Zarate looked confused, disoriented during police interrogation

Cops lied to homeless defendant -- but in the end, he insisted that he stumbled onto the gun by accident and it fired

It was confusing, often contradictory, as the jurors today heard the interrogation of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented homeless man accused of killing Kate Steinle.

Only a portion of the late-night, four-hour interrogation was played by prosecutor Diana Garcia as part of the prosecution’s case that Zarate intentionally shot Steinle. The video shows Garcia Zarate huddled in a corner in a cold police interrogation room sometime after 1am on July 5th, hours after the shooting on Pier 14. 

Zarate huddled in an interrogation room as the cops questioned him late into the night. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

Officer Martin Covarrubias translated the interrogation from Spanish for homicide investigators Anthony Ravano and Chris Canning, both sergeants with the San Francisco Police Department at the time of the interrogation.

Zarate appeared confused, stating that he was born in 1863 and that he was from Colombia. Actually, he’s from Mexico.

Zarate at first denied being at the pier and repeatedly told the officers that he was sitting on The Embarcadero and eating crackers on a planter, but later admitted to sitting at the pier, finding the gun wrapped in a piece of cloth, shooting it and throwing the gun in the Bay. 

At multiple points during the interrogation, Zarate told investigators that he found the gun wrapped in a piece of cloth — providing information that backs the defense’s claim that the shooting was accidental instead of intentional. 

“When I got there, I was walking along and I stepped on it (…) it was wrapped in a cloth so I picked it up (…) it was heavy so I grabbed it and it fired,” Zarate said. When Ravano asked why he threw the gun in the Bay after it fired, Zarate said, according to the translation provided by Covarrubias, “because the gun was shooting by itself.” 

Later he contradicted himself again by saying the gun got “caught in something” and was too heavy to carry so he “dropped it.” He also repeatedly said Steinle was between five and six feet away, when it’s been established that she was at least 90 feet from where he was sitting. 

Ravano also testified Wednesday that police investigators had lied to Zarate before his confession as part of their tactic to elicit a confession.

“It was just another tactic to help motivate him or elicit a more truthful response,” Ravano said. 

Investigators told Zarate that the police had witnesses, had recovered the gun from the water, and matched his DNA to the weapon. In fact, there were no witnesses to the shooting and the gun hadn’t been recovered at the time of the interrogation. 

In another instance during the interrogation Zarate gave conflicting statements about the shooting.

“Did you mean to do it?” Canning asked trying to ascertain whether Garcia Zarate intended to shoot Steinle.

“No,” Zarate responded.

“Was it an accident?”

“Yes.”

“But you did make the decision to pull the trigger, correct?”

“Yes.”

“What did you think was going to happen after you pulled the trigger?”

“That I wasn’t going to be able to hold it, it was too big for me and too heavy.” 

During part of the interrogation, Zarate responded in the affirmative when officers asked him if he found the gun elsewhere or intended to shoot. But when asked “where he found the gun” he goes back to his original statement “right there,” signaling to his statement earlier that he found the gun at the pier. 

The cross examination will continue tomorrow.  After court, Defense attorney Matt Gonzalez told he was happy with the way the case was proceeding. Gonzalez told reporters that he believed that the  police pushed and led Zarate into his answers during the interrogation that lasted until 6am. 

“The fact that very skilled and experienced and educated interrogators can get a second-grade-educated Mexican immigrant to adopt what they are saying, like that Kate Steinle was five-feet away when the gun discharged, that doesn’t make it true,” Gonzalez said. 

“Tomorrow I want to focus on and play parts of the interrogation, especially one in the beginning where he [Garcia Zarate] genuinely struggles with telling the officers his birth date reveling his mental, physical fatigue and mental state at that time.”