Cable car operator accused of fare theft maintains his innocence after mistrial

The trial of a cable car operator charged in 2017 with skimming money from Muni fares ended in a mistrial early this month.

The jury hung, divided on the guilt of David Reyes, a decades-long Muni operator: On the count of embezzling funds they were split ten to two, leaning toward his innocence. And on the count of misappropriation of public money the jury was split seven to five, again tilted toward his innocence.

Now Reyes is in limbo, waiting until his next court date, April 19, to see if the District Attorney’s office will try the case again. The District Attorney’s office declined to comment for this story, and said they “cannot comment on pending litigation.”

In the meantime, Reyes wanted to tell his side of the story, one that he claims has solely been told by police, the District Attorney’s office and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

A San Francisco native and Mission High School alum, Reyes started driving with Muni in 1994. In the early 2000s he was granted a prestigious job on San Francisco’s cable cars.

“Even as a youngster, it was one of my dream jobs,” he told the San Francisco Examiner, Monday.

Two years ago, in April of 2017, that dream turned into a nightmare when Reyes was arrested and accused of stealing cash from Muni and his mugshot was splashed all over television.

He no longer works for Muni, but throughout the trial, Reyes maintained his innocence.

“I never, never, was stealing. I never took from Muni,” Reyes said.

Reyes was busted by a city-led sting operation in which investigators rode cable cars undercover multiple times and saw him and another cable car operator allegedly pocketing cash. He recalled nearly two dozen police appearing to arrest him at the cable car barn on Mason Street, lights shining and sirens blaring.

“All these cars with like 25 officers. For little old me?” he said. “If I was a murderer or a rapist or a mobster, you could not believe that day. It shocked the living daylights out of me.”

Reyes and his attorney argued that SFMTA actually required operators to bring their own cash to work to make change — and that’s the only cash Reyes ever took home.

“I was always able to recover my money,” Reyes said. “At the end of my shift I would always come out even.”

Reyes’ former colleague, Albert Williams of Napa County, had $32,000 in cash found in a safe, as well as packed luggage, which officials tied to his alleged theft of Muni money.

By contrast, two years ago officials also said they saw Reyes pocketing about $450. But Reyes’ attorney, Deputy Public Defender Max Breecker, said that amount was consistent with taking home his own change over the course of the multiple SFPD sting operations.

SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose confirmed it was agency policy for cable car operators to use their own cash to give change to passengers. That policy was changed in September 2017, Rose said, when SFMTA started distributing change for operators to use.

That was five months after Reyes’ arrest.

It also isn’t the only policy SFMTA is intent on changing. After Reyes’ arrest ,SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin told reporters he wanted to make the cable car system completely cashless, rendering fare theft a non-issue. The agency has yet to make that transition.

There were seven dates where police conducted undercover surveillance, Breecker said. One instance saw Reyes take home 13 dollars, another day he took home 40 dollars. The amounts were small, and consistent with taking home the change he brought to work, the deputy public defender argued.

“When the dust settled, the DA said maybe he pocketed 100 and something dollars over five days. Roughly.” Breecker said.

Reyes said the arrest and subsequent trial were a trying time. Coincidentally, the arrest arrived just as his first granddaughter was born, and as his mother, Millie Toledo, lay in a local hospital with a terminal illness.

“She’s a straight-up Christian. She’s the one that led me to the lord. She’s like, ‘You’re my son, I know it’s baloney.’ She was strong for me,” Reyes said. Toledo died November, 2017.

When Reyes was released shortly after his arrest, he came home to his apartment, just a stone’s throw from Galileo High School, to find it looking like a tornado tore through from the police search. He crawled up on his couch “like a snail” and slept.

He didn’t find much support from his union, the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A. “The president at the time looked eye to eye with me and said ‘you’re on your own,’” Reyes said, speaking of former TWU president Eric Williams. Williams now works for the SFMTA.

Despite everything he’s been through, Reyes remains hopeful. And he did get to work his dream job, after all.

“Hyde to Powell, Powell to Hyde. The Rice a’ Roni. Goin’ down that real steep hill with the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s the scenic route,” he recalled. “Working with the public, working with my fellow comrades, working with all these guys, I was like a real entertainer. People raved. When they seen that I loved my job, all the jurors, you can hear me on those cop videos.”

Reyes thinks that love of his job shined through to the jurors, and will shine through even if he has to go through the trial all over again.

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