Peeling a Notorious Oakland Murder

I don’t know Thomas Peele very well. Heck, I haven’t even read his new book. But when I heard about it– a deep, unflinching probe into the murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey by culprits from Your Black Muslim Bakery–I just had to start exploring. How better to whet my true- crime appetite than a sit-down with the author?

As an East Coast transplant and someone who reported on crime many years ago in Florida, I used to think California and the Bay Area had no real organized crime. Sure, we had crews and loose associations and even Oakland drug kingpin Felix Mitchell in the 1980’s but nothing approaching the five families of New York’s mafia or Whitey Bulger’s evil Winter Hill Mob in South Boston. But upon further review and Peele’s talk, Your Black Muslim Bakery from Oakland was every bit a murderous criminal enterprise.

I expect Killing The Messenger to very much be in the same class as Jerry Capeci and Gene Mustain’s mob classic Murder Machine or Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s Black Mass about Mr. Bulger. Or maybe it will be on par with Krakauer’s superb exploration of crime and religious extremism in Under The Banner of Heaven. For so many reasons Chauncey Bailey’s death screams for attention and reflection. It was only five years ago but seems so distant. As Peele points out, the 2007 assassination was the first time since 1976 that a journalist was killed in the United States. And all the events leading up to it played out in the places us Oaklanders frequent daily, San Pablo Avenue, a parking lot next to a McDonald’s, a Mexican restaurant near Lake Merritt.

Peele hosts a reading Thursday ,February 9, at 7:00 p.m. at Diesel Bookstore 5433 College Avenue, Oakland.  (He refers to Your Black Muslim Bakery as “half bizarre religious cult and half organized crime family.”)

The shortest of back stories is this: A man, Yusef Bey aka elder Bey, founds and runs a Nation of Islam splinter group for years in Oakland and owns Your Black Muslim Bakery. The group became a force in Oakland politics and commerce as elder Bey engaged in welfare fraud, child rape and other crimes. The elder died of cancer while facing legal action, and a vicious power struggle erupted to control the bakery. Bey’s son Yusef Bey IV and his circle terrorized and murdered Oakland residents. Chauncey Bailey was writing for the Oakland Post about the bakery’s bankruptcy and financial problems when Bey IV learned of the pending article and ordered the journalist’s killing.

Peele covered the story with his fellow journalists as part of the Chauncey Bailey Project. He is an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group and a lecturer at UC-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. It occurred to me that his book is just a big cauldron of investigation: the beginnings of Your Black Muslim Bakery, the tons of detective work that eventually garnered the convictions and Peele’s efforts to detail all of it.

Peele’s telling of the story is especially relevant for what our City still faces: a short-staffed and overworked Police Department.  In the end you would have to say that the good guys won because the shooter, Devaughndre Broussard, took a plea deal and two others were convicted.  But there were several times where the cases could have been lost or the guilty not brought to justice.

I wanted to know some of the good and some of the bad detective work in the case. The case got off to an okay start in the investigation of a kidnap/torture case, then two separate murders–known as the Wills and Roberson cases– that occurred in July 2007 near Your Black Muslim Bakery headquarters on San Pablo Avenue.  Prior to all of those incidents, a man’s car had been riddled with multiple rounds from various guns.  So detectives had a broad idea of the responsible parties but they of course had to build the cases.

“In the beginning I thought that when they realized the Wills and Roberson murders that predate Bailey, those guys knew.  Those guys knew. They knew here were a couple guys blown to pieces with Ak-47s and they knew where they had to look. They were overworked and frantic and there were a hell of a lot of murders in 2007.” (There were 127 homicides that year in Oakland.)  “They knew what to do. They knew that they had to crack that citadel on San Pablo Avenue and about the only thing they had was a car shooting that had taken place eight months earlier.” The car’s owner had argued with Bey IV and others in the family but refused to cooperate.

A big break came when former homicide chief  Ersie Joyner and two detectives gained the man’s trust enough for him to become an informant and give detailed information about the bakery.  A criminalist, Mark Bennett, would make the comparisons and testify about the ballistic links between the murders and car shooting.  “He’s a brilliant guy.  He’s British and studied at Scotland Yard..  You listen to the guy testify.  A prosecutor said that the woman jurors love him and the men jurors all think he is James Bond and get men-crushes. He put this all together.  It was the same gun.” Here is Detective Lou Cruz’s search warrant.

A big barrier for police was that the suspect pool was potentially massive.  Bey the Elder had 40 or 50 kids.  Bey IV had a dozen or so guys in his group.  Plus, there were other associates of the bakery.

A parallel investigation had occurred in the kidnap and torture case where a fake police car had pulled over and kidnapped a woman and her mother.  A break came when police went back to the property and found a cell phone–that they had first missed — that belonged to Joshua Bey and that he had dropped.  It was a house and cars that belonged to the Beys.

“The detectives did good work to unravel the stuff.  They got the warrants and they got the subpoenas for the cell phone records.”  Just as the detectives in the car shooting case had persuaded a reluctant witness, the detectives in the kidnap torture case had done solid work.  But events were occurring quickly.

“The problem was and where it fell apart was that it was taking time and you have to ask yourself why was it taking time?  One, was it taking time because they are bad? which they are not — or is it taking time because they are the good detectives and there are too few of them in Oakland because the police department in Oakland is too small? They got their warrants.”

“Where they screwed up was they waited too long.” The raid on bakery headquarters was supposed to have occurred August 1, 2007, but then police Chief Wayne Tucker delayed the operation because two in the command staff were backpacking in Yosemite. The gunman executed Bailey in a downtown parking lot the very next morning. (Peele said that other SWAT sergeants have told him that the two men were not essential in carrying out the raid.)  The chief could have told the two to come back early from vacation. It was the biggest operation in the department’s history, with six other departments called in for mutual aid, and ambulances and a trauma surgeon a block away for the on-site treatment of bullet wounds. “They thought they were going to be going into a blood bath” when they did the 5:00 a.m. raid.

Another tragic aspect of Bailey’s death was that the bakery’s bankruptcy was already a public record and another publication had done a small story on it. Bailey was not a crusading reporter.  Bey IV had plans to kill others, according to Peele.  “His blood-lust was apparently not satisfied with having three people killed.”

Over-worked detectives and harried district attorneys make mistakes.  One example of such sloppiness came out during the trial.  After the big raid of August 3, 2007, police took a full audio-taped statement from a woman who had been with Bey IV the night before and morning of Bailey’s murder. She gave them credible information, including how when she was with Bey IV and news of a murder of a prominent person in Oakland came on TV.  She told them that Bey IV called her over to the television and said, “That will teach them to fuck with me!” She told police that she thought that Bey IV had something to do with Bailey’s murder.”  But her statement was put into the files for the Wills and Roberson murders but not into the Bailey file. It sat for a year.

A relevant observation from Peele about police work or any investigation is this:

“No one was minding the store in an overview position of the homicide unit..  There was no one in the homicide unit directing the flow of information.  There was no central person to give reports to commanders who would make assessments and then talk to his commanders and the district attorneys about what the reports show.” There was a disconnect within the police department and between police and prosecutors.

Not much has changed in the Oakland Police Department.  Crime still occurs at high levels and we have a City populace and government that often does not back police or want to fund police.

Peele said:

“The other myth and reality thing is this.–is once they got Broussard and he said that he had did it–which is true, was that it closed the case. They don’t get more clearance rates for charging multiple people with the same murder. It’s over. They charge shooters.  They historically don’t go after shot callers. It’s triage.”
“The myth is that cops catch bad guys and they go to jail, but the reality in Oakland is that they do investigations by triage and they get what they can, and they get someone like Devaughndre Broussard who says, ‘I did it’ and it goes to crap after that..”