News + Politics

Final arguments in the Garcia Zarate trial — and a night of comedy by an SF original

During opening statements, Matt Gonzalez referred to the gun that was found in the Bay. Drawing by Vicki Behringer

Closing arguments in the Jose Ines Garcia Zarate trial are set for Monday/20, and it’s likely that the case will go to the jury by Tuesday. The six men and six women will have a day and a half to deliberate before the judge dismisses them for the holiday Wednesday at noon.

The trial took almost four weeks, and the jury will have a range of options to consider, including a First-Degree Murder verdict.

During opening statements, Matt Gonzalez referred to the gun that was found in the Bay. Drawing by Vicki Behringer

It’s hard to guess how long deliberations may go, and what it would mean if there’s no verdict until after Thanksgiving.

And I’m not a lawyer and I don’t make closing arguments (although I’ve made some suggestions in my time). But let’s go over the hard evidence that was presented at trial and see what the prosecution and defense will be talking about.

There are a few facts that are not in dispute.

On July 1, 2015, Kate Steinle and her father were walking along Pier 14 in San Francisco. The 32-year-old lived nearby, and her dad was visiting.

Garcia Zarate, who has spent much of his adult life behind bars for the crime of crossing the border into the United States, had been scheduled for release from federal prison a few weeks earlier. But the feds discovered an old warrant for a minor drug sale in San Francisco, so instead of letting him go (or turning him over to ICE for deportation) they brought him to SF County Jail.

To nobody’s surprise, the district attorney declined to prosecute on the old warrant, and – following existing legal procedure – the sheriff released him.

Garcia Zarate walked out of the Hall of Justice in June with nothing but the second-hand clothes the Sheriff’s Office had given him. He knew nobody in the city. He wound up homeless, living on the waterfront, trying to scrounge anything he could to survive.

He was, as his lawyer Matt Gonzalez noted, exactly the kind of person who would pick up something off the ground that looked interesting; might be clothes, might have value.

That afternoon, while the Steinles were walking on the pier, Garcia Zarate arrived and sat down on a swivel chair about 90 feet away from them. He had never met Kate Steinle or her dad; he had no connection whatsoever with them.

Several days earlier, a federal agent with the Bureau of Land Management, driving with his family from Southern California to a temporary assignment in Montana, parked his car on the Embarcadero and went to get dinner. He left a loaded Sig-Sauer .40, with a round in the chamber and the slide in firing position, in a backpack under the seat.

Somebody – and there is no indication that it was Garcia Zarate – broke into the car and stole the gun.

That gun wound up on the pier, in the same place as Garcia Zarate. It discharged. The bullet hit the hard concrete and bounced – flattened on one side, tumbling – and stuck Kate Steinle, severing her aorta and killing her.

The prosecution argues that Garcia Zarate pointed the gun in her direction, pulled the trigger, and fired. If he did that – if he knew he had a lethal weapon in his hand and fired it with reckless disregard for the loss of human life – then he could be found guilty of second-degree murder.

In fact, in some of the testimony, the prosecution has tried to argue that the homeless immigrant found the gun somewhere else, not on the pier, picked it up, put it in his jacket pocket, carried it to the chair, aimed and fired.

Deputy District Attorney Diana Garcia has asked the judge to instruct the jury about first-degree murder – which would require the jurors to believe that Garcia Zarate, who has a second-grade education and clear cognitive issues, planned the killing in advance, and shot with malice toward someone he had never met.

In testimony, the prosecution’s key witness, John Evans, a former SFPD crime scene investigator, insisted that the only way Steinle could have died is if “A human being held the firearm, pointed it in the direction of Ms. Steinle, pulled the trigger and fired the weapon, killing Ms. Steinle. This is the only way it could have happened.”

That’s become a central point of contention – particularly since a defense witness – who, unlike Evans, was actually qualified as a firearms and forensic expert – disputed almost everything Evans said.

The defense presented witnesses, including Jim Norris, a former director of the SF Crime Lab, and a firearms expert from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who said that the prosecution theory made no sense.

The Sig-Sauer has no safety, has a very light trigger pull, and could have gone off if, for example, it got snagged on a piece of cloth.

A grainy video taken from a fireboat hundreds of feet away showed that just before Garcia Zarate arrived and sat down on the pier, a group of what appeared to be six people were gathered at the exact chair he would later occupy. They appear to be picking things up and putting things down.

The video shows that at the moment before Steinle fell to the ground, Garcia Zarate was leaning over, as if to pick something up.

The defense argument – that Garcia Zarate found the gun wrapped in what might have been a shirt, picked it up, and it accidentally discharged – seems to me entirely plausible.

The prosecution theory that Garcia Zarate, who had no prior experience with firearms or history of violence, intended to aim at or near Steinle and pulled the trigger, either seeking to harm her or with no regard for the possible loss of life, seems to require a leap of faith that goes beyond what the evidence shows.

Here’s what I would say to the jury:

I think we can stipulate, as the lawyers would say, that what happened July 1, 2015 was a terrible tragedy. A young woman who had done nothing wrong died in her father’s arms. It’s unspeakably awful. It should never have happened.

If a federal agent (who was later promoted) hadn’t been so sloppy with a dangerous weapon, it would never have happened. If somebody hadn’t broken into the agent’s car and stolen, and later ditched, the gun, it would never have happened. If Garcia Zarate had been given some sort of support when he left jail – if he’d be taken to a homeless shelter, a navigation center, someplace where a Spanish-speaking counselor could get him the medication and help he needed – it would never have happened.

If Garcia Zarate wasn’t in federal prison for the crime of trying to come to a country where he might be able to work enough to feed himself, it would never have happened.

There is a long string of events that led to this tragedy. And the only one on trial is the person at the very end, who clearly never intended to kill Kate Steinle.

How this adds up to a murder charge continues to baffle me.

Nato Green, who is one of my favorite local writers and comedians, is recording an album at a pair of live shows Saturday/25 at Doc’s Lab. “The Whiteness Album,” the press release says, will “skirt the border between slap-your-knee funny and slit-your-wrist funny as Nato dissects our current terrifying historical moment.”

It’s also going to be your last chance to catch Nato Green in SF for a while; after this show, he’s moving with his family to Havana Cuba while his wife does her Ph.D research.

The show’s at 124 Columbus, SF, 7pm and 9pm, $15. Buy tickets here.

Foreign Correspondent: Make Saudi Arabia great again!

I stood in front of a mosque in the city of Qatif, Saudi Arabia, interviewing people for a story. Suddenly, two city police cars pulled up. Several minutes later plain clothes officers from the secret police began questioning me.

I had entered the country with a journalist visa, but committed the grave crime of practicing journalism without official permission. All interviews, even with ordinary people, had to be cleared in advance.

I was told not to leave my hotel and exited the country soon thereafter. I was, however, able to report on the brutal repression of Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia, who had been demonstrating against the government since the beginning of the Arab Spring.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is of the most repressive regimes in the world, and of course, a close US ally. The Kingdom is back in the news because it’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS for short), has arrested more than 200 of his royal cousins and businessmen on corruption charges.

Lebanon has suffered from the Syrian civil war next door. Here a house in Hermel, Lebanon, was destroyed by rockets fired by Saudi backed rebel groups. Photo by Reese Erlich

In a truly Saudi twist, those multi millionaires are jailed at a Ritz Carlton in Riyadh seized by the government for the occasion. Some faced the indignity of sleeping on mats in the lobby.

Some media and the Trump administration portray MBS as a reformer cracking down on corruption and the reactionary religious establishment. The Cairo Review, for example, wrote, “The crown prince has moved quickly to confirm his liberal progressive credentials…. [H]e sought to float 5 percent of the Saudi Aramco shares (dubbed the biggest IPO in history), allowed women to drive, tolerated the reopening of cinemas, has plans for a tourism industry, and reigned in the powers of the religious police.”

Notice the conflation of political liberties with “liberalization” of the state owned oil company, Aramco. Somehow, the achievement of political freedoms must include foreign bankers making super profits on an IPO (initial public offering).

Madawi Al-Rasheed , a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre, London School of Economics, told me MBS is no reformer. He’s “more like an autocrat who employs public relations and management consultants to package the worst changes as historical reform,” she said. “He is desperate to attract foreign investors who should not rush to save his throne and risk losing all their investment.”

The crown prince’s anti-corruption campaign is a phony. He arrests his political enemies while his corrupt cronies remain untouched.

“Autocrats use populist policies to gain popularity, and MBS is no exception,” Al-Rasheed added. “What we have seen is consolidation of military, political and financial power rather than anti-corruption.”

In foreign policy MBS is equally reactionary. He’s trying to ratchet up hostility towards Iran to cover up multiple regional failures. The KSA is bogged down in a war in Yemen and its efforts to isolate Qatar have failed miserably.

Since 2012 the KSA backed al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria, as I exposed well before it was acknowledged in the US.

Those extremists have lost the civil war, and the Saudis lost influence along with them.

And then there’s Lebanon. In early November, MBS summoned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh. Hariri and his political party have long depended on Saudi royals for financial backing. But on this trip, instead of a red carpet befitting the prime minister, Saudi guards confiscated the cell phones of Hariri and his body guards.

They were held incommunicado until Hariri appeared on TV in Riyadh to resign his post. He blamed Iran and Hezbollah for creating a crisis in the region. Many Lebanese thought Hariri had been forced to do Saudi bidding.

“Hariri is not arrested but he was given a political ultimatum,” Elie El-Hindy told me. He is an associate professor of International Relations at Notre Dame University in Lebanon. Hariri had to take a harder line against Iranian-backed Hezbollah “or bid farewell to any Saudi Arabian political, financial or other kind of support.”

Hezbollah is both an armed militia and political party that leads the elected, coalition government in Lebanon. If Hariri’s resignation stands, then it would break up that coalition. Saudi Arabia could claim the Lebanese government is not legitimate, a mere tool of Hezbollah and Iran. That would set the stage for a new military conflict.  

MBS has forged close relations with the Trump administration. The Saudis and Israelis enthusiastically welcomed Trump’s election in 2016. Presidential son in law and top advisor Jared Kushner has visited the Kingdom three times this year.

Politically, MBS and Trump have a lot in common. They both have authoritarian proclivities, they distrust minorities and women, and they blame Iran for all the problems in the Middle East.

For example, both blame Iran for the war in Yemen. They argue that Iran is arming and directing the Houthi rebels. Both the Obama and Trump administrations fully backed the KSA and have sent troops to Yemen in yet another undeclared US war.

In fact Saudi Arabia started the war by invading the southern part of Yemen in 2015, expecting a quick victory. The Saudis intentionally bomb civilians in an effort to weaken Houthi morale. More than 5000 Yeminis have died and 8,000 are injured. Cholera has spread throughout the country. Nearly 19 million face a humanitarian catastrophe because of hunger and lack of health care. The KSA spends billions per month on a war that has no end in sight.

Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA official who is now a fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Securities Studies, told me Iran did not initiate the Yemen War; it does not control the Houthis. That’s just an excuse used by the Saudis and United Arab Emirates, the other country occupying Yemen.

“The Iranian aid to the Houthis is tiny compared to the Saudi and UAE military effort, said Pillar. “The war has had cataclysmic consequences.”

Both the US and Saudi Arabia also claim that Iran is trying to create a “land bridge” stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria to the Lebanese coast. That would enable Iran to supply Hezbollah with weapons for its fight against Israel.

Pillar snorted that he’s tired of hearing this phony argument. He noted that Hezbollah has gained strength over the past 30 years without any land bridge.

“Iran will have access to Lebanon, but it doesn’t need a land corridor,” he said. “They can ship by air.”

I worry that MBS’s latest moves are part of a broader plan to encourage Israel to attack Lebanon. Hezbollah has emerged on the winning side in Syria, having backed President Bashar al Assad.

A political analyst with the Israeli daily Haaretz wrote the Saudis are trying to “move the battlefield with Iran from Syria to Lebanon, trying to get Israel to do Saudi Arabia’s dirty work.”

There’s a fierce debate within Israeli ruling circles as to whether and when to attack Lebanon. Israel already lost a war with Hezbollah in 2006. Hezbollah sank an Israeli naval ship and fired missiles into northern Israel. Today Hezbollah has a lot more missiles and troops battle hardened in Syria.

For the moment, Israeli officials are talking down the prospects for a full scale attack on Lebanon. But there’s no question that MBS machinations are causing severe tensions in the region.

As former CIA analyst Pillar told me, “The odds of war are greater now than a few months ago.”

If you want to see corruption and political chicanery American style, keep your eyes on former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. We already know that Flynn was on the Turkish payroll, and he tried to cut US support for Syrian Kurds, which reflected Turkish policy. Now the special counsel’s office has leaked Flynn’s possible connection to a $15 million plot to kidnap a prominent opponent of the Turkish government living in Pennsylvania and deliver him to Turkey. If pursued by the special counsel, the Flynn story will reveal a lot about Washington’s real inner workings.

Read more Foreign Correspondent installments here. 

Zarate prosecutor seeks First-Degree Murder

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate listens to tesimony, wearing a headset for a court interpreter. Drawing by Vicki Behringer

The prosecution in the nationally-covered Jose Ines Garcia Zarate case is asking for a First-Degree Murder verdict – which would imply that Garcia Zarate planned the shooting of Kate Steinle in advance.

Rumors about the jury instructions, which Judge Samuel Feng will deliver Monday, have been flying around the last two days. Alex Bastian, the spokesperson for DA George Gascon, told me only that “the jury will be instructed on multiple theories of homicide.” But Matt Gonzalez, attorney for Garcia Zarate, confirmed that the prosecution is asking the judge to instruct the jury on First Degree Murder.

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate listens to tesimony, wearing a headset for a court interpreter. Drawing by Vicki Behringer

“They go deeper and deeper into a theory that can’t be proved,” Gonzalez told me.

Deputy District Attorney Diana Garcia has sought to prove that the defendant knew he was firing the gun in the direction of Kate Steinle, who was killed after the bullet ricocheted off the concrete at Pier 14.

But she has introduced no evidence to suggest that Garcia Zarate knew Steinle, had malice toward her, or planned the killing.

In fact, when the jury saw selected parts of the police interrogation of the homeless immigrant, there was no indication that Garcia Zarate had planned to shoot anyone.

At one point, he indicated that the gun discharged and he threw it in the bay so it would stop firing. At another point, the clearly disoriented man who had been up all night facing interrogators, said he was aiming at a seal – which is impossible since the pier is too high above the water for marine mammals to reach it.

The defense argues that Garcia Zarate picked up the gun, which was wrapped in a shirt or some other cloth, and it discharged by accident. Numerous defense witnesses have said it would be impossible to plan a ricochet shot.

Police witnesses have said that it’s possible Garcia Zarate found the gun somewhere else on the waterfront, put it in his pocket, and carried it to the pier. But they never tested his clothes or his jacket pockets for gunshot residue.

First Degree Murder is usually reserved for the most serious homicides, cases in which the defendant is charged with carefully planning a premeditated killing.

Even a Second-Degree Murder charge requires the prosecution to prove that the defendant intended to kill the victim or had no concern for the loss of human life.

So unless there is some new interpretation of the evidence that the prosecutor can deliver in closing arguments, it’s hard to see why she would got for a charge that requires a huge group of assumptions that were never part of the trial.

The jury instructions, which Judge Samuel Feng will deliver Monday, tell the six men and six women who will decide Garcia Zarate’s fate what the law is and how it applies to this case.

Garcia Zarate was initially charged with Second-Degree Murder, but under California law, the jury can be instructed to consider other verdicts – including a more serious verdict.

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Some differences start to emerge from D8 debate

Rafael Mandelman and Jeff Sheehy with moderator Mirisa Lagos

The District 8 supe debate was generally polite and cordial, and since both candidates are focusing mostly on district issues, there were plenty of points of agreement. Incumbent Jeff Sheehy and challenger Rafael Mandelman both think the city, and the district, need more affordable housing. Both think property crimes are a serious problem.

Both said the three previous occupants of the seat – Mark Leno, Bevan Dufty, and Scott Wiener – had done a good job. Both said we need to raise the salaries of public school teachers. Both talked about their long records as activists. (You can watch the whole debate on our 48 Hills Facebook page here.)

Rafael Mandelman and Jeff Sheehy with moderator Mirisa Lagos

Most of the questions by moderator Marisa Lagos seemed to allow the candidates to focus on areas of agreement: She never asked either candidate to say where they differed. She never asked Mandelman to say what issues drove him to challenge the incumbent. She never asked Sheehy what positions on issues would make him a better choice.

But when you look a little deeper at the discussion, a few key distinctions emerge – and they are likely to shape the campaign.

Mandelman repeatedly talked about how Mayor Ed Lee has failed the city. “I think this city has suffered for years from a lack of leadership,” Mandelman said. And while he said he liked and respected Lee, “he should not have run” for mayor.

Sheehy said that his “biggest defect” was that he was appointed by the mayor (an admission that Lee is not popular anywhere in town, including D8). But he also said Lee is “a good guy who is dedicated to making the city better.”

So to the extent that the record of the current administration is an issue, Mandelman has made it clear that he is not a fan, and Sheehy has made it clear that he has only limited criticism of the man who appointed him.

Sheehy supports arming the San Francisco police with Tasers. Mandelman said that “perhaps this is not the best moment” to give the cops another weapon, considering all the problems with the department’s use of force.

And on housing, we got some insight into the fairly stark differences between the two. Sheehy opposed the Mission Moratorium, and he told the crowd that it was “one of the most misguided things I have ever seen. How do we solve a housing crisis without building housing?”

That’s the position of the Yimby Party and others who believe that the private market will somehow solve the housing crisis, that the construction of enough luxury housing (and all market-rate housing today is luxury housing) will trickle down to the rest of us.

Mandelman said he supported the 18-month moratorium on market-rate housing, saying that the Mission was facing a crisis of luxury housing coming in with very little affordable housing.

That puts Mandelman on the side of the people who say that the market alone won’t solve this crisis and that there are times when the government has to tell for-profit developers that we simply can’t go on the way we are.

There was a little bit of an interesting argument about tenancies in common, which are a back-door way to turn rental units into condos – and which are at the root of many of the Ellis Act evictions in the city.

Speculators buy buildings with tenants who are under rent control, paying a relatively low price. Then they evict all the tenants and flip the units as TICs.

Sheehy’s response was that it was difficult to get financing for TICs – which is not true; if it were, there would be no Ellis Act evictions. Almost every Ellis Act eviction leads to a building sold as TICs.

Mandelman pointed out that Sheehy, years ago, supported a measure that would have allowed thousands more rental units to be turned into condos – something every tenant group in town opposed.

Sheehy said that he wanted to allow existing residents to buy their apartments, preventing future displacement.

Both candidates clearly want this race to be about who can best represent the district. But there are some key differences on the central issues facing the city – and they started, slowly and cautiously, to emerge at the first debate.

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Zarate prosecution witness blasted for role in earlier murder trial

Former CSI investigator John Evans testifies in the Garcia Zarate case

A key witness in the prosecution of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate gave testimony in a prior case that an expert alleges was not only inaccurate but possibly improper.

John Evans, a former San Francisco Police Department crime scene investigator, testified that Garcia Zarate killed Kate Steinle. “A human being held the firearm, pointed it in the direction of Ms. Steinle, pulled the trigger and fired the weapon, killing Ms. Steinle. This is the only way it could have happened,” he said.

Former CSI investigator John Evans testifies in the Garcia Zarate case

A defense expert, Jim Norris, former director of the SF police lab, directly challenged that analysis.

But this isn’t the first time Norris has taken issue with Evans’ testimony. The crime lab chief, now a private forensic consultant, blasted the officer’s role in the trial of Jamal Trulove, a one-time reality-show contestant who was convicted of murder in 2010. Evans was among the officers who inspected the crime scene and he testified at the trial.

That conviction was overturned on other grounds, and Trulove was acquitted in a second trial, in 2015.

Now Trulove is suing the city – and in documents filed as part of that case, Norris states that Evans’ findings in the Trulove case “are completely inconsistent with minimally acceptable practices for forensic reporting and testimony. If, as the Director of the Forensic Services Division, I learned of such behavior by an Inspector in Crime Scene Investigations, I would have initiated an investigation into the matter for possible misconduct.”

Trulove was charged in the killing of Seu Kuka, who was shot outside his Visitacion Valley apartment in 2007.

One of the key issues in the case was the placement of the shell casings that were ejected from the nine-millimeter gun as it fired. The pattern of the casings, Norris argued, were inconsistent with eyewitness accounts that pointed to Trulove.

The position Norris put forth was consistent with the findings of the medical examiner, court testimony shows.

However, Evans testified that the pattern of the casings would be easily influenced by wind, bounces, and other factors and would be almost completely random. They would be useful for establishing where a shooter might have been only “on the level of a broken clock being right twice a day.”

Attempting to determine the position of a shooter from shell casings is “a fallacy,” he testified, according to a court transcript of his remarks.

He based this mostly on his own experience firing weapons, although another police inspector, Ronan Shouldice, had done a report showing that almost all shell casing from that sort of gun are ejected to the right and backward.

That’s what the existing peer-reviewed literature also says, Norris wrote in a report used as part of Trulove’s civil suit.

“In his deposition in this civil case, Evans said that he had never read the Shouldice study before he testified about it at Jamal Trulove’s 2015 criminal trial, but claimed he had discussed it with Shouldice before testifying. Shouldice said at his deposition that he did not recall discussing the study with Evans, and that he believes he would remember such a discussion had it occurred,” Norris wrote.

“In Inspector Shouldice’s deposition testimony, he testified that Inspector Evans’ characterization of the study as showing a large percentage of the casing ended up in front of the shooter, was not only inaccurate but constituted a gross misrepresentation. Inspector Shouldice expressed surprise at the content of Inspector Evans’ testimony. Inspector Shouldice also testified that it was inappropriate for Inspector Evans to testify in court about a study he had not read, and for an expert to misrepresent the strength of findings in a study.”

In fact, Norris wrote:

“The repeated findings and testimony of Evans that shell casing analysis is random on the order of a clock being right twice a day is completely inconsistent with the understanding of the forensic community and other forensic examiners at the SF Crime Lab.”

Although the defense has finished its case, Prosecutor Diana Garcia is expected to call a rebuttal witness Monday, and since much of the defense case relied on firearms and forensic experts, Evans could be called back to the stand.

Francisco Ugarte, one of Garcia Zarate’s lawyers, told 48hills: “Mr. Evans’s apparent fabrication while testifying in a 2015 homicide trial is troubling and raises questions about his integrity. At worst, he lied intentionally, and at best, he was incompetent to testify about ballistics evidence.”

It would be up to Judge Samuel Feng whether to allow the defense to bring up the Trulove case and the criticisms of Inspector Evans and his competence.

The story of SF’s hidden monument to WWI

This year is the 100-year anniversary of the entry of the United States into World War I. It is also the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution, at root an open mutiny against that war.

Hidden away in Heroes Grove, an almost-forgotten part of Golden Gate Park, is the Gold Star Mothers Rock. This monument is a memorial to U.S. veterans who died in World War I, and has a surprising relevance to the Russian Revolution.

The Great War

World War I began in 1914.  Known at the time as the Great War, it became the most brutal and destructive war in history, up to then.  Millions of soldiers and civilians died. It was a barbarian struggle by the imperialist powers of Europe – Britain, France and Germany chief among them – over their respective spheres of influence in Europe and control of their colonies in Africa and Asia. If there ever was a “rich man’s war” that was in reality “a poor man’s fight,” this was it.

A memorial to the US soldiers who died in WWI has a connection to the Russian Revolution

On the eastern front, the decrepit Czar Nicholas II allowed Russia to be dragged into the war on the side of Britain and France. Russia’s troops, poorly led and even more poorly equipped, were killed and wounded by the millions. In March 1917, a spontaneous revolt against the war spread throughout the country. The Czar was forced to abdicate and a new “provisional government” attempted to take power.

President Woodrow Wilson, who had won re-election in 1916 by promising to keep the U.S. out of the war in Europe, went before Congress in April 1917 and demanded a declaration of war against Germany. Congress obliged and declared war on April 6, 1917.

Before Wilson’s “war to end all wars” was over, well over 100,000 U.S. soldiers died. At least twice as many were wounded. Over four million soldiers were mobilized, despite widespread opposition to the war and the draft.

In October 1917, with the Great War still raging, the Russian people rose up again. This time they overthrew the “provisional government” that had maneuvered to continue Russian participation in the war. The Russian people had had enough, and put the Bolsheviks – firm opponents of the war – in power.

The slaughter of the Great War ended when a revolt spread throughout Germany, forcing the Kaiser to abdicate.  Germany surrendered on November 11, 1918. The war officially ended in June 1919, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.  We know now that this treaty only laid the basis for the even greater slaughter of fascism and World War II, and the wars that followed.

Heroes Grove

On Memorial Day on May 30, 1919, thousands of people gathered in Golden Gate Park to dedicate a 15-acre plot as the “Grove of Heroes,” in remembrance of the U.S. dead and wounded in the Great War. Many of the estimated 12,000 mourners were dressed in black. The mourners created what the San Francisco Chronicle described as a “towering obelisk of flowers and wreaths.”

The Chronicle also reported that Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph “committed the grove to the protection of the United States Army, Navy and Marine Corps.” Officers of the Army, Navy and Marines accepted that charge.

Today, there are no markers to tell the visitor to the park where or what Heroes Grove is.  There is a dirt footpath through the grove, but the only signs are a couple of  “Stay on Path” warnings.

On Armistice Day (now known as Veterans Day) on November 13, 1932, there was another assembly in Heroes Grove. This time the gathering was to dedicate a new monument to U.S. war dead. The monument is an 18-ton granite boulder, reportedly quarried from Twin Peaks. The monument is inscribed with the names of 748 men and 13 women, all local soldiers and volunteers who died in the Great War.

Before the list of names is a simple inscription that reads:

The fighting in the Great War supposedly ended in 1918. The Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919. So what does the 1921 date on the Gold Star Mothers Rock mean? More on that later, along with its relevance to the Russian Revolution.

So, where are Heroes Grove and the Gold Star Mothers Rock?

Transport yourself to Fulton Street and 10th Avenue. Here you will find the entrance to the park’s underground parking lot (a controversial pet project of the late Warren Hellman of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass fame).  Behind the sign to the parking lot you will find an obscure, unmarked and unpaved footpath.  This path will lead you into Heroes Grove.

Alternately, you can walk along the paved path on the north side of John F. Kennedy Drive, the northern road through the park, until you look down into the drive into the garage. Across the street is the obscene de Young Museum tower. Just to the west of the drive into the garage you will find another unmarked, unpaved footpath that will also lead you into Heroes Grove.

Whichever way you enter the grove, a little way along the path, look to your left. There you will see the Gold Star Mothers Rock.

You could walk along Fulton Street or John F. Kennedy Drive and just barely glimpse the Gold Star Mothers Rock through the trees, if you pay close attention. Thousands of people pass by every week and never notice. Think on that. This is a memorial to 761 people who died in World War I. Heroes, or perhaps victims, in the “war to end all wars.”  This is their public marker. This is the glory that they have been granted.

You can also find the Gold Star Mothers Rock from an even more obscure, informal, unpaved footpath that enters the park from Fulton across from 11th Street, if you do not want to be bothered with any unnecessary steps through Heroes Grove.

My grandfather on my mother’s side fought in the Great War.  I have heard stories of gas attacks, and of him floating in the Atlantic awaiting rescue after his ship was sunk. He is long gone, and I don’t know what was true and what was not.  He was from Illinois, so he was never a candidate for the Golden Gate Park monument, and in any event he survived.  If he had not, I would not be writing this. If my grandfather had not survived, my mother would not have married another veteran, who served honorably in the next war, that one a just and necessary fight against fascism.  He also survived and amazingly enough is still alive today at the age of 100.

Nor, if my grandfather had not survived, would I have had an opportunity to tell the masters of war to go to hell when they attempted to put a gun in my hand and send me to Vietnam. War seems to have been the constant in the 20th century, and looks to be the same in the 21st.

Once you have spent some time with the Gold Star Mothers Rock memorial, remembering the veterans of World War I, you can return to the footpath, and continue west.  You will walk through the forest for a little distance, and perhaps (or perhaps not) heed the warnings to stay on the path.  Eventually you will come to the end of Heroes Grove and encounter the freeway-like Park Presidio Bypass Drive through the park.  Here you can exit Heroes Grove, turn left and enjoy the Rose Garden, a much better-known and more-accessible feature of the park.

The doughboy statue

After passing through the Rose Garden you can return to the John F. Kennedy Drive path, and walk on until you come to the Redwood Memorial Grove, across from the entrance to Stow Lake.  In a clearing to your right you will see a more prominent World War I memorial, the Doughboy statue.

The Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West planted 39 saplings and this statue in 1930, to commemorate some of the U.S. soldiers who died in the Great War, and in the Spanish-American War (the 1898 war in which the U.S. took possession of the Philippines, Guam, Cuba and Puerto Rico). The 39 saplings matched the 39 names memorialized on the plaque below the statue, all of whom were members of the Native Sons. This is a subset (not counting the Spanish-American War dead) of the hundreds of dead memorialized two years later on the Gold Star Mothers Rock.

In 1951, the names of 16 members of the Native Sons who died in World War II were added to the Doughboy plaque. No one has added any names of the many dead from the many wars the U.S. has fought since the end of World War II.  I expect that there were some Native Sons killed in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

You can now retrace your steps back to the de Young Museum tower.  You can enter the tower for free. From the 9th floor, you can look out to the north over Heroes Grove. But, unless you already know what you are looking for, you will have no idea what you are looking at. There is nothing in the tower that even hints at the existence of Heroes Grove right below your feet. Nor can you see the Gold Star Mothers Rock from the tower, as it is hidden below the trees. After you enjoy the view, you can go downstairs and spend umpteen bucks to look at art from all over the world.

U.S. fights the Russian Revolution

If you go back the same way you came, and pass by the Gold Star Mothers Rock again, you can contemplate why the inscription marks the end of the Great War as July 2, 1921.

The reason is that the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Many senators were opposed to U.S. participation in the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, that was established by the treaty. The result was that it was not until 1921 that Congress passed a resolution officially ending U.S. participation in the war. President Warren G. Harding signed that resolution on July 2, 1921.

This would be only a historical footnote but for the fact that some U.S. troops continued to fight long after Germany had surrendered. But they weren’t fighting Germany. They were fighting Russians, in a useless attempt to overthrow the new Russian government and defeat the Bolsheviks. Wilson ordered two strategic armed interventions against the Russian revolution.

One such intervention has been dubbed the Polar Bear Expedition.  A force of 5,000 troops were landed at Archangel in Northern Russia in September 1918, in support of British and French expeditionary forces that hoped to raise a White Army to defeat the Red Army organized by the Bolsheviks, and restore the eastern front. Some sources report that up to 8,000 U.S. troops were ultimately involved. It soon became obvious that the mission would fail, but the U.S. continued fighting through July 1919.  Estimates are that nearly 250 U.S. troops died in this campaign.

The other intervention was in Siberia, the extreme eastern part of Russia.  Here another 8,000 U.S. troops fought – along with troops from Britain, Canada, China, Italy and Japan – in the same vain attempt to kill the Russian Revolution in its infancy. This campaign started in August 1918, and went on until April 1920. Close to 200 U.S. troops died on this futile battlefront. Japanese troops stayed on fighting the Red Army until late 1922.

You don’t hear about Wilson’s war on Russia in your history class.  If it were taught, it would help to explain the Russian Revolution’s antipathy to the U.S. and the Western powers in general. But, no, we learn instead that the U.S. represents the good guys and the Russians the bad guys, then and forever.

Were any of the U.S. soldiers killed in these Russian campaigns from the environs of San Francisco? Do their names appear on the Gold Star Mothers Rock? I don’t know. Maybe some family members know, or used to know. Maybe in this day of the Internet somebody could research the 761 names on the memorial and find out.

But what matters is that the 1921 date on the Gold Star Mothers Rock takes on a new meaning because of these failed interventions. The Great War did not end in 1918, or even in 1919. It went on in a very literal sense. Soldiers died, Russians died, and the unremitting hostility of the U.S. toward the nascent Soviet Union led to many thousands and millions more deaths – enough for many, many more Gold Star Mothers memorials.

War memorial veterans monument

The mothers who instigated the creation of the Gold Star Mothers Rock had hoped that the monument to their sons and daughters would be installed at a place of prominence in the city, specifically on Van Ness Avenue between the War Memorial Opera House and the War Memorial Veterans Building. Cornerstones for both of these buildings were laid in 1931, and the buildings themselves completed in 1932. The expansive open space between these two buildings must have seemed like the obvious and natural place for the Gold Star Mothers Rock.

But, as ABC Channel 7 news later put it, “money and other priorities got in the way.”

There is an unsigned, undated, two-page lament in the archives at the San Francisco Public Library that reads in part:

“There is another memorial spot set aside for the veterans of 1917-1918 which I visit on Memorial Day…  We start at 10th Avenue and take a horse path going west among a group of trees.  We proceed about 100 yards and presently to our left is a block of stone… [I]s this not a strange place for such a memorial?

“Surely their mothers, who brought them into the world, did not select this place on a horse trail in Golden Gate Park…  Originally, when the Golden Star Mothers contracted for this memorial and paid for it, the idea for its final resting place was the beautiful little park on Van Ness avenue between the War Memorial Opera House and the Veterans of World War I Building…

“The Gold Star Mothers naturally assumed that since the citizens of San Francisco had voted bonds to the amount of five million dollars to erect these two buildings as a joint memorial to their sons and daughters, their memorial would be welcome.

“But it was not to be.  It seems the powers then in authority ruled that the Veterans Memorial did not want it, and said so.  They declared it crude and inartistic.  By no stretch of the imagination could that unsightly block of granite conform to the artistic pattern of these two gems of architecture.  The poor little broken-hearted mothers evidently had no friends to plead their case, and so their precious little memorial was trucked off to the park and there it rests.”

It was another 82 years before the “powers in authority” got around to placing a memorial to veterans in the space between these “two gems of architecture.”

In 2014, a memorial was dedicated after a private fund-raising campaign led by none other than Ronald Reagan’s former Secretary of State George Shultz. 

Prior to going to work for Reagan, Shultz was President of Bechtel Corporation, the country’s largest construction and engineering company, which does business in every corner of the world. Bechtel, a private firm based in San Francisco, is widely considered a war profiteer for reasons far too numerous to detail in this article.

Shultz presided over the Reagan administration State Department from 1982 to 1989, throughout the period of the Reagan administration’s support for the illegal and savage Contra war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who had overthrown dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.  Shultz returned to the Becthel Corporation as a director and senior counsel after he retired from the State Department. Schultz was an early and strong backer of George W. Bush’s campaign for the Presidency, and actively supported his 2003 invasion of Iraq. In 2012, the American Academy in Berlin awarded Shultz with the prestigious Henry A. Kissinger Prize.

The words “war criminal” easily come to mind when thinking about Schultz.

According to San Francisco’s El Tecolote newspaper, $1.5 million of the $2.5 million raised by Shultz for the 2014 veterans memorial came from the Stephen Bechtel Fund. Stephen Bechtel is currently the co-owner of the Bechtel Corporation. El Tecolote called this “blood money.”

The understated new veterans memorial sits on the eastern end of an expanse of grass, facing City Hall. There are no names of any veterans, alive or dead, on the memorial.

Actually there is the name of one veteran on the memorial, that of Archibald Macleish. Macleish was a poet and writer who saw action in World War I. He later found himself in the crosshairs of J. Edgar Hoover and his pal Joseph McCarthy. Macleish’s name appears under a poem inscribed in the center of the memorial, titled “The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak.

As Macleish says in his poem, “Our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will mean what you make them.”

And so the “powers in authority” have chosen to give meaning to these deaths by naming the drive that surrounds this memorial on three sides the “Charlotte and George Shultz Horseshoe Drive.”  This is certainly as ironic a memorial as naming Embarcadero Plaza after the racist Justin Herman.  But unlike that tragic name, Shultz Horseshoe Drive remains like a bleeding scar in the heart of San Francisco.

Between the veterans memorial and Franklin Street lies an open sward of green grass. On the other side of Franklin Street is the eastern end of Fulton Street. It is a nearly-straight shot of about three miles up Fulton to the Gold Star Mothers Rock, hidden and nearly forgotten.

We forget the soldiers who have died in U.S. wars at our peril, and at the peril of the lives of our sons and daughters.

The grassy area next to the War Memorial veterans monument seems to be used these days primarily as a dog park. There is plenty of room on the grass there for the Gold Star Mothers Rock, which actually has names of veterans who died in the “war to end all wars.”  Maybe someday the “powers in authority” will acquire the political will to move the Gold Star Mothers Rock memorial to the place where it should have been for these last 85 years.

Marc Norton’s website is

Final defense witness in Garcia Zarate case questions SFPD translation

Attorney Francisco Ugarte questions interpreter Fannie Suarez. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

The defense in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate called its last witness today, ending a week of testimony that challenged the central elements in the prosecution’s murder case.

Fanny Suarez, a certified court interpreter and an expert on Spanish-English legal interpretation, told jurors that the language a San Francisco police officer used to ask Garcia Zarate questions during his interrogation contained critical translation errors.

Attorney Francisco Ugarte questions interpreter Fannie Suarez. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

Officer Martin Covarrubias was part of the team that questioned the homeless immigrant for more than four hours. Covarrubias translated the questions of other officers and some of Zarate’s replies.

But under questioning from defense lawyer Francisco Ugarte, Suarez said that being “fluent” in a language doesn’t mean a person is a good legal interpreter. “You need special training, and high proficiency in both languages,” she said.

At numerous points during the interrogation, officers asked Garcia Zarate whether he pulled the trigger on the gun that killed Steinle. That’s a key part of the prosecution’s case: Deputy District Attorney Diane Garcia said during her opening statement, and her key police witness testified on the stand, that Garcia Zarate intentionally pointed the gun in Steinle’s direction and pulled the trigger.

The defense argues that the gun went off by mistake.

“Is there a Spanish word for ‘trigger?’ Ugarte asked.

“Yes,” Suarez said. “Gatillo is trigger.”

Q: “When Covarrubias said ‘you pulled the trigger,’ was that properly translated?”

A: “No.”

Instead, throughout the interrogation, every time Covarrubias asked about pulling the trigger, what he was actually asking is whether Garcia Zarate had fired the gun.

The defense doesn’t argue that Garcia Zarate was present when the gun discharged. So the distinction is more than academic, it’s central to the outcome of the jury deliberations.

“The issue of whether he admitted he pulled the trigger is a big issue,” Ugarte told reporters outside the courtroom.

Added Matt Gonzalez, who is leading the Garcia Zarate defense team: “The Spanish translator apparently didn’t know the word for ‘trigger.’”

Gonzalez said the team is “very satisfied with how the evidence was presented to the jury.”

The prosecution can now call rebuttal witnesses, who would appear Monday. Closing arguments are tentatively set for Monday, Nov. 20, after which the case will go to the jury.

Firearms expert says Steinle killing fits pattern of an accident

Firearms expert Alan Voth says the shot that killed Steinle fits the pattern of an accidental discharge. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

The bullet that killed Kate Steinle fit the pattern of an accidental discharge, a firearms expert testified today in the murder trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented homeless man who is accused of intentionally pulling the trigger. 

Garcia Zarate is facing a second-degree murder charge and is accused of shooting Steinle with a stolen handgun at Pier 14 on July 1, 2015.

Firearms expert Alan Voth says the shot that killed Steinle fits the pattern of an accidental discharge. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

Steinle was on the pier with her arm around her father when the single bullet ricocheted off the ground and travelled 78 feet before hitting her in the back. 

Alan Voth, a former officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, testified for the defense, bolstering the claim that Garcia Zarate unintentionally set off the gun he’d found wrapped in cloth on the pier.

Voth testified that several factors point to an unintentional discharge including lack of motive, lack of firearm training, the single shot, and the ricochet. The prosecution contends that Garcia Zarate acted with intent, pointed the gun at Steinle, and pulled the trigger. 

“These are all indicators for an unintentional discharge,” Voth said. “I see the probability that this is an unintentional discharge. There’s no apparent reason to fire a shot into a concrete pier.”

Voth also testified that as as a forensic firearms investigator, he would also examine the actions of the shooter directly after the discharge. An important factor to determine whether the discharge was intentional. 

“Are you aware the defendant threw the weapon into the water seconds after firing it?” asked Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia. 

“Yes,” Voth responded.

Outside the courtroom, defense lawyer Francisco Ugarte said that the indicators of unintentional discharge that Voth explained in court are meant to be considered together, including “illogical bullet strike” and inexperienced shooter. 

“Not one factor is going to be determinative, if you look at all of the factors put together, he concluded that this has the appearance of an unintentional discharge,” Ugarte said.

The prosecution has previously argued that Garcia Zarate’s disposing of the gun seconds after the shooting indicates his guilt. The defense refutes the claim and instead argues that Zarate threw the gun immediately after “it went off” to stop it from “firing on its own.”

The defense case is coming to a close, and the jury is expected to begin deliberation next week. 

Video casts doubt on prosecution theory in Kate Steinle killing

Matt Gonzalez questions Paul Endo about the video evidence. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

The jury in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate saw a video of the moment when a gun fired and killed Kate Steinle today.

The video, from a security camera on a fire station more than1,000 feet away, was grainy and low-resolution. But it appeared to show Zarate seated in a chair and bending down just before the gun discharged.

A screenshot from a security video clearly shows six people congregating around the chair that Jose Ines Garcia Zarate sat in — 29 minutes before he arrived

It also showed, fairly clearly, six people congregating for some time around that same chair on Pier 14 – some of them reaching toward the ground – just a few minutes before Zarate arrived.

There is nothing visible in the video showing Zarate pointing a gun at anyone.

That, Francisco Ugarte, one of Zarate’s attorneys said, was consistent with the defense theory that the homeless immigrant had reached down to pick up something that turned out to be a loaded Sig-Sauer gun, and the gun accidentally discharged.

The six individuals, who never walked to the end of the scenic pier, were engaged in activity that “is not consistent with tourism,” Ugarte said. He called it “remarkably coincidental” that they were right in the spot where Zarate says he found the gun about 29 minutes before he arrived.

“We believe it’s entirely likely this group discarded the weapon,” Ugarte said. “That’s consistent with his statement that he found the gun [on the pier].”

Matt Gonzalez questions Paul Endo about the video evidence. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

Ugarte said that those two key pieces of evidence “corroborate [Zarate’s] statements to the police.”

Paul Hiromi Endo, president of the San Bruno video and graphics consulting firm Think Twice Inc., was certified as an expert witness in the case.

He described how he worked with the relatively low-quality security video, which used only ten frames a second and was compressed to save storage space, to try to extract usable evidence.

That evidence, Endo said, shows that between the time the group of six people were active around the chair Zarate would sit in, only two other people passed through that area. One sat in the chair for a second or two, and the other just stopped briefly in the same region.

The video shows Steinle falling to the ground just an instant after Zarate appears to be bending down.

Since there were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, the video that the jury saw today is the closest thing to solid evidence of what happened. It appears to contradict the prosecution’s theory of the case, as promoted by retired police officer John Evans, who testified that “A human being held the firearm, pointed it in the direction of Ms. Steinle, pulled the trigger and fired the weapon, killing Ms. Steinle. This is the only way it could have happened.”

Endo made clear that even with computer enhancements, the video is so low resolution that smaller items like an arm or a gun would not be visible. But it does show that Zarate was sitting down during the entire incident, an unlikely position from which to fire a gun if your goal was to shoot somebody.

Tomorrow prosecutor Diana Garcia will cross-examine Endo.

Steinle killing was an accident, defense witness suggests

James Norris, a firearms expert, testifies on the Steinle shooting. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

The bullet that killed Kate Steinle was probably fired from someone in a sitting position leaning forward, a defense firearms expert testified today in the Zarate Trial.

Although the judge would not allow James Norris, former director of forensic services for the San Francisco Police Department, to say that he thought the firearm discharge was an accident, the evidence he presented was consistent with that scenario.

James Norris, a firearms expert, testifies on the Steinle shooting. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

Norris said that his analysis of the path of the bullet suggested that it was fired from between 1.5 and two feet from the ground. That’s completely inconsistent with the prosecution version of events: Prosecutor Diana Garcia and her key witness, who was not certified as an expert by the court, argued that Jose Ines Garcia Zarate intentionally aimed the gun in the direction of Steinle and pulled the trigger.

If Zarate had wanted to shoot someone, pointing the gun at the ground would make no sense, Norris said. And given that the gun, a Sig-Sauer semi-automatic, had a round in the chamber and seven more in the magazine, it’s unusual that he stopped firing after one round.

“At that distance, someone who wanted to shoot someone would keep shooting,” he said.

Norris described the gun as a weapon typically used by police and military personnel; it had no safety, and was advertised as ready to fire at any time.

The trigger pull was on the light side of handguns, at around 4 pounds in single-action mode, his testing showed. That’s about the amount of pressure on the trigger of “a squirt gun that little kids use,” he testified.

The trigger has to be moved about an eighth of an inch to fire, he said.

“Do you believe the Sig-Sauer 239 can accidentally discharge/” Gonzalez asked.

“Yes,” said Norris.

Q: “If somebody is handling the weapon and doesn’t mean to fire it, it can discharge?”

A: “Yes.”

Norris said he had worked on a case where an officer using this same firearm had drawn it and the trigger had bumped into a knob on his radio and gone off.

In fact, he said, the gun can fire if something hits the side of the trigger.

The prosecution’s main firearms witness, John Evans, insisted that “A human being held the firearm, pointed it in the direction of Ms. Steinle, pulled the trigger and fired the weapon, killing Ms. Steinle. This is the only way it could have happened.”

Evans said that the bullet skipped, but continued in the same straight-line direction after hitting the concrete pier.

But Evans was never certified as an expert witness, and Norris, who met that standard, directly challenged most of what Evans said.

When the projectile hit the concrete, he said, it would have changed direction – and it’s impossible to predict what path it might have taken. It could have curved, veered away from its original vector, moved to the left or the right … “this has been written about [in scientific literature] for years. When you shoot into concrete there is no way to predict where the bullet will go.”

Norris testified that he had read the report Evans wrote, and it didn’t change his opinion that it’s unlikely Zarate aimed the gun at Steinle. “The weapons seems to have been pointed down,” he said. “From that position, it would be very difficult to aim.”

He said that “no expert could say that it was a purposeful shot.”

The expert spent a fair amount of time talking about the trigonometry of the bullet: The angle that it hit the concrete, and the angle that it bounced off. The jury heard a lot about tangents and arc-tangents.

But the bottom line, he said, was that the gun was close to the ground at the time it discharged.

Gonzalez asked Norris about the gunshot residue on Zarate’s hand, and he explained that in his experience, the discovery of just one tiny particle of residue would not be enough to say that the person had fired a weapon. There are traces of GSR in police cars, on handcuffs, on the bodies of police officers … and since a gun discharges hundreds of these particles when it fires, the presence of more than one is generally needed to prove that a person fired the weapon, he said.

Norris said that if the gun was wrapped in a cloth or shirt at the time it discharged, that might explain why Zarate had only one particle of GSR on his hand.

On cross examination, Garcia tried to challenge Norris by saying that his statements today were inconsistent with his earlier testimony at the preliminary hearing – but that mostly fell flat. She pushed him on whether the gun could discharge without someone pulling the trigger, and he made clear that something – which could be someone’s finger or could be something else – might cause the gun to fire.

“We debunked the prosecution’s theory,” Francisco Ugarte, co-counsel with Gonzalez, told reporters.

Tomorrow the jury will see enhanced video evidence.