Opening arguments start federal corruption trial against SF police

Courtesy video imageSix San Francisco police officers were indicted due to their involvement in searches on single room occupancy hotels.

A trio of undercover San Francisco police officers were involved in “corruption with a badge” by using their positions to steal drugs and money from criminals and crime scenes, a federal prosecutor alleged in a federal police misconduct trial Monday.

The opening statements by prosecutors in the trial of Sgt. Ian Furminger, 48, and Officer Edmond Robles, 47 – former officer Reynaldo Vargas recently pleaded guilty – painted the trio as outliers in the department as they allegedly committed crimes of opportunity.

But defense lawyers pinned the blame on Vargas alone, whom they called the bad apple among the three accused of the crimes. They claimed their two clients are good cops who are being tried under the theory of guilt by association.

Furminger and Robles appeared beside their defense teams Monday morning in Judge Charles Breyer's U.S. District Court room. Vargas, who was to stand trial as well but pleaded guilty to charges recently, will testify for the prosecution and was not present.

All three were part of an undercover team based at the Mission Station whose actions at single-room-occupancy hotels in the Mission and Tenderloin and on Sixth Street — including allegedly searching rooms without warrants — were captured on video revealed by the Public Defender's Office in 2011.

Vargas has since been fired by the department for falsifying time cards.

In what prosecutor Rodney Villazor described as “crimes of opportunity,” the three allegedly stole drugs and money from their own confidential informants as well as from crime scenes, and sometimes paid off informants with those drugs.

The specific allegations against the three include stealing a $500 and a $53 Apple gift card, during an apartment search in March 2009. The cards were used by a heroin addict to pay his drug dealer, and were then stolen by the three police officers to use for themselves, prosecutors said. The three are also alleged to have stolen money during four other searches in Newark and San Francisco between May and November 2009. Prosecutors said their largest haul was at a Newark residence of heroin traffickers where the three split $30,000 taken from the scene.

Despite the numerous allegations, Villazor cautioned that the trio were not part of a larger rot within the department.

“This case is not about all the other officers,” said Villazor. “This is not a widespread practice.”

The two defense teams broadly argued that their clients are innocent of the charges and there is little to no evidence pointing to their guilt.

Vargas, conversely, held all the blame, they claimed.

Attorney Brian Getz, who represents Furminger, cautioned the jury about the coming witnesses, many of them drug addicts whom he says wear different masks depending on the circumstances.

Getz accused Vargas, for instance, of being the most two-faced of those who will testify.

“His testimony is bought and paid for,” Getz claimed.

To accentuate his charges against Vargas as a two-faced turn coat, Getz pulled out two plastic masks – one of Iron Man – and put them on while facing the jurors. He then turned around to reveal the mask on the back of his head.

Robles' lawyer, Teresa Caffese, made a similar case, arguing that Vargas was to blame while her client was innocent.

“Ed was a good cop,” she said of her client. “Vargas was a bad cop.”

The trial, which heard several witnesses Monday, is expected to return to court Thursday.

In February, indictments were unveiled against five current officers – including Robles and Furminger – and one former officer – Vargas – for a host of federal charges, including constitutional-rights violations, extortion, lying in court and on police reports, and dealing drugs.

Monday's trial was the first of two federal trials. The second trial is expected to start in early 2015.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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