‘Riders’ innocent, defense says

By Kim Curtis
Wednesday September 18, 2002


OAKLAND — Three former Oakland police officers were inappropriate, even uncivilized — guilty of bad appearance and vulgar language — but innocent of any criminal wrongdoing, a defense lawyer said Monday in his opening statement at the Riders trial. 

“This is going to be a simple case if you don’t want to know the truth,” said Mike Rains, who represents Clarence “Chuck” Mabanag, 37, one of the officers facing a combined 26 felony charges, including beating suspects and falsifying reports. “The truth in West Oakland is ugly. The truth for these guys was ugly.” 

The former cops on trial along with Mabanag are Jude Siapno, 34, and Matthew Hornung, 30. Frank Vazquez, the alleged ringleader of the group, which was known as “The Riders,” is believed to have fled to Mexico to escape prosecution. 

Prosecutor David Hollister, in his opening statement last week, said the officers systematically set up young black men and conjured false accusations against them to feed their egos. 

But Rains painted a picture Monday of overworked cops under a tough mandate to reduce street-level drug crime. 

“These guys were out there doing a job with the knowledge and approval of their supervisors,” Rains said. 

He played an Alameda County jury of six men and six women excerpts from a police surveillance video showing two quick drug deals to give them a sense of the “insurmountable task” cops face in trying to get dealers off the streets. 

“The Oakland Police Department declared war. They declared a war on crime and criminals,” Rains said. “They sent their soldiers out to fight the war and those three soldiers are on trial for that war.” 

The officers, who have since been fired, are on trial for their activities during the summer of 2000. Siapno faces the most serious charges, including kidnapping and assault. All have pleaded innocent. 

The scandal, which has resulted in the dismissal of about 90 criminal cases, mostly drug-related, and 17 civil rights suits by 115 people, surfaced after a rookie officer reported what he saw on duty with Mabanag, his training officer. 

Keith Batt, now a police officer in Pleasanton, is the prosecution’s key witness. During the preliminary hearing last July, Batt gave a disturbing view of the officers’ “stop and grab” tactics in which suspects randomly were accosted on the street, handcuffed and put in the patrol car before they were questioned about their activities. He called their methods illegal and immoral. 

But Rains took steps Tuesday to discredit Batt, calling him a “smart,” “cunning,” “know-it-all” who was failing training. Any wrongdoing he thought he saw cannot be trusted, Rains said as he recounted Batt’s first night on the job. 

“Keith Batt went out into the darkness of West Oakland,” Rains said. “That was the third time in this man’s life that he had been in West Oakland. ... He had never ever been out there in the middle of the night and he had never been out there in a blue uniform — a target.” 

Police and city officials have repeatedly called “The Riders” a rogue group, but they have, nonetheless, instituted a series of protective measures, including more internal affairs investigators and more supervisors. The department also created an Office of Inspector General, an internal audit division, and has generally increased internal scrutiny.