Fisticuffs over fajitas stands high atop SFPD scandals

May 11, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
"Fajitagate" started as a street brawl over an order of fajitas and grew into a scandal that toppled two San Francisco police chiefs. Eight years later, an Assignment 7 report reveals what has happened to the key players.

It all started after a fight over fajitas. The brawl turned into what some call the biggest scandal ever to hit the San Francisco Police Department.

"It doesn't seem like eight years," former SFPD officer David Lee told ABC7. "It seems like it's only been a few months has passed."

Lee was a rookie cop charged with assault in the fight. Restaurant owner Adam Snyder claims he was a victim of the beating.

"I was 22 years old," he recalled, mentioning that it all seemed like just yesterday.

In the early morning of November 22, 2002, Snyder had just closed the Blue Lite Saloon where he worked as a bartender. He and a customer walked out on Union Street. Lee and two other off-duty officers were leaving the Bus Stop Bar a block away.

"They wanted my food," Snyder said.

One of them demanded Snyder's bag of fajitas. He refused and a fight broke out. The three officers, Alex Fagan Jr., Matt Tonsing and Lee, were detained but not arrested. From there, it grew into a huge scandal.

It turned out Fagan Jr.'s father was the assistant police chief.

District Attorney Terence Hallinan cried cover-up, saying the department intentionally mishandled the investigation. The three young officers were ultimately charged with assaulting Snyder and Jade Santoro. A grand jury indicted Chief Earl Sanders, Fagan Sr., five members of their command staff and two other ranking officers.

The charge was obstruction of justice. Although the charges against the chief and the police brass were ultimately dropped, the upheaval from the scandal continued to rock the department.

Lee, Tonsing and Fagan Jr. were ultimately acquitted of assault charges. A civil jury did find Tonsing and Fagan Jr. liable for some damages. Lee was completely exonerated, but even after eight years, his past still follows him.

"I'm known as, 'Hey, you're the guy from Fajitagate,'" he said.

Lee and Fagan Jr. left the police force after failing to complete their probationary service as rookie officers. Lee now works in private security, but his dream is to be re-hired by the department. He applied again three years ago.

"I passed the written test, the physical agility test, [and[ the psychological evaluation," Lee said. "The hiring board unanimously said let's roll with him."

But Lee says former Chief Heather Fong's administration passed him over.

"I was found not guilty. I thought that meant something here and apparently it doesn't," he said.

Tonsing is also no longer a police officer. Fagan Jr. Is now an army ranger serving with an elite special ops unit in Afghanistan.

Life has been good to Adam Snyder. He went from bartender to part-owner of a group of nightclubs and restaurants, but he still feels animosity towards the three former officers. He says there has been no closure, but he remains hopeful.

"Maybe one day we bump into each other down the road and there's an apology that is handed out," he says.

Chief Sanders took a disability retirement.

In order to clear their names and reputations, Sanders and several other command staff members went to court where a judge declared them factually innocent.

Fagan Sr. succeeded him but left the department to serve as head of emergency services and then retired. Sanders wrote a book about the "Zebra serial murders" of the 1970s which held the city in terror. He says there will be a movie down the road. Fagan will soon move to London as the spouse of a diplomat who has been assigned to the American embassy.

Jade Santoro's life has been full of twists and turns. He was arrested three months ago after police found large quantities of cocaine and marijuana for sale in his home. His lawyer is former District Attorney Terence Hallinan, who lost his re-election bid to Kamala Harris a year after Fajitagate.

Santoro became a bit player in another big scandal involving the police department. His drug charges were dropped along with hundreds of others when the crime lab was shut down when a former lab technician admitted stealing cocaine evidence.

The district attorney's office says it will re-file charges.


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