It seems fitting that the Baker’s Dozen case includes several players involved in San Francisco’s infamous "Fajitagate’’ story some years back, because like that sensationalistic, overwrought tale, this one is bursting with sizzle and lean on steak.
When San Francisco police investigators return from the East Coast today after interviewing one of the injured victims from the Yale University singing group, it will mark the first time they will have received a nearly full account of the incident. Yet it will also serve as a reminder of how much the story has changed since it first emerged — the facts obscured by the self-serving interests of many of those involved.
How does a fight between brawling college-age males become a national story? When it involves the sons of prominent, well-connected individuals at an elite East Coast university and news organizations only too happy to propel a dreamy plot line sure to grab headlines.
But an accurate portrayal has been hard to come by, or at least difficult to get into print. Even the mighty New York Times bought into the hype, running a story over the weekend that parroted a lot of the initial reports — preppies attacked by jealous thugs while police drag their feet — which officials working on the case say is a calculated manipulation of the truth.
Yet it does serve to show the power of certain institutions and showcase San Francisco’s highly parochial nature. After all, does anybody believe that this story would be still be alive if the students were part of a bluegrass group from Austin Peay State University?
One would certainly have a tough time finding a better story than a group of halo-wearing a cappella singers being attacked after singing "The Star-Spangled Banner.’’ But that early report has been debunked by police sources who say the fight was much more of an alcohol-fueled brawl that erupted after much taunting at the premises of two veteran police officers — neither of whom was around during the melee. But that
hasn’t stopped Leanna Dawydiak or Reno Rapagnani from painting the story as a faulty investigation by the SFPD — with the suggestion being that perhaps the police are dragging their feet because there’s still bad blood over Fajitagate.
Dawydiak and Rapagnani were accused of leaking information during that case, charges for which they were ultimately exonerated. Of course, it hasn’t helped that the couple took written statements and photos of some of the participants after the New Year’s Eve scuffle — which sources close to the case say was a clear conflict of interest.
The story’s tenor has been that police officials haven’t moved fast enough since they were called to the scene, even though most of the participants in the fight had disappeared — indeed, the officers who first arrived didn’t even know some kids had been injured because none of them were around. But even though it was the Yale students who delayed talking to police and then only did so after hiring some high-priced lawyers, the reports in newspapers continue to quote individuals feigning indignation that the case is moving too slow.
And of course there’s still the steady drumbeat about it being a possible hate crime, because some of the taunts involved homophobic slurs, even though sources close to the investigation told me it’s never been viewed as a hate crime, just the sophomoric actions of young malesitching for a fight.
Of course, this isn’t just about misadventures in journalism. Some people simply want to believe the worst, even when it defies reality. When I tried to set the record straight on the story last week, I received nearly a dozen e-mails from people who told me they didn’t believe my "version’’ of events, as if I were making the news up.
So the Fajitagate case actually should help put the latest overblown San Francisco story into context. Then-District Attorney Terence Hallinan used the off-duty police fight to try to take down the command staff of the entire department — despite the lack of any evidence of wrongdoing. And years of motions and trials later, the charges involving the officers resulted in acquittals for every person alleged to be part of the "conspiracy.’’
We can only hope that District Attorney Kamala Harris separates fact from fiction better than some hired guns and "objective’’ journalists have in the Baker’s Dozen case and charges it appropriately. Then perhaps we can focus on prosecuting more serious violent crimes.
Facts have been hard to come by in this case — too bad it hasn’t limited the stories.
Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (415) 359-2663.