At first, police believed it was a terrible, self-inflicted mishap.
It happened April 15, just after the funeral held for a San Francisco man who’d succumbed to diabetes. Mourners were gathered in the Western Addition home of Tamesha Tobie’s grandmother, Edna Tobie. Tamesha, a 14-year-old first-year high schooler in town from Stockton for the funeral, was hanging out with two teenage boys, her cousins, in a bedroom a room where, it turns out, another family member had stashed a powerful .357 Magnum revolver. Suddenly, the house filled with the sound of the gun’s pop.
Tobie’s aunt was cooking in the kitchen. She rushed to find out what was going on. The two boys met her in the hallway and told her there was a gun; she found Tobie on the bed, not moving. Nearby lay the pistol, with five live rounds and a shell still visible in the cylinder under the hammer.
The family dialed 911, and soon the area was packed with uniforms. Paramedics arrived with the police, as did a media flack who expected reporters, a crisis response team from the health department, the local medical examiner, and Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes Edna Tobie’s Oak Street home.
"These are vivid experiences you don’t lose," Mirkarimi said. "The gut-wrenching part is that it was a young girl."
Fox, CBS, the Associated Press, and the San Francisco Chronicle all reported what the cops told them: Tamesha Tobie had accidentally shot herself with the gun.
But it turns out that wasn’t true. In fact, according to an autopsy completed by the medical examiner June 1, Tobie didn’t pull the trigger.
Her death has become another in a long list of unsolved homicides in San Francisco and another sign that gun violence, both accidental and intentional, is raging out of control.
THE COPS DON’T KNOW
Months after the killing, the San Francisco Police Department didn’t seem aware that Tobie’s death was anything but an accident.
When we contacted the SFPD’s press office early in September, the staffers weren’t aware that her death had been ruled a homicide, nor was Lt. John Murphy, head of the homicide unit. Department spokesperson Sgt. Neville Gittens even requested that the Guardian fax him a copy of the report.
Now the SFPD acknowledges that Tobie was a homicide victim. "We believe it was done at the hands of someone else," Gittens said a week after receiving the report.
A homicide inspector assigned to the case said he learned of the medical examiner’s final report two weeks ago but explained that he’d already regarded Tobie’s death as suspicious.
Inspector Mike Johnson said he thinks one of the two cousins in the room with Tobie fired the weapon. Police have also concluded that the gun was used in an unrelated San Francisco homicide a few months prior by another young family member before being hidden in the home of Tobie’s grandmother.
Nobody has been arrested in that case either. Despite the fact that this gun has now been used to kill at least two people, Johnson conceded that not enough evidence exists to make an arrest in the first murder, even though a suspect has been identified an exasperating fact for a city already near last year’s total of 85 murders.
If nothing else, the gun’s owner could possibly be guilty of negligence or child endangerment but no charges are pending.
"The capacity of government not to do something about this at the pace that it is rocketing is what is absolutely alarming," said Mirkarimi, who’s pushed the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to provide better data on violent crime in the city, "because it’s not going to abate itself…. The way that the number is traveling out of the reach of the Police Department and the district attorney I think we’re going to need to send red flares up, SOS."
The Tamesha Tobie case is tricky; there were only three people in the room, and one is dead. The boy who police believe accidentally ended Tobie’s life won’t confess, Johnson said. Some relatives dispute the police’s view that one of the boys mistakenly fired the weapon and instead believe the story the pair have stuck to so far that the gun fired on its own from the bed as they horsed around, the bullet smashing through the right rear of Tobie’s jaw.
"Obviously the one boy who did it doesn’t want to say anything to us," Johnson said. "And the other boy is somewhat traumatized, and his parents are worried about any possible criminal charges against him for associating with the first boy. So right now we’re trying to corroborate the stories and what happened through other people who were in the house…. It’s kind of a sensitive thing at this point."
But either way, Tamisha Tobie is the ultimate victim of gun violence, and while her death likely wasn’t intentional, it’s joined the city’s steadily climbing homicide rate nonetheless.
Attempts to reach Tobie’s family for comment were unsuccessful.
Statewide in 2004, 10 kids were killed after being accidentally shot either by themselves or by someone else, according to figures maintained by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More recent figures won’t be available until later this year. But according to media accounts and calls to local police jurisdictions, over the past 12 months, three children died similarly just in the Bay Area.
In June a five-year-old boy in Oakland shot himself while playing with a relative’s gun, and a 28-year-old man was arrested for child endangerment in notably less time than it took San Francisco to complete Tobie’s autopsy.
Just days after Tobie was killed, an 18-year-old girl accidentally shot a younger male teen in the city of Richmond with a revolver he’d found in the home where his death occurred. Last November a 16-year-old boy in Contra Costa County was killed after a friend accidentally shot him in the chest while playing with a .22-caliber revolver. Several other accidents occurred during 2006 in San Francisco and the East Bay, including one involving an Alameda toddler who that spring mistakenly shot his 20-year-old cousin with a .38 that belonged to a family friend.
The gun lobby complains that news stories depicting such deaths overstate the problem of accidents among kids and foster hysteria.
But Shawn Richard of the local nonprofit Brothers Against Guns has a response. The volume of deaths, he argues, isn’t the story.
"It could be a low number. It could be a high number," Richard said. "Regardless, it’s still ridiculous to deal with lives that are being taken by a gun."
Richard founded Brothers Against Guns after two of his siblings were shot to death in San Francisco during the 1990s. He joined the Mayor’s Office, District Attorney Kamala Harris, and the Legal Community Against Violence in drafting a batch of local antigun ordinances that passed the Board of Supervisors last month. One requires local firearms dealers to send inventories of their weapons to the police chief every six months, and another requires all handgun owners to disable their weapons with trigger locks.
Richard is also working with Assemblymember Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) to ban gun shows at the Cow Palace, which is located on state property near the Sunnydale housing project, where violent crimes are a frequent occurrence.
But would all of the antigun news releases in the world have saved Tobie? Homicide inspector Johnson wonders aloud whether they would.
"If the gun’s used in a homicide," Johnson said, "and it’s hidden in the house by children, who’s going to put a gun lock on it?"