Federal agent says it was safe to leave unsecured gun in his car

Prosecution in Zarate trial fights to prevent jury from considering that the BLM ranger may have had some responsibility for the death of Kate Steinle

BLM Ranger John Woychowski shows the gun that fired the round that killed Kate Steinle. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

The federal agent whose gun fired the bullet that killed Kate Steinle was in court today, and in the course of a couple of hours, he testified that:

— He drove from Southern California to San Francisco with three kids, including a five-year-old, in the car while his .40 caliber Sig-Sauer pistol was loaded, ready to fire, and secured only in a backpack;

— He parked on the Embarcadero only after seeing other fancy cars and a parking control officer and deciding it was safe, because safety was his first priority at all times;

— He believed it was safe to leave the loaded gun with a round in the chamber in a backpack under the seat;

— He had been issued a locking device that would have kept the gun from firing, but decided not to use it;

— He had kept the gun in the ready-fire position while he was off-duty with his family although no Bureau of Land Management regulation required him to do that, and in fact, there was no requirement that he carry a gun at all when off duty;

— He was aware that BLM policy states that “all firearms not in active use should be stored in a safe place out of sight and under lock and key;”

And yet, when he was asked if he thought leaving the gun in a backpack in his private car, without a locking mechanism, was a safe way to store it, he said “yes.”

Prosecutor Diana Garcia fought constantly to keep out of the record any discussion of whether the agent, John Woychowski, was in any way responsible for initiating the chain of events that led to the tragic death of the 32-year-old woman.

Every time Matt Gonzalez, the public defender representing Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, who is charged with murder, tried to ask a question related to that issue, she objected.

And nearly every time, Judge Samuel Feng upheld her objection and refused to allow the question.

In her direct examination, Garcia took Woychowski through the events of the night his gun was stolen, and asked him if he had ever been subject to discipline for violating BLM procedures related to gun safety. He said he hadn’t.

Gonzalez dug into the BLM internal investigation, reading from the memos that the investigators wrote after interviewing Woychowski. “when you were asked why you did this [leave the gun unsecured in the car] you said ‘this is something I never do,’” Gonalez noted. “When the BLM agent asked you why you secured the gun this way, you said ‘I really don’t know why I left it like that.’”

Garcia objected. The judge told Gonzalez to move on to other questions.

The Sig-Sauer has two firing positions, single and double action. In a double-action mode, the trigger has to be pulled harder, to move the hammer back and then release it onto the firing pin. Woychowski explained that he loaded the gun with a seven round magazine, jacked a bullet into the chamber, then released the magazine and put another round in.

Along the way, the gun would have been in single-action mode, which allows it to be fired with much less pressure on the trigger.

“If you forgot to depress the uncocking lever, it would still be in single-action mode, correct?” Gonzalez asked. The agent said it would.

That’s relevant because the defense is arguing that Zarate picked up the gun, which was wrapped in a shirt, and it went off accidentally. When the Sig-Sauer is in single-action mode, it requires very little pressure on the trigger to discharge.

Garcia asked the agent if he or any of his colleagues had ever had a Sig-Sauer discharge by accident. He said he knew of nobody who had that problem.

Gonzalez asked him how many colleagues he had, and the answer was never more than 14.

In his opening statement, Gonzalez said he would present evidence that this type of gun has gone off in many instances by accident.

At the end of the session, Gonzalez asked Woychowski: “Do you believe you bear any responsibility for what happened?”

Garcia objected. The judge agreed. The question was never answered.