If you weren’t living in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2002-03, this title probably has you going “Huh??? WTF???” I was living in the Bay Area at the time, and this scandal was all over the news for months and months on end.
It had everything. It had as much juicy gossip appeal as any Hollywood celebutante scandal or runaway bride story. And it was a microcosm of so many modern afflictions: corrupt police departments and the crooked city governments that keep shielding them, cronyism, and the culture clashes that are inevitable in any large diverse American city — especially San Francisco.
In November 2002, two guys were leaving a bar just after closing time. One of them was a bartender there and the other had stayed there until closing time. As they were walking away from the bar, they were assaulted and beaten up by three off duty SFPD officers.
In the earliest versions of the story, one of the two guys was carrying home a bag of leftover fajitas. The three off duty cops came up to them and demanded that they hand over the fajitas. The two guys from the bar said no, and they got stomped.
It didn’t take long for “Fajitagate” to be coined, and the name stuck. After weeks and weeks of wallowing in Fajitagate, the bartender gave an interview so he could tell his side of the story and “clarify” a few things. I don’t remember the details, but he said there was more to the argument than just three cops walking up to them, demanding their fajitas and then pummeling them when they said no; and the media was oversimplifying everything by having the whole story centered around a bag of fajitas.
He also wanted to make it clear that he and the bar patron he was with were “not friends,” that they happened to be leaving at the same time. He was off duty because the bar had just closed, and the other guy had been hanging out there until closing time.
I don’t know if the term “Fern Bar” still exists or not — trendy Yuppie bars with fancy-named drinks that are watered down and overpriced. That’s the kind of bar these two guys were coming out of. The three off duty cops had just come out of a “cop” bar on the same street. And you know what “cop” bar entails, assuming you’ve watched a few police shows on TV.
As one local columnist put it, the whole encounter was Boilermakers versus Cosmopolitans.
And speaking of cronyism — one of the three cops was named Alex Fagan Jr. The then-Assistant Police Chief was Alex Fagan Senior. Do the math.
Just like Watergate, Fajitagate had a coverup, followed by a coverup of the coverup, then a coverup to cover up the coverup of the coverup…
In the most blatant part of the police department sleazefest, the senior officer who had been investigating the incident and was finally starting to uncover a few interesting details — was abruptly transferred to another case. The person who took him off the case claimed it was just a routine transfer; that it’s perfectly normal to take an investigator off a case just when he/she is starting to get somewhere. Riiight.
During the height of the publicity, then-Mayor Willie Brown made a public statement that the whole incident was just “mutual combat,” not an assault, and let’s move on, etc. I think at least one up-and-coming mayoral candidate said the same thing in a public statement.
Nobody did any jail time; there were just lots of investigations and counter-investigations; claims and counterclaims. The police chief was accused by the D.A. of covering up the incident. He eventually had his name cleared and then he took an early retirement because of the “stress” of being investigated.
I hadn’t thought of this scandal in years, until I saw yesterday’s headline that the case is being officially closed.
It was one of the most colorful chapters in San Francisco’s colorful history.
Here are some more links to Fajitagate.