MARTINEZ -- It has taken more than five years, but an alleged prison gang leader's trial begins Monday, likely to expose the underbelly of prison gangs operating within East Bay jails, an allegedly corrupt cop, missing police documents and the defendant's own adept legal mind.
The complex case, resulting from a 2008 grand jury indictment, charges Coby Phillips with murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to sell drugs as part of his gang, Family Affiliated Irish Mafia, or FAIM. Many of those testifying for the prosecution were sent into witness protection programs in return for their participation.
The defense plans to call Richmond police Sgt. Michael Wang to the stand during the trial. A prosecution witness has said in a recorded statement that Wang took $120,000 in bribes from drug dealers, set up another narcotics deal and outed a police informant who was later shot. Phillips is charged with attempted murder in the shooting of that informant.
"It's a complicated case and a case that a great deal of work has gone into the investigation and preparation for," prosecutor Tom Kensok said, declining to comment on specifics.
Phillips has been in prison since 2005, when he was arrested on federal drug charges. By February 2008, a criminal grand jury had convened to discuss several shootings, including the slaying of Darrell Grockett in Crockett and the nonfatal shooting of Jose Hernandez in Richmond.
Phillips' attorney Dan Horowitz said his client had nothing to do with the two shootings and was incarcerated during Hernandez's shooting. Prosecutors are claiming that shooting happened to benefit Phillips' FAIM gang and its drug dealing, leading to his charge.
Grand jury witnesses described how Phillips helped start FAIM, based in Rodeo, in the mid-1990s. Michael Fanucchi, a state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement special agent, testified FAIM sold drugs, allowing its members to buy Lamborghinis and multiple houses. Experts said FAIM is an offshoot of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang.
"FAIM is very, very feared in Contra Costa County, as well as throughout some of the prison systems," Fanucchi testified.
In 2010, a FAIM member stabbed to death a fellow San Quentin State Prison inmate in what investigators called a hit in retaliation for the vehicular killing of a 9-year-old girl by the victim.
Phillips' case will highlight allegations by drug dealer-turned-state witness Sergio Vega-Robles, who said that before the 2005 shooting of Hernandez, his brother Jose was tipped off by Wang about an undercover sting in which Hernandez would try to sell him a gun. Phillips' gang bought drugs from the Vega-Robles brothers, according to grand jury testimony.
Wang's attorney has denied the claims, but the 18-year veteran of the force and former vice cop has been placed on paid administrative leave while local and federal investigations continue.
Most Richmond police reports of the Hernandez shooting have also disappeared, according to court documents.
Horowitz calls the 39-year-old Phillips an "unusual person" who reads voraciously and completes New York Times crosswords.
"He's the best client I've ever had as far as legal analysis," the defense attorney said. "He knows his case inside and out and he understands the complex legal issues in a very complex case, and we discuss the case as colleagues."
Phillips faces four life sentences if convicted of all charges.
The FAIM gang, Horowitz said, is "notable in that the leadership is very intellectual and prides itself in being reasonable and rational."
For more than two years, Phillips -- a high school dropout with a GED obtained while at Pelican Bay State Prison -- acted as his own attorney. In that time, Phillips got one murder count and three other charges dropped, delayed his trial date seven times, filed motions to dismiss and billed the state for hundreds of hours of detective work by a court-appointed investigator, court records show. He also was instrumental in the striking down of a Contra Costa sheriff policy preventing contact visits with investigators in jail, records show.
In June 2011, Phillips asked for an attorney, but Judge Brian Haynes told him, "You have the experience and the intelligence to continue to represent yourself," according to transcripts.
Days later, he penciled a motion from his jail cell claiming his constitutional rights were being violated: "For that reason, I will not speak, act, or pertisipate (sic) in any way no matter what the court sayes (sic) to me."
The judge provided him an attorney.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.