Bloodshed in Bernal Heights

rebecca@sfbg.com

On Friday morning, March 21, the day that Alejandro Nieto was shot and killed by San Francisco Police Department officers, he went to the gym with his friend Byron Pedroza. It was something they did often, Pedroza said; the two of them had signed up for gym memberships together. “He’d be like, ‘B, get up. Let’s go work out.'”

Nieto and Pedroza had met at El Toro nightclub, where Nieto worked as a security guard for nearly two years. The club, which attracts Latino clientele and hosts live performances on Mondays, has tight security: There are several guards equipped with Tasers.

“He was the type of person who’d help me a lot,” Pedroza said. “Thanks to him, I went to college,” enrolling at City College of San Francisco.

Nieto was a semester away from completing his degree in administration of justice. He was studying on scholarship, in pursuit of his goal to become a youth probation officer. Nieto drove a ’95 Chevy Caprice — an old police car, Pedroza said — and they fixed it up together.

Ramiro Del Rio, Nieto’s co-worker at El Toro, described him as punctual and considerate. He’d seen Nieto in stressful situations before, when dealing with drunk and rowdy bar patrons. “He was very calm,” Del Rio said of Nieto. “He would always want to talk to the person without using aggressive force.”

Nieto favored juice and soda instead of alcohol, he said, but after he started working out, “it was straight water.” Also, “He was Buddhist.”

 

HIS WORK TASER

Nieto had been scheduled to work that night, March 21. Instead, he was killed in Bernal Heights Park from multiple gunshot wounds inflicted by rounds fired by at least four officers. It’s unknown exactly how many bullet wounds Nieto sustained; friends said they believed at least 14 rounds had been fired.

As of March 31, the San Francisco Medical Examiner still had not released autopsy results. The officers involved had been placed on paid leave. Nieto’s community remained stunned by his sudden death, staging a march through the Mission the following weekend to protest what they viewed as an unjust use of deadly force.

According to a transcript from a 911 call placed minutes before the shooting, which Police Chief Greg Suhr read aloud during a March 25 public meeting at Leonard Flynn Elementary School held to discuss the incident, officers opened fire within three and a half minutes of arriving at Bernal Heights Park.

Police were responding to calls reporting a man “with a gun on his hip. A black handgun,” according to the call record, which Suhr read aloud. Police did not reveal the identity of the caller, but noted that the caller was not a police officer.

A neighbor who declined to be named told the Bay Guardian that shortly before the shooting, two men walking down the pedestrian pathway on the park’s north slope alerted a jogger of a man ahead with a gun on his hip. The jogger, who came within 50 feet of the man, reported noticing that he was “pacing back and forth” and “air boxing.”

The person who phoned 911 also initially reported seeing a man pacing back and forth. But minutes later, the anonymous caller reported to 911 dispatchers, “He is eating chips … but resting his hand on the gun.”

In reality, there was no gun — it was Nieto’s Taser, carried in a holster. Friends who spoke at a March 24 vigil said they believed Nieto had headed up there to eat a burrito while looking out at the city from the top of the hill, a place he often went to clear his head.

A sergeant from the Ingleside station and other police officers arrived at the scene minutes after receiving reports of a man with a gun, Suhr said at the public meeting. Police faced Nieto from a distance of about 75 feet, up a hill.

“When the officers asked him to show his hands, he drew the Taser from the holster,” Suhr said. Nieto then told police to show their hands, and pointed the Taser at the officers, Suhr told a large crowd in attendance. Due to the distance, the chief said, the officers did not see the yellow markings that would have alerted them that it was a Taser and not a gun.

“These particular Tasers, as soon as they’re drawn, they emit a dot, a red dot,” Suhr said. “When the officers saw the laser sight on them, tracking, they believed it to be a firearm, and they fired at Mr. Nieto.” Believing he had a gun, Suhr said, police “fired in defense of their own lives.” In a later interview, he confirmed that officers would not have used lethal force had they known Nieto possessed a Taser instead of a firearm.

Both Pedroza and Del Rio said Nieto had shown them his new Taser, and said it emits a red dot only when one pushes a button to turn it on. According to a Taser operating manual, the stun gun has a range of 15 feet.

Asked how many 911 calls were placed, Suhr said he did not have that information. When the Bay Guardian contacted the Department of Emergency Management to request audio from 911 calls, it was denied on the grounds that “it is part of an ongoing criminal investigation.”

 

COMMUNITY OUTRAGE

For several hours following Suhr’s explanation, friends and community members took turns at the microphone to vent outrage, frustration, and sadness over Nieto’s death. Many referenced an overarching trend of police violence directed against black and Latino youth.

Some voiced skepticism of the police account. Benjamin Bac Sierra — an English instructor at City College and friend of Nieto’s, who had once driven down Mission Street with him during a low rider parade, shouting “si se puede!” to cheering onlookers — told the Guardian, “In my heart, I do not believe that he pointed his Taser at the officers.”

At the gym, on the morning of the day Nieto died, Pedroza said, “I could tell he had a lot on his mind.” Nieto had told him it had to do with a woman he’d been seeing, a mother of three. “He was in love with her,” Pedroza said.

Yet Nieto’s relationship with Yajaira Barrera Estrada had created a conflict between him and Arthur Vega, Barrera Estrada’s three children’s father, whom Nieto had once been friends with. Public records list Vega as Barrera Estrada’s husband, and show the two living at separate addresses. It had culminated in a physical confrontation outside Barrera’s home several weeks earlier, during which Nieto allegedly stunned Vega with his Taser. Vega’s account, as described in a court filing requesting a temporary restraining order, suggests this was unprovoked; Pedroza said Nieto had believed Vega was going to harm him and might have a gun. Vega could not be reached for comment.

After that incident, Pedroza described Nieto as seeming worried and easily distracted. Pedroza believed that in the weeks leading up to the shooting, the conflict had caused Nieto to fear for his life.

Court records show that Barrera Estrada had also filed a request for a temporary restraining order against Nieto stemming from that incident, which was partially granted pending an April 11 hearing. When we reached Barrera Estrada by phone, she declined to discuss it, saying only: “Alex was an excellent person. I don’t know why the media is writing bad things about him. I don’t know why the police shot him. He was an excellent person with me.”

At the meeting, Suhr noted that Nieto was prohibited from owning a firearm due to a history of mental illness. Del Rio said he hadn’t seen evidence of this in Nieto’s behavior at the nightclub, where he spent five or six nights a week. “He never seemed crazy or mentally ill when he was working.” According to state records, Nieto obtained registration to work as a guard/patrolperson in June of 2007, which required completion of a 40-hour course.

As the crowd listened at the town hall meeting, Nieto’s father, Refugio, told Sup. David Campos that police had arrived at his home in the afternoon the day after the shooting, then questioned him about his son prior to revealing that he had been killed. Then police confiscated his car, Refugio Nieto told Campos, saying it was needed for an investigation. Then, according to Pedroza, police also went to Barrera Estrada’s residence, notified her of his death, and searched the premises.

Just before sunset on March 24, about 150 friends and community supporters gathered for a vigil in memory of Nieto. They lit candles, sang, burned incense, and conducted Buddhist chants in honor of his spiritual practice.

Sup. John Avalos said he’d known Nieto through Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth. “What we saw in Alejandro was that he had a really big heart,” Avalos said. He added, “Blood’s been shed, in this case, by people we’re supposed to trust. But … we have a lot of difficulty trusting our police, because from time to time, these things happen.”