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No sanctuary for Danielle Bologna
Nina Martin | Photo: Robyn Twomey | October 21, 2011
All she cared about was her family.
Then all she cared about was why they were killed and how to hold San Francisco accountable for the bleeding-heart policies that had kept their accused murderer on our streets.
In her search for justice, she became a symbol of anti-immigrant xenophobia across the land. Now she’s discovered that for three years, she’s been blaming the wrong people.
She deserves the truth. But she’s had to settle for witness protection.
Before she got married and had kids, before she lost half her family and her faith in San Francisco, before she became the ravaged Madonna of the anti-immigration movement in America only to discover she’d been misled about that, too, Danielle Bologna earned her living cleaning up after rich people.
She was just out of high school, a spunky, restless kid who’d grown up in the Castro and Mission with her mother, nine brothers and sisters, and not much else. She didn’t mind the hard work or think of it as demeaning. She relished the independence, the sense of control, the glimpses into lives filled with glamour and privilege but also suspicion. “They test you,” she says of her wealthy employers. “They put things”—cash and jewelry, expensive objects—“in different places to see if you’ll take them.” Danielle never did. “I wasn’t the kind of person that thought, ‘Oh, let me give this key to my friend so he can rob the people I work for.’ All I could think was, ‘What an honor that they trust me.’ Then I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, ‘I would trust me, too.’ ”
Danielle was just 20 when she met Tony Bologna at a wedding reception in 1981. As she saw him leaving—handsome and a little macho, with dark hair and laughing eyes—she told her girlfriends, “He looks like a really nice guy.” Six months later, they bumped into each other at a restaurant on Union Street. “You don’t find love like that often. Tony showed me how to love, because in my family, I never learned how. My mother had so many kids, she couldn’t love us all. Tony loved me unconditionally.”
One of the things that made Tony special was that, like Danielle, he lived by a code. Danielle and their kids—Michael, Christopher*, Matthew, and Lucia*—were everything to him.
For 30-plus years, Tony worked the graveyard shift for various grocery chains, most recently Draeger’s Market in San Mateo. The schedule was brutal—10 p.m. to 6 a.m., six days a week—but he could eat dinner with Danielle and the kids every night at 5 and coach baseball or basketball before heading to the store. In the morning he’d walk in the door and call out, “Where’s my princesses?” and Lucia would run from her hiding place and watch ESPN on his lap until school. “My dad was never there for me,” Tony would say. “That will never happen to my kids.” Even after Michael, the oldest, was in college, they all still lived together, crowded into Tony’s childhood home on Madrid Street in the Excelsior, next door to his grandparents’ old house. In their late teens, the boys still had curfews. “When Michael started driving,” says Jun Flores, Tony’s friend for nearly 15 years, “he had to call Tony at work, at midnight, to let him know he was OK.”
By “OK,” Danielle and Tony didn’t just mean safe—they meant decent, they meant good.
Tony was the coach, the role model. At home and at work, he was a joker, low-key but demanding, telling his crew, “Do it right or don’t do it at all.” Danielle—dark and curvy, with bold black eyes that took in everything and long lacquered fingernails that looked like works of art or talons, depending on her mood—was the enforcer, the hawk. “Her boys had to grow up beautiful,” says Maria Martinez*, Danielle’s friend since Mission High. “They had to be respectful, even to each other. That was a real big thing with her: ‘You’ve got to love each other; you’re brothers.’ ”
“My kids were the only ones who never whined for anything at Toys ‘R’ Us,” Danielle says proudly. When her teenagers had trouble dragging themselves out of bed in the morning, she’d douse their faces with ice-cold water. During Michael’s sophomore year at Lincoln High, a teacher called to report that he’d been acting like, well, a normal adolescent. The next day, Danielle sneaked off to school and planted herself in the back of his first class. His friends all recognized her, of course—“She was so involved, she knew more kids than the principal,” Martinez says—but they didn’t think she was a weird helicopter mom; they thought she was a hoot. Sure enough, her son, the good-looking athlete (“I don’t know who was more proud of his six-pack—Danielle or Michael,” Martinez laughs), came strutting in, shooting his mouth off, until Danielle couldn’t help herself: “Hey you.” As Martinez recounts the story, “Mike was like, ‘Oh my god, what are you doing here!?’ and Danielle said, ‘Sit down.’ She told him, ‘I’m gonna go to school with you until you get it right.’ At the end of the day, he begged, ‘Please, please, Mom, don’t come to my school again. I won’t cause any more trouble.’ He knew that when she said something, she meant it.”
Three and a half years ago, when the worst thing that could ever happen to a person happened to Danielle—when Tony and Michael and Matthew were taken from her in a burst of violence that shook the city to its core—she struggled to remain true to the values she and Tony had believed in. Her greatest test came during the preliminary hearing for the accused killer, a 21-year-old Salvadoran named Edwin Ramos who police said had mistaken the Bolognas for gang rivals.
The hearing, in June 2009, coincided with the first anniversary of the murders. Every day for two weeks, Danielle forced herself to go to court. “I kept saying, ‘I can’t do this.’ But God would say, ‘You’re doing it for your family. They need you.’ ”
The final day, God ordered her to wear white and tell Ramos that she forgave him. The very idea went against Danielle’s nature. “The minute you burn me, I cut you like a knife. That’s just how I am.” But she dressed in a white top and slacks and pinned the buttons she’d had made—photos of Tony, Michael, and Matthew, their smiles frozen, haunting—to her chest. “I walked up to [Ramos], tapped him on the shoulder, and told him I forgave him. He looked at me like, ‘What?’ Then I walked away really fast, and there was a light in the court that seemed to shine on me.” Danielle took this as a sign: “My husband and my kids were proud of me.”
“Tony was just somebody you wanted to do right by,” Danielle tells me. “He taught me there are rules that we follow. We live as honorable citizens, and we tell the truth.”
No matter how many times Danielle repeated the story, it always made her cry. They’d spent the weekend of June 22, 2008, at Tony’s sister’s place near Fairfield. Tony had to work Sunday night, but he kept stalling, like he’d had a premonition. The boys kissed her over and over; as the car finally pulled away, Christopher waved out the window—“Mom, if I never see you again, I love you.” Then, a few blocks from home, Tony got into a minor altercation with another car trying to turn, and someone inside—Christopher told police it was the driver, Ramos—flashed a pistol and started shooting. Christopher ducked to safety, but Tony, 48, and Michael, 20, died at the scene. When Danielle heard the news from Tony’s coaching buddy, SFPD homicide chief Mike Stasko, she punched him in the chest, screaming, “Nooo. This can’t be true.” Two days later, 16-year-old Matthew was gone as well.
The murders—random, pointless—were the most shattering act of violence to strike the city in years. Their timing, as the economy was free-falling into chaos, seemed emblematic of how dangerous the world had become. More than a thousand mourners attended the funeral at St. Paul’s in Noe Valley, the church where Tony and Danielle had been married 21 years before. (At the reception, Danielle had announced to the guests, “We are making our first child tonight!” and nine months to the day later, Michael was born.) The three coffins, laid out under an immense white cloth, made a gut-wrenching sight. “Don’t forget us,” Danielle pleaded, her face drawn, her hands gripping the podium as if it were the only thing that felt real. “I don’t want my family to have died in vain.”
Everything that Danielle has done since then has been an effort to make those words have meaning. Her fight has taken every ounce of her strength at a time when she had none to spare, caused terrible rifts within her city, made her the kind of sad wreck that people turn away from or even scorn—all of which would have been worth it, for Tony and the boys, for the two kids still left to her, for the other families and children she wanted to protect. But, as I learned over the past nine months of reporting, her fundamental belief about the murders—why Ramos wasn’t in jail, much less deported—turned out to be just a piece of a much more complicated truth that she knew nothing about. For all those years, her blame and anger had been misdirected, her hope and energy wasted.
And then, as she was absorbing these new shocks, she was forced to disappear. But before that happened, before her family was forgotten in the way she’d always feared, she needed to tell her story, to be seen and understood, just once, on her own terms.
When Danielle first saw Ramos’s picture, in a book of mug shots the police brought by for Christopher to look at, her reaction was, “Oh my god, he’s so young. What was he thinking?” The photo in the Chronicle, taken about a year before the shootings, showed a smooth-faced man of 20 with a trim mustache, arched eyebrows, and an enigmatic expression—he might have been proud, or dazed, or sullen, or exhausted—standing beside his pretty young wife and a cake celebrating their daughter’s baptism. According to the paper, Ramos lived in El Sobrante with his wife, daughter, and in-laws but took classes at Skyline College in San Bruno and worked at an auto supply shop nearby. “How could someone with a child do that to a family?” Danielle cried. The more she turned the question over in her mind, the more unfathomable it seemed.
To the police, though, there was an answer. Despite the upstanding-citizen aspects of his life, Ramos had for years been associated with the Mara Salvatrucha, aka MS-13—according to its own website, “the most dangerous gang in the world”—whose 20th Street clique hung out in places like Mission Playground and Dolores Park dealing drugs and trolling for Norteños, rivals who controlled the Mission south of 21st Street and into the Bolognas’ own Excelsior neighborhood. The morning
of the shootings, while Tony and the boys were still in Fairfield, one of Ramos’s 20th Street pals had been wounded in a drive-by. The police figured Danielle’s family had been killed as payback.
Most San Franciscans weren’t aware of the vicious gang war that would claim at least nine lives in 2008 alone. Ramos had already been linked to a pair of murders in the Bolognas’ neighborhood that March. He and a friend were driving around when police pulled them over and caught the friend shoving a .45 down a storm drain. It was the same gun that just the night before had killed two kids Michael and Christopher knew—Philip Ng, a popular DJ at a club in the city, and his pal Ernad Joldic, reportedly a Bosnian refugee and math whiz who’d been class president at Gateway High. Ramos’s friend was charged, but the district attorney’s office decided there wasn’t enough evidence against Ramos and released him—putting him back on the streets just three months before Tony, Michael, and Matthew were killed.
As Danielle was preparing to bury her family, another war was breaking out, over San Francisco’s policy toward illegal immigrants. The city’s sanctuary law, which allowed immigrants to live, work, and go to school in the city without fear of being turned over to the feds, dated from the 1980s, when refugees began pouring in from Central America’s civil wars. Conservatives hated the law, as they hated everything else about San Francisco; liberals defended it as an essential law enforcement tool that encouraged people in vulnerable communities to report crimes and testify as witnesses, benefiting everyone. Now the San Francisco Chronicle was onto a story about the stunningly lenient and secretive way in which San Francisco’s juvenile-justice system had been interpreting the law. Instead of handing young drug dealers and thugs over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the system had been going to extreme lengths to help them avoid deportation. Conservatives went nuts.
At first, the only obvious connection of this scandal to the Bologna case was the byline—cop reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken had also covered the shootings. But a melodramatic drip, drip, drip of revelations built to a climax that exploded three weeks after the funerals: “Slaying Suspect Once Found Sanctuary in S.F.” Not only had Ramos “lacked legal status,” Van Derbeken reported, but he’d also been convicted as a teenager of two violent felonies—attacking a suspected Norteño on a Muni bus and trying to snatch a pregnant woman’s purse. But instead of turning him over to ICE after he served his time, the juvenile system had sent him to live with the mother, who couldn’t control him, and then with his aunt. Eventually, he’d drifted back into 20th Street’s orbit.
"The city shielded the monster who killed my family”—this simple idea pierced through Danielle’s pain and fog like nothing since the murders. It gave her a framework for understanding the inexplicable and finally provided a villain equal to the loss she had suffered—Ramos seemed too puny to account for all the misery he had caused. It created a focus for her anger, which was vast, engulfing everything in its path.
So began the second Bologna tragedy.
Even the people closest to Danielle seemed not to understand how poisonous the sanctuary revelations might be for her in her hyperfragile state. What she needed most, says her friend Marti McKee, was protection from the outside world. But the murders were a huge event in the Bolognas’ community; her friends couldn’t stop talking about it, even whispering gossip they’d heard—where Ramos’s mother lived, what Matthew had said as he lapsed into a coma—into Danielle’s ear as they embraced her at the funeral parlor, making her crazy. “The caskets are here, I can barely function—why are you saying these things to me?” she thought.
That extended community included police (Tony’s brother-in-law was the son of a cop). Law enforcement had long chafed against the sanctuary law, which made them take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” stance with every hoodlum they met, even violent young gangbangers who in nonsanctuary communities could be shuttled off to ICE. The police blamed the progressive leaders who pushed the law: Gavin Newsom; SFPD chief Heather Fong (“Feather” to her sneering rank and file); and D.A. Kamala Harris, who’d opposed the death penalty for a cop-killer early in her tenure and always seemed to be battling with the police behind the scenes. After Tony’s death, the malcontents came out of the woodwork, offering to help the Bolognas sue the city but also “feeding Danielle shit,” McKee says, and pouring gasoline on her rage.
Meanwhile, the media saw Danielle as a hot story; conservatives, as a symbol to be seized—a God-fearing Everymom whose family had been destroyed by the scourge of illegal immigration and the bleeding-hearted stupidity of the city that epitomized all that was wrong with this country. “San Francisco is completely out of control,” Bill O’Reilly thundered a couple of days after the Ramos story broke, going on to compare him to the terrorists of 9/11. “Danielle Bologna is us. She is an American. Her life and family should have been protected but they were not.” On Fox News’s Neil Cavuto show, anti-immigration leader William Gheen vowed, “Our movement will welcome her, put our wings around her, when she’s ready to join the national fight."
”Gheen believed “illegals” were killing thousands of Americans every year; the Bologna murders were significant because they couldn’t be hushed up.
“They need to take responsibility, the city,” Danielle had railed to the Chronicle; now she had a national platform from which to make her grievances heard. The media attention both distracted her from and validated the pain; she couldn’t bring her family back, but she could change the policy that had killed them. But the glare just seemed to magnify Danielle’s distress. “To know that I have to go on in life without my husband and my two beautiful sons—it’s just unbearable,” she sobbed on Fox News, her grief almost unwatchable.
Yet what Danielle was hearing about the city’s sanctuary policy was incomplete at best, her understanding of the issue shaped almost entirely by sound bites and what people coached her to say. Much later, when she and McKee spent time going over the law, Danielle had to admit parts of it sounded like “a really good thing.”
Nor was Danielle remotely anti-immigrant. Her own father was a Mexican who had entered the United States without papers and only became legal during the amnesty of the mid-1980s; her mother’s family was from civil war–torn Nicaragua. “She just didn’t want violent criminals to be shielded by the sanctuary law,” McKee says. “She wasn’t political. She was just a mom who’d lost her children.” But no one ever asked her who she was, only who she blamed.
Meanwhile, the comment sections on SFGate and YouTube filled up with page after page of toxic screeds—“Fuck you! Illegals are murdering American citizens left, right, and center, and all libtards like you can do is whine about ‘discrimination!’ ” Some were from people she knew—“friends” who got off on their proximity to the tragedy, even a relative she’d been estranged from for years. Danielle, in her vacuum, only saw printouts of the comments people wanted her to see, the condolences and the criticisms of what she was doing. Each new appearance she made—on Laura Ingraham’s radio show, at a Minutemen rally in L.A.—seemed to further align her with the ranters and the ravers.
To McKee, all of this was heartbreaking. She’d met Danielle a couple of months after the murders through mutual friends who were putting together a website called Remember the Bolognas. By then, Danielle had endured a terrible rift with Tony’s family over other issues, leaving her more alone and vulnerable than ever. One day she told McKee about another anti-sanctuary march she’d been invited to, from city hall to the jail. McKee, who’d spent 10 years as a spokesperson at the local office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, was aghast: “I said, ‘I think it’s a very bad idea to be showing your face in public right now. Don’t these people care about your safety? How are they going to protect you?’ ” She stepped in, scaring away the organizers and easing Danielle out of the limelight at last. But by then, Danielle had a reputation. “She’s nuts,” someone in the media told me. “OK, she lost her husband and children, she has the right to be nuts, but she’s nuts.”
Progressive San Francisco doesn’t know what to make of people like Danielle Bologna. The city of $2,000-a-month studios and tech bubbles, of the professionals and the poor and not much in between, can’t fathom how working-class relics like her family can afford to stay, go to church every Sunday, raise great kids who revere their parents and act like each other’s best friends. The left feels empathy for the grieving mother—but also for the kid whose terrible childhood led him to pull the trigger. A “good” victim is someone who fights for gun control, not someone who challenges the city’s core idea of itself.
Danielle, on the other hand, loved San Francisco unequivocally—what it had been and what it had become. She’d lived all over the city, in ritzy neighborhoods and rough ones, and had seen the good and bad in all of them. (Her favorite was the Castro of the Harvey Milk era—“It really gave me a sense of family.”) She describes the time she met Gavin Newsom, around 2003. She was on a quest for a new pair of earrings when she saw a tall, handsome guy in a spotless shirt and tie, expounding to a cluster of passersby. As she recalls it, she went up to him and demanded, “Who are you?” He replied, “I’m running to become the mayor of San Francisco,” and she said, “Oh, that’s all?”
In person, Danielle is gorgeous—“a fox,” she happily giggles—with a flirty warmth that makes the stubbornness seem charming. Her cleavage is impressive, her 51-year-old-mother-of-four abs even more so: “Look at this!” she brags, lifting her T-shirt to show off the awe-inspiring results of 2,000 sit-ups a day. She’s at her funniest telling on herself—how she tricked Tony into getting her pregnant with Lucia and then into thinking they were having their fourth boy (“The nurse goes, ‘She’s beautiful,’ and Tony goes, ‘It’s a girl? I made a girl?’ And he ran to look—‘Babe, it’s a girl!’ I go, ‘I know!’ ”); how even after 28 years together, she and Tony sometimes made love three times a day, several days a week. (“My kids were like, ‘You guys are too much. You’re always smiling.’ ” “You really want that in the magazine?” I ask. “Absolutely,” she laughs.) When she’s buried, she says, it will be in a pink casket—she and Lucia have already picked it out at Costco—emblazoned “Diva.”
If anything, Danielle felt pride in hanging on in San Francisco while other blue-collar families got pushed out or gave up. She painted her nails Giants orange and black and waved them around to make sure people noticed. (She does ghosts on Halloween and turkeys on Thanksgiving.) She named the family’s golden retriever Frisco. And Danielle being Danielle, she expected that if something ever happened to her family, her ferocious loyalty would be reciprocated—her city “would have our backs.” But that didn’t happen, she told me one afternoon this spring. “We did all the right things; we obeyed all the rules. But they abandoned us.”
The feeling of being shunted aside set in early. Newsom showed up at the funeral but stayed in the back and slipped out without a word to her or her family. (When he tried to contact her later, Danielle wouldn’t take his call.) Only one supervisor—Danielle couldn’t recall who—bothered to send a note. Instead of offering condolences, progressive groups were largely silent. “We didn’t want to be vultures,” says Ana Pérez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, vice chair of the city’s Immigrant Rights Commission, and a onetime undocumented refugee from El Salvador. “We wanted to give her time and space to grieve.”
"We never saw her as the enemy,” Pérez insists. But the left did feel cornered. Immediately after the first sanctuary stories broke, Newsom—his eye on the 2010 elections—rescinded the old juvenile-offender policy and began requiring law enforcement to hand over for deportation any undocumented kid even accused of a felony. Ramos became the worst-case scenario that seemed to justify that decision. “We shouldn’t respond to a tragedy by taking rights away from an entire community,” countered supervisor David Campos, a onetime undocumented Guatemalan refugee, who pushed through a new, less draconian policy after he joined the board in early 2009. Danielle told friends, “I feel like I’ve been slapped in my face.”
By then she’d been literally cast out, forced to flee the city to protect Christopher, the sole eyewitness to the shootings. Worried that Ramos’s gang might come after him, D.A. investigators had wanted to give the family new identities in another state. “We wouldn’t be able to have contact with anybody?” Danielle agonized. “What did we do to deserve that?” She knew she could never again live in the house on Madrid Street, with its memories and ghosts. But she needed to be able to visit the cemetery on birthdays and anniversaries, to stroke the photos on her boys’ tombstones, the way she used to touch their cheeks. And Christopher needed to be around his friends. He was a shell, unable to talk to his mother about what he had experienced in the backseat of his father’s car. In the end she moved the family to a nearby town, upset when investigators made her sign a release—“They want to protect themselves, but they didn’t protect us.”
She’d lie awake at night, trying to keep the fear at bay. She was worried about money, afraid that Christopher and Lucia would never be whole again. She’d go to the cemetery and bawl, “How do I do this, honey? I need you.”
Once again, it was conservatives who threw her a lifeline. Kris Kobach, a clean-cut Kansas law professor affiliated with an ultraright think tank in D.C., flew out in the summer of 2008 to meet the family, talking about how angry he was on their behalf and offering to file a lawsuit that would provide the kids with a safety net while holding San Francisco accountable and dealing a death blow to sanctuary policies across the United States. Kobach would become known as one of the main architects of the wave of harsh anti-immigrant laws sweeping Arizona and other red states, but Danielle didn’t care about his politics. (Her brother-in-law had done the research and sought Kobach out.) She saw the suit in heroic terms, McKee says: “It was about forcing the city to admit the truth as much as it was about financial security.”
Matthew Davis, a big-time liberal lawyer recruited by Kobach to help with the case, was dismayed at how juvenile justice had misused the sanctuary law: “It’s left-wing dogma getting in the way of common sense. It’s not helping anyone and it’s making the city a worse place to live. You don’t need to be a conservative to believe that.” He thought San Francisco’s treatment of Danielle since the murders had been appalling: “She was getting fewer services than people whose poor choices in life are what led to their problems.” He knew the suit was a long shot, but he says the city could have done right by Danielle by quietly settling. “The answer was very much, ‘No, thank you.’ ” A lawyer for the city attorney’s office (where Davis used to work) counters, “The city can’t just decide, individual to individual, to extend its largesse” through a gift of public funds.
Her lawyers warned that the suit might not fly, but Danielle wasn’t listening. When a Superior Court judge tossed the case in February 2010, she was convinced that the appeals court would see things differently. But the oral arguments this past January only reminded her of how little her city seemed to care. Neither the city’s attorney nor the judges offered a word of condolence. No one so much as uttered the names of her husband and sons. “Lawyers aren’t very good at saying ‘I’m sorry,’ ” Davis admits. But Danielle was starving for kindness. “It’s gross,” she practically spit when the arguments were over and the judges had retreated to their chambers, clearly ready to reject the suit for good. “It’s just gross.”
As the seasons passed, Danielle increasingly focused her resentment on one person: Kamala Harris. It was the D.A.’s Office that had let Ramos go on the Ng-Joldic gun charge three months before the shootings, Harris whose opposition to capital punishment guaranteed that he would never face the death penalty, Harris whose staff oversaw the witness relocation program as well as victim services, which were frustratingly inadequate for her loss. The famously touchy-feely D.A. twice invited Danielle to meet with her, but Danielle was brutal in her response. She forced Harris to look at photos of her boys in their caskets and berated her:“You’re not married, you’ve never given birth, you wouldn’t know what it is to have a family.”
And Ramos’s prosecution was going much too slowly. Danielle thought that Christopher’s identification of Ramos made the case a slam dunk. After the June 2009 preliminary hearing, she had understood that the trial would take place later that fall. But months, then years, went by.
The prelim had been especially traumatic for Christopher. Facing Ramos, he testified in dark glasses, a scarf, and a hat to disguise his appearance. When he described seeing his father slump dead in the front seat, Danielle broke down, and Christopher lashed out at Ramos: “Yeah, look at what you did.” Everyone knew that the trial would be even harder and that Christopher’s life would be in danger until it was over. “Sometimes [Christopher’s] friends tell me, ‘He had another bad night,’ which means that he was crying,” Danielle confided this spring. One morning, Lucia, now 13, heard a TV news report about San Francisco’s decision to start allowing undocumented juveniles convicted of minor drug crimes to participate again in a diversion program run by the D.A.’s Office. “Mom! They’re gonna let Ramos out, and he’s gonna come after us!” she shrieked. Danielle reassured her that the program had nothing to do with Ramos, that he was never going to be free. “So we’re OK?” Lucia asked, crying, and Danielle hugged her and lied, “Yes, honey, we’re OK.”
As the 2010 election cycle heated up and still no word came, Danielle and McKee suspected that Harris was dragging her feet to minimize the trial’s impact on her race for attorney general against Los Angeles D.A. Steve Cooley. Finally, in September 2010, a fed-up McKee sicced a reporter she knew on Ramos’s lead prosecutor, Harry Dorfman. Then she and Danielle discovered—through a flyer slipped under McKee’s front door—that Dorfman himself was occupied with running for Superior Court judge. Dorfman summoned Danielle to his office and apologized in front of his staff for not telling her about the race. But after that, Danielle refused to say another word to him. (The D.A.’s Office attributes the delay in large part to the difficulty of finding a judge who was able to take on such a long and complex trial.)
The elections themselves were torture. Danielle couldn’t turn on the TV or open the paper without Harris and Newsom getting in her face. McKee was just as disgusted by the conservatives who claimed to sympathize with Danielle but really wanted to use her. Republican Abel Maldonado, running against Newsom in the lieutenant governor’s race, had the gall to put her in one of his ads without asking. (He also kept calling Danielle on her cell to try to arrange to meet with her in private.) Cooley dredged up the Bologna case, too, but Harris and Newsom hung on to win. When Harris finally declared victory a month after the vote, Danielle wept. “She acts like she’s gonna help the citizens, but look at what happened to my family.”
Meanwhile, Danielle was doing her best to get on with her life. Even though she knew that MS-13 might be looking for her family, she came into the city all the time, visiting friends and volunteering at the kids’ old elementary school, where the kindergartners were always giving her bottles of nail polish as presents and begging their mothers to get manicures like Mrs. D.’s. She spent hours every day working off stress at the gym and even started to do some modeling. She and the kids had finally found a great therapist who was helping them set aside what Danielle called “the ugliness.” “I had a good man, and a good family, and I still have that,” she told me. “I miss my husband’s smell, his touch. But what he’s given me, what I still have, is the foundation to live.” Last year, she celebrated her 50th birthday with a bash at a sports bar in the Mission, the same night that the Giants beat the Phillies to go to the World Series. She made grand entrances in two outfits, says Martinez, “a very beautiful long gown and then this unbelievable gabardine pantsuit, very formfitting. She was just a knockout.” Danielle danced all night.
She was longing to move back to San Francisco. She’d lost so much already; she didn’t want to lose her city as well. But as this spring turned into summer, the trial date that might allow her return kept being pushed back. McKee pointed to a huge trial getting under way in federal court in late March—29 members of Ramos’s MS-13 clique charged with racketeering, conspiracy, drug dealing, auto theft, and six homicides. The indictment had come down four months after the Bologna shootings, yet somehow the case was coming to trial before Ramos’s. “You’re telling me that trying one gang member for three murders is more complicated than that?” McKee demanded. “It’s absurd.”
MS-13, like the sanctuary law itself, traces its roots to the Central American exodus of the 1980s. What began as a Salvadoran street gang in Los Angeles morphed, in the lawless prisons of postwar El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, into a transnational crime organization with thousands of members in the United States alone. When reports started circulating that MS-13 leaders, no longer content with running guns, trafficking drugs, and butchering their enemies, had been meeting with al-Qaeda, the Bush administration got serious.
Operation Community Shield, as the multinational probe was called, was rolled out in 2005. That same year, the local effort, Operation Devil Horns, named for an MS-13 gang sign and involving at least eight agencies, including ICE and the SFPD, began placing informants in the 20th Street leadership and tracking the clique’s activities. At the time, the gang was mostly “slackers” and “stoners,” defense lawyers say; “vicious, dangerous, and indifferent to the rule of law” is how the feds would later describe them. [See “Three Questions in the Bologna Case,” starting page 108.] Three years of investigation paid off; most of the defendants named in the October 2008 indictment would plead guilty or be convicted.
Ramos wasn’t among those indicted, which is why, for three years, Danielle and McKee paid zero attention to the case. No one—not Tony’s police friends, not the D.A.’s Office, not the feds—had suggested it had anything to do with the Bolognas, and besides, the sanctuary issue was consuming enough.
As defense lawyers dug into the evidence, however, they noticed something intriguing: Ramos, gang name “Popeye,” was all over the probe. The Reports of Investigation, essentially what the gang’s snitches were telling their government handlers, were replete with references to him and his alleged activities, going back to 2005. The defendants included his brother-in-law and many of his friends—for instance, Erick “Spooky” Lopez, the gangbanger arrested with Ramos and the Ng-Joldic murder weapon—and his uncle-in-law, a key government informant. ICE and other federal agencies had known Ramos—where he lived, where he hung out, what he was doing with some MS-13 gangsters as they cruised the city, why he was feuding with others, including his in-laws.
But if all this was true, how could anyone argue that it was solely the fault of San Francisco’s sanctuary policies that Ramos was still running around in June 2008? That was the question raised in a flurry of court documents by defense attorney Martín Sabelli this past winter. His MS-13 client, accused of murder, had little to do with Ramos. But that didn’t stop Sabelli from finding a way to get out the word that the Ramos story was not what it had seemed.
The reason Popeye was roaming the streets, Sabelli declared, was because the feds had left him there in an attempt to build a “mega-case” with mega-publicity. This may have accounted for one of the biggest mysteries surrounding Ramos—why he’d been let go after the Ng-Joldic gun arrest three months before the Bologna slayings. After the D.A.’s Office decided not to charge him, probation officials contacted ICE. (Ramos was by then an adult offender.) But ICE, even though it was running Operation Devil Horns, didn’t detain him. The excuse the agency gave in 2008—that it didn’t get the paperwork in time—seems less believable than ever.
As trial testimony began this spring, Ramos’s mug shot was splashed on projectors around the courtroom as if he were part of the conspiracy. Jurors heard how he’d allegedly supplied the gun used in a string of armed robberies by a junkie friend, among other things. Ramos’s attorneys insist that much of the supposed evidence about him came from enemies (his in-laws) who saw a chance to get even. Either way, the implication was clear enough: It was the feds who had given Ramos—and the rest of 20th Street—something like sanctuary while they watched and waited for the violent crimes that would take down the whole dangerous clique.
I first met Danielle this past January, in the sleek, unfriendly courtroom where the appeal of her lawsuit was being heard. I’d come to see the famous Kobach in action, but as the arguments began, it was Danielle I found myself watching. She was struggling to maintain her composure, but kept losing the battle. In her tight jeans, her careful makeup, her nails painted a somber shade to mark the occasion, she was the loneliest woman I’d ever seen.
When I called her a few days later, Danielle referred me to McKee, who told me, in her polite ex–government flack way, to fuck off. But after a couple of months, she relented. Losing the lawsuit had plunged Danielle into a deep funk. Maybe telling her story to the world was exactly what she needed now; maybe there was still some way San Francisco could make amends.
Even if McKee didn’t think the federal case was relevant, I figured I ought to learn more about it. The Sabelli documents, disclosed in a Wall Street Journal article that went almost totally ignored, left me flummoxed, so completely did they contradict the story Danielle, her kids, her friends, her lawyers, San Francisco, Fox News, and pretty much everyone else in the world had been fed for three years. When I contacted Ramos’s lead attorney, Marla Zamora, for her reaction, she filled in some new details. She insisted that Ramos wasn’t the shooter (see “Is Flaco the Real Killer?” on page 119) or the border-leaping demon the media firestorm had led people to believe.
Zamora emailed me a copy of his 10-year visa from the State Department, issued in December 2000—the first year that his mother, who’d fled El Salvador’s fighting when he was four months old, could legally send for him. A photo taken the day of his arrival shows a sweet-faced 13-year-old with thick black hair and a shy smile all dressed up for his grand entrance at SFO.
For most of his adolescence, he was legal. He had temporary protected status and a work permit. The media had gotten right that Ramos’s later juvenile convictions made him deportable. (He never stopped trying to correct his status, especially after he married a U.S. citizen.) San Francisco’s juvenile-justice system had treated him like any kid, citizen or no, and kept his records secret from everyone, including ICE.
But by the time he was an adult, hanging out with murderers, ICE knew all about Ramos. Maybe it was the feds, rather than the city, whom Danielle and her lawyers should be blaming for Tony and the boys’ deaths.
Now I had a new problem—how to tell Danielle what I was learning. When I emailed the Sabelli documents to McKee, she was puzzled, then skeptical, then incredulous, then furious. “All these years, people have let Danielle believe that the city alone was to blame, that it kept him from the feds, and now it turns out the feds knew about him for three years?”
More than anyone, McKee understood what this would do to Danielle. All the effort she’d put into forcing the city to take responsibility had been misplaced. If her lawyers had known Ramos was on the street because federal investigators chose to leave him there alongside his MS-13 buddies, Matt Davis told me, they would never have bothered to sue the city.
And Danielle would also have to be told that she’d been horribly betrayed by another institution. McKee and I concocted a plan. She would break the news about the sanctuary issue. I would follow up with the How-do-you-feel?s. We set a date to talk in mid-May.
Then, suddenly, Danielle was gone.
The details of the incident that made her decide to disappear overnight are being kept secret. Suffice it to say that there was what McKee calls “a credible threat” and that Christopher is assumed to have been the target. Danielle and the kids weren’t there when it happened; a neighbor alerted the landlord, who called Danielle, who raced to Lucia’s school, then grabbed her terrified son. “He kept saying, ‘Mom, we’ve got to get out of here, they’re coming to get me, I’m going to die!’ ” Danielle told me later. “‘Mom, I wish I’d never seen [the shooting], I wish I was dead.’ ”
This time, Danielle didn’t hesitate to accept witness protection—new names and new lives for her and the kids a long way from the Bay Area. She had lost her husband, her sons, her home, her income, her support system—almost everything. To Danielle, this forced departure felt like what San Francisco had been hoping for all along. “They want me to shut up and go away.” Even so, she insisted on continuing to talk to me—over the objection of the D.A.’s Office. Otherwise, she said, it would be as if she and her family had never existed.
For the next couple of months, McKee and I spent many hours talking through what had happened, how and why Danielle had been misled, what political forces in San Francisco might have been at work. These were frustrating conversations, because nearly everything had happened behind closed doors, and the key players weren’t talking.
ICE, which ran the investigation and had the most to answer for, said it couldn’t talk specifics. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which oversaw the prosecution, refused all questions. The D.A.’s Office didn’t let me speak to Dorfman, and the people I did talk to were new to their jobs. The issue of when the office knew about Ramos’s part in the federal investigation was something no one (including Harris’s people) would address. They only admitted the obvious—that by the time the MS-13 trial was scheduled to start this March, it made sense to delay Ramos’s trial so they could use the MS-13 evidence to bolster the prosecution.
Yet for Danielle’s sake, it seemed important to try to piece together why Ramos came to be sanctuary’s supervillain and Danielle its supposed victim, even as the feds escaped scrutiny. Someone in law enforcement—Zamora suspects a juvenile probation officer—must have leaked his secret juvenile records to Jaxon Van Derbeken and pinned Ramos with the undocumented label that proved so incendiary. It could have been an honest mistake or a deliberate effort to exploit outrage over the Bologna murders and undermine the sanctuary policy and its backers. But the Chronicle, no doubt tired of being criticized by the left for exposing the juvenile system’s mistakes, didn’t want Van Derbeken (now busy beating up on PG&E) to talk to me, either.
Presumably Harris’s office, which would have been aware of Operation Devil Horns and negotiated with the U.S. Attorney’s Office about who should prosecute Ramos, could have clued Danielle in. “I understand why, when the indictment was still secret for the first months after the murders, no one said anything,” McKee says. “But shouldn’t they then have told [Danielle] the truth—just for the sake of honesty, before she got used as a poster child?” But just as civil lawyers and judges have a professional aversion to apologizing, D.A.’s offices often leave victims’ families out of the loop, an ex-prosecutor told me. Plus, helping victims in their lawsuits isn’t the D.A.’s role. “We’re prosecuting people for crimes,” says Cristine DeBerry, D.A. George Gascón’s chief of staff. ‘We don’t act as legal counsel for people pursing claims.” Danielle’s avenging-angel attitude couldn’t have helped—she was scary. Whatever they told her would just make her angrier.
Meanwhile, the news that the feds had for years shielded the gang while investigating it only reached Danielle and the public because Sabelli, locked with the other MS-13 defense lawyers in an endless series of pre-trial discovery battles with federal prosecutors and U.S. District Judge William Alsup, disclosed the information in a flurry of court filings. Sabelli and the defense lawyers argued that the Ramos info—along with embarrassing evidence about informants that the feds no doubt preferred to keep under wraps—showed that the government had engaged in “outrageous misconduct” during the investigation (Alsup disagreed). Even then, though, Justin Scheck’s Wall Street Journal story about the revelations got almost no reaction from a public and media suffering from sanctuary-city fatigue. “No one wants to write about this shit anymore,” Scheck says.
ICE maintains that to take down a gang as big and bad as MS-13, you have to take your time and keep it quiet. Yet to nail 20th Street, the feds allowed gangsters to commit serious crimes—the more numerous and violent the offenses, the longer the sentences, the better for the feds’ big-picture goal. Whatever the greater good, the Bolognas paid; Philip Ng and Ernad Joldic paid; much of the city suffered.
Pérez told me that immigrant communities here felt the greatest impact from the gang warfare and now are hurting from the backlash. Because of Newsom’s overamped reaction, she said, “Over two hundred immigrant children have been deported, even though most of them would have been found innocent if they’d seen a judge. Those families are being divided. Those mothers are in pain.” Pérez’s biggest regret, though, is that as Danielle Bologna became a symbol of the “whole xenophobic, anti-immigrant wave that was sweeping our country, we were not able to reach out to each other and find our common ground. Yet there was so much of it.”
And now it’s too late.
When McKee and I finally connected with Danielle in late July to download our discoveries, her reaction was more muted than I had expected. As she tried to figure out how to fill all the aching new voids in her family’s lives, hearing about the latest twists was like watching a movie—unreal. “I want the truth,” she told me several times, but I didn’t get the feeling she did, really. She wanted everything to be better. “Will the truth set you free?” she mused. “Hell no, it won’t. The truth is what it is.”
Amid so much uncertainty, Danielle was focused on what she did know: Christopher and Lucia. “I have to live positively for them,” she said, “to show that you can go through these horrendous situations and be OK.” She’d come to another realization too: No matter what happened, she would never live in San Francisco again. She’d had to return to the city briefly; she felt the familiar thrill as she scanned the Golden Gate Bridge and took in the green of the Presidio, the apartment buildings like pastel candies, the way the sunlight made the high rises shine like bling. “I used to love this city so much,” she thought. But now she saw it as “a place of not trusting the system.” Emotionally and in other ways, “it’s not safe anymore for me.”
We talked again toward the end of summer. “I’m doing really well,” she said, and I could hear in the way that she laughed at her own little jokes that she meant it. Maybe leaving the Bay Area had set her free as the truth never could have. She’d found a big house with lots of sun—no more fog or dark shadows. Lucia was starting high school. Christopher was back in college and seemed to be adapting.
She talked about packing up—“Some things you just have to do yourself,” she said, and I could imagine her rolling those black eyes in impatience—and had come across the scrapbooks she’d made for her boys as they started ninth grade. She hadn’t been able to look at them since the murders, but she was in the truck, waiting for the movers, with nothing to do, so she took out Michael’s, poring over the photos of him wrestling his brothers, playing in the snow with Tony, cuddling his obstinate, adoring mom. “There were some feelings,” she said, with a catch in her voice, “some good feelings. I was close to my son. I looked at him, I touched his face, and I said, ‘You guys are with us right now, huh? We’re moving together.’ ”
She’d been going through all the boxes of photos, figuring out what to put around the house now that the cemetery was so far away. “You know something,” she told me, “I have a really good family. I’m a really good mom.”
But that glimmer of optimism soon faded. September was always hard—Matthew’s birthday, Danielle and Tony’s anniversary. Christopher was lonely and miserable, crying all the time. Danielle was drinking too much, slipping away from her kids, into a place where she didn’t feel anything. But then she realized what was happening. That wasn’t the kind of mother her kids deserved, so she went on the wagon—she was a survivor; she’d been though much worse; she’d find some other way to cope.
Then she and McKee had another conversation about the federal investigation and Ramos, and this time, the information sank in. It made her angrier than she’d felt in months. Along with all the new revelations, the feelings of betrayal, the disgust, there was also the realization that the fed case had delayed the Ramos trial and kept Christopher in danger. That was why they’d had to flee. That was why they were so unhappy now. “Had it been Kamala Harris’s family, Gavin Newsom’s family, Harry Dorfman’s family, this would not have gone on for three and a half years.” And no one could tell them for sure when Ramos would finally go on trial. It was like living in purgatory, suffering for everyone else’s mistakes and sins.
But the person who was most upset was Christopher. His reaction terrified her. He punched the wall and yelled, “You know, Mom, I don’t know how much more I can take.”
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story stated that attorney Martín Sabelli “disclosed… information in court papers that was supposed to be kept under wraps.” While the information—about murder suspect Edwin Ramos and the use of informants in the MS-13 investigation—was embarrassing to the federal government, which had been keeping it “under wraps,” there was no implication of inappropriate behavior or misconduct by Mr. Sabelli.
Articles editor Nina Martin has written for many publications. Researchers Annie Tittiger and Taylor Wiles also contributed to this story.
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