Sitting in a jail facility in a restricted area at San Francisco General Hospital, Yeiner Pérez Garizabalo looks sad. His hair is shorter and he looks much thinner than he did in the “naked BART man” video that went viral earlier this month.
“This is not what I learned theater for,” he said, speaking in Spanish on the phone through a window.
Pérez is under observation at the hospital after he was arrested on sexual battery and false imprisonment charges. In a video leaked online, Pérez is seen doing handstands and backflips inside the 16th Street BART station and chasing several passengers while naked.
To this day, Pérez doesn’t completely remember what happened on May 10.
“I was giving out flyers of the show, and somehow I started thinking that my friends were pulling my leg and everybody there was pretending,” he said. “And I don’t know how, but I got naked and I was performing and I saw the people taking photos of me and I thought, ‘I’m at the Cirque du Soleil, I’m the great Yeiner, from Colombia’.”
Pérez was scheduled to perform with his troupe, ClownSnotBombs, at Stage Werx Theater that night. The group had been rehearsing a show titled “A Spaghetti Western” for five months.
Pérez and his girlfriend, Mani Ibarra, were part of an acrobatic arts crew in the show. But the day before, the couple had a fight and Ibarra left the house they shared with members of the circus.
Seeing that his girlfriend hadn’t shown up, Pérez left the theater. That night, the troupe went on with an adapted version of the show, not knowing that a few blocks away, Pérez was getting arrested.
“She had left, but that is not the only reason,” he said. Pérez hadn’t slept or eaten for four days when the BART incident happened, he said. “I just wanted to work. I wasn’t aware there was a problem with me.”
“We had no idea,” said Ben Goldstein, a musician with ClownSnotBombs. “We just knew that he disappeared and we had to redo our show.”
At the BART station
On the afternoon of May 10, Perez walked into the BART station at 16th and Mission streets. He undressed and started chasing passengers. A BART operator took out her cell phone and started recording.
In the video, a woman Pérez was chasing is heard screaming for help. The operator then opens her booth and tells her to get inside; meanwhile Pérez was doing handstands on the gates.
He was arrested that day and taken to San Francisco County Jail. No charges were filed and he was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) because he had overstayed his visa. ICE agents let him go with a GPS ankle bracelet.
About a month later, the District Attorney’s office filed charges against Pérez for the May 10 incident, and during a scheduled interview with ICE agents police arrested him. He was charged with two felony counts of false imprisonment, four misdemeanor counts of battery and one misdemeanor count of sexual battery.
District Attorney’s spokesperson Stephanie Ong Stillman said that although no one was physically injured at the BART station, people would probably be affected by the incident.
“I’m sure they’ll have emotional distress,” she said.
But Pérez’s friends say they know he wasn’t trying to attack anybody. “He’s a strong man. If he had wanted to hurt someone, people would have been hurt,” said Goldstein. “He didn’t want to hurt anybody.”
On June 18, Pérez appeared in court. Judge Brendan Conroy kept his bail set at $100,000 and set the preliminary hearing for July 18.
The video of the incident was leaked as BART workers were in contract negotiations that led to a strike.
On June 18, the same day Pérez appeared in court, BART workers sent a letter to negotiators declaring that they were facing assaults and other violent attacks at work. They accused BART officials of not wanting to bargain over worker safety issues. The letter was published in SF Weekly.
BART spokesperson Alicia Trost said that safety has always been “a top priority” for BART. Unions were trying to divert attention from the negotiations about increasing pension and medical costs, she said.
“They are paying $92 a month for healthcare – the average worker pays four times as much as that,” Trost said before the strike was voted.
She said she didn’t know if the video was brought up during the negotiations, but Perez’s friends and fellow troupe members believe the video has been used as a political tool.
“The whole reason this video came out is so BART [workers] could get more money in their contract,” said Kristen Parks, producer and performer of the troupe and housemate of Pérez. “The incident happened a month ago.”
History of difficulties
“They took me sedated to the hospital,” Pérez said. “That night I woke up, still thinking that I had to go perform for the show.” The day after, he was taken back to jail. “This is not what I came to San Francisco for,” he said.
His father, Carlos Pérez, said this wasn’t the first time his son has suffered a crisis. In Colombia in 2007, Pérez tried to commit suicide.
“He went to a hospital and got treatment,” his father said in a phone interview in Spanish. “He was on medication for a while and then stopped. He was fine, but sometimes he would get very depressed.” Carlos Pérez said his son was deeply affected by the death of his mother when he was 12 years old, and that may have been the start of his mental problems.
Pérez’s girlfriend knew he had been on medication and stopped because it would make him numb and unable to perform. “He would say, ‘That’s why I do theater, it’s my medicine,’ ” she said.
“The doctors said it may be bipolarity,” Pérez said in Spanish. “I’m on medication, but it’s not helping. I’m all alone and I’m very sad. I need to train, and they don’t let me do it here.”
But weeks before the incident, Pérez had started behaving in unusual ways—so unusual, in fact, that his roommates ended up asking him to leave after the BART incident, but not just because of it. His behavior was also the determining factor in the fight with his girlfriend.
“He was very altered. I was surprised, I was wondering what was happening. He was aggressive with everybody and, at the same time, he was working very hard,” Ibarra said in Spanish.
‘Give love and receive love’
Pérez’s girlfriend, his father and his friends describe him as a loving man who worked hard on his art. He was an athlete and never did any drugs, apart from smoking marijuana, they all said.
After he was released in May, Pérez and his girlfriend moved to a house in Oakland.
“I immediately liked both of them,” said Nicolas Bell, one of the roommates. “He told me about his immigrant status and that he had been arrested for something like disturbing the peace, but I just thought he was doing some performance and they found out that his visa had expired,” he said.
Pérez’s new roommates, who didn’t know about the BART incident, didn’t notice anything unusual about him.
“I feel their presence in my life was a gift,” Bell said.
After the video was released, Pérez’s roommates and members of ClownSnotBombs sat down with him and decided that he should get medical help. For the first time since the incident, he agreed. But, before he was able to do that, Pérez got arrested.
In a statement, ClownSnotBombs expressed their solidarity with those impacted by this incident and their opposition to violence. But they also questioned the way news media treated the incident and the way he was released from custody after his first arrest without, as they said, getting a psychiatric evaluation.
“The police should take more responsibility for releasing persons who may be a danger to themselves and others back on to the street,” the statement read.
In Colombia, his father said he hopes that his son won’t get deported and will receive mental care. “He’s an excellent person,” he said. “This was a moment of madness.”
“I just want to get out, do circus and theater and give back to the community. That’s why I do it, to give love and receive love,” Pérez said.