Patty Alvarez was unloading groceries when she noticed the two men. She’d been running errands for her 87-year-old mother, who lives in a small apartment behind Dore Studio, the photography studio that Alvarez’s family has owned since the 1950s.
The men didn’t look that unusual. They were casually dressed, leaned up against a blue truck, talking to each other. Then she noticed that they both had police badges hanging around their necks.
That morning, January 20, Alvarez and her neighbors were witness to the biggest raid they can remember. More than a hundred SFPD officers, Secret Service agents and staff from the San Francisco District Attorney’s office descended on the block of Mission between 20th and 21st. Inside the abandoned Tower Theater, law enforcement officers found the jackpot: a stash of fake Social Security cards, passports and driver’s licenses.
The display windows of Dore Studio are filled with gold-framed photographs of big-haired women in evening gowns flashing brilliant white beauty-pageant smiles to passersby. The studio specializes in “glamour portraits” for proms, quinceañeras and weddings — keeping a wardrobe of evening gowns, tuxedos, fur coats and feather boas on hand for clients who come unprepared.
But court files show that between May 2010 and January 2011, undercover agents who bought fake identity cards nearby were brought to Dore Studio on six separate occasions to have the photos taken for those IDs.
The block of Mission between 20th and 21st has long had a reputation in the neighborhood as a place to get fake IDs. One of our own reporters bought one in 2008. At the time, he paid $130 for a resident alien card. For $350 he was told that he could get a driver’s license, green card and Social Security card.
Alvarez walked into the store to find her two employees sitting in the waiting room, surrounded by police. Suddenly it made sense that none of her phone calls to the shop earlier that day had been answered.
“We were forced to sit on the sofa, forbidden to phone and cancel our customers for that day,” Mercy Padget, Alvarez’s assistant, said. One by one they were taken to the back and questioned.
“Why do you make ID pictures with blue backgrounds?” a Secret Service agent asked Padget.
Padget replied that the studio took pictures with many kinds of backgrounds.
Alvarez was also questioned. “It was intimidating,” she said. She recognized some of the mug shots the Secret Service showed her as customers she helped in her shop.
“My job is to take pictures,” she told them. “I am not responsible for what people end up doing with them.”
When the agents left, they took the blue backdrop with them. It looked, they said, suspiciously similar to the backdrop used for California driver’s license photos. They also took $330 in cash and Alvarez’s camera. “That was very disturbing. Can you imagine? I couldn’t take any more pictures,” Alvarez said.
Ten people were arrested that day, though Alvarez was not one of them. “The defendants are alleged to be part of a criminal organization that sells counterfeit government identification cards,” said Erica Derryck, director of communications for the district attorney’s office. Five of them will appear before the jury on March 30.
After the raid, Alvarez called Supervisor David Campos’ office and the American Civil Liberties Union. Their advice? Get a lawyer.
The Secret Service says that the sellers who were arrested had been in the forgery business for a decade. “They could have easily helped facilitate tens of millions of dollars in fraud,” Secret Service agent Jean Mitchell said in an email.
The raid on the Mission did not come out of the blue. It was part of an ongoing investigation that began as early as 2009, developing as part of another fraud investigation.
“We found that many of the false identity papers came from the Mission district,” said Secret Service agent Charles White. Police also confiscated computers, printers, laminating machines and dozens of fake ID cards in San Pablo, Oakland and South San Francisco.
The raid left its mark on other neighborhood stores, too.
A few doors down at Jim’s Restaurant, Ingrid Lona, a waitress, said that on the morning of the raid two of her regular customers were sitting at a table near the window.
Suddenly a commotion broke out outside the restaurant. At the sight of policemen racing past the diner, one of her regulars got up. As if on cue, two other customers walked over, flashed their badges and took the regular customers outside.
“I was in shock,” Lona said. She’d known the men were ID sellers, but she’d also known them for a long time. “These were not bad guys,” she said.
Across the street from Jim’s Restaurant, Dylan Siddiqui, the owner of A Foto Video Mail & More, watched the raid from his doorstep. He saw the two undercover police walk the two customers out of Jim’s and put them in handcuffs. Police and agents were everywhere, including a group standing on the roof next door to Dore Studio.
An undercover cop walked by and stopped in front of his store. “Are you hiding someone in here?” he asked. Siddiqui shook his head, but offered to let the officer in to see for himself. The officer walked on. “I have been here for six to seven years. It was the first time I saw such a big bust,” said Siddiqui.
By 2 p.m., the police and agents were gone, but questions and mixed emotions remained. “It won’t change a thing,” said Olivia Guzman from Fernanda’s Hair Salon. “If they arrest them on one corner, they will move to another. People need the documents.”
Others are relieved. “The cleanup was a good thing,” said an employee at Mission Discount Club, who is from El Salvador and asked to remain anonymous. “Those Hispanics gave a bad reputation to the rest of us. They intimidated customers from coming in. They were bad for business.”
But some, like Siddiqui, say the street has become too quiet since the arrests.
“What the men were doing was illegal,” he said. “But now I feel less safe.” The ID sellers had whistles and signs, and if there was trouble, they put it out quickly. “Now I notice more shoplifting type of people will come in, who I need to tell ‘I am watching you!’”
“When we first opened, the Mica sellers came in and introduced themselves, explaining what they did,” said Natalie DeLao, using the informal Spanish term for an ID card. DeLao works at the Payless on the block. The sellers, she said, were gracious in their behavior toward local businesses. “They would bring us customers. And juice.”
“A few years ago this block of the Mission was gangster turf,” said Padget, one of the employees at Dore. “We would have to close our shop down when there were shootings.”
She isn’t the only person on the street to express fear that the raid has created a power vacuum. Recently, while working in the shop alone, she saw a man slowly walking up and down the street with a pit bull. He looked, she thought, like a gangster.
“It looked like he was testing the street,” she said. “I locked our door just in case! That hadn’t happened in a long time!”
As for Alvarez, in the end, she bought a new camera. She continues to take ID pictures.
But, she said, no longer with the blue background.