Bum Rap 

Vernon Joseph wanted to be a force in hip-hop. Then he met Frank Vazquez. His story shows why Oakland's problems run deeper than the Riders.

Fly Vern is trippin'. He feels like he's gonna throw up. "See, I'm sweatin'," he mumbles, wiping his clammy hands on his trousers as he soaks up the bad memories at the scene of his alleged crime. "It's hard. It's the first time I seen this. I mean, man," he says, his voice momentarily trailing off. "But I remember it like it was yesterday."

Vernon Joseph walks purposefully to the north side of the building and gazes up a dank enclosed stairwell of the two-story fourplex at 1464 71st Avenue. "They said it was up here that I put the gun under the recycling bin," Vernon says, pointing to a three-foot-wide landing at the top of the stairs. "I mean, just lookin' at this place is hard. ... This is where my life will never be the same, right here. All from one officer."

It was the evening of December 29, 1995, around 8 o'clock. Vernon had come to East Oakland with his two younger half-brothers, Darrold and Derrick, to help a friend move. Things were lookin' up for Vernon. A hip-hop fanatic who used to break-dance back in the day, he was poised to appear on a local gangsta rap compilation under the name Fly Vern. In the meantime, he was getting by doing construction jobs for his carpenter father, living with his mother in San Leandro, and planning to marry his longtime sweetheart, Crystal.

What Fly Vern didn't know was that two Oakland cops were watching the apartment from a hidden location across the street. According to the police officers, six or seven black men were hanging out on the street yelling "herb" at cars driving down the narrow one-way block. The street barkers acted as couriers, running up to the second-floor apartment and giving money to a large African-American man, who gave them back plastic bags filled with pot. Police later identified the man with the weed as 26-year-old Vernon J. Joseph Jr., a convicted felon previously busted on a drug rap at age nineteen who then graduated to robbery.

After an hour's surveillance, the two cops decided to move in and called for backup. As the other officers arrived, everyone scattered. One cop rushed the apartment where Vernon was staying, while the other guarded the back stairwell to prevent anyone from escaping. That's when the outside officer said he saw Vernon Joseph open a door at the top of the stairwell, pull a gun out of his waistband, and place it beneath a yellow recycling bin. The officer didn't get a direct look at the face of the gun-handler, but he recognized Vernon from his earlier surveillance. Fly Vern was easy to identify because of his distinctive braided hairstyle, green Starter jacket, and tall, heavyset build -- six feet, and 235 pounds.

The cop later said he took cover behind a car and yelled "Code 7," police lingo meant to inform his partner that the suspect had a gun. The upstairs partner later testified that the next thing he saw was Vernon Joseph walking into the apartment through the door by the stairwell, where he immediately detained him. The cops didn't find any weed on Vernon or in the apartment, but the upstairs one said he saw Darrold throwing something out the bathroom window, although he later changed that to the bedroom window. Police say they recovered eleven Baggies of marijuana in the vacant lot next door.

After detaining the Joseph brothers, the two cops drove them to a parking lot down the street, where they ran Vernon's name for warrants or priors. That's when the officers found out that Vernon Joseph was on parole from a 1991 robbery conviction in Solano County. According to Darrold, the two cops then decided they were gonna put the gun on Vernon and bust Darrold for selling weed. "That's what they were sayin' in the car," alleges Darrold, who now works at a bank in Pleasanton. "This was like a raffle of 'Who's gonna catch a case today?'" Vernon remembers one cop, the mean one, going to the trunk of the patrol car. The cop returned holding a gun, and not just any gun either, but an Intratec 9mm assault pistol. "You know this gun is yours," Vernon says the cop told him. But the cop persisted, in spite of Vernon's adamant denials. "He said, 'Who you think they gonna believe -- me or you?'" Vernon says. "'We gettin' all niggers off the street, and people's that's got records. We cleanin' up the streets of Oakland any way we have to.'"

The cop's name was Frank Vazquez, and whether or not that's what he said, that's exactly what happened -- the jury believed him. Because none of the suspect's fingerprints were found on the gun, the only direct link between Fly Vern and the gun was the testimony of Officer Frank Vazquez. But that was enough for the jury, which found Vernon guilty. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey W. Horner sentenced him to eight years in prison, which included time added because of two prior felony convictions.

Vernon has continually insisted on his innocence, telling all who'd listen that Vazquez set him up. But no one except for his family believed him -- not the jury, not the judge, not the California Court of Appeals.

Of course, this all happened years before anyone in Oakland had heard of the Riders, a group of four rogue cops who allegedly beat up suspects, planted drugs and guns on them, and then lied in police reports to cover up their wrongdoings. The four alleged vigilantes were Matthew Hornung, Jude Siapno, Clarence "Chuck" Mabanag, and the man who put Vernon Joseph behind bars -- Frank "Choker" Vazquez.


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