipino, the first time in a San Francisco Walgreens store.

Although my suit against the City and the SFPD was dismissed, the SFPD did formally adopt a policy that officers will no longer arrest anyone for merely possessing or using a counterfeit bill unless there was some evidence that the suspect had knowledge that the bill was fake.

One month before my suit against Barry and Liddicoet could proceed to trial in April of 2004, however, they appealed the court’s denial of their motion to dismiss based on their “qualified immunity” defense. In its ruling last week, the Ninth Circuit declared: “Given all of the circumstances surrounding Rodis’s arrest, no prudent person could have concluded reasonably that there was a fair probability Rodis had committed a crime. Consequently, Defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity.”

Police officers do not have the power to strip anyone of their individual constitutional rights without probable cause and for personal reasons.