A homeless man living in an encampment near where Luis Gongora was shot and killed by San Francisco police officers last week said Thursday that he witnessed the incident from a distance and said that he did not see Gongora lunge at the officers who shot him.
He did say that that Gongora used his knife on a tree, possibly in anger at an impending sweep of the encampment before officers arrived. Police were called to the scene after Gongora was seen “swinging a knife around in a chopping motion,” according to Police Chief Greg Suhr.
Carlos Guevara said he was “at least” twenty feet away from the scene of the shooting when he witnessed the fatal confrontation a week prior. Guevera lives in an encampment on 19th Street, around the corner from the Shotwell Street encampment where Gongora lived.
“I saw everything, and I know the city worker who called the police,” said Guevara. The man said that on the morning Gongora was killed, members of the Department of Public Health’s Homeless Outreach Team were warning residents of the Shotwell encampment of a sweep.
Police have said that the outreach workers responded to a disturbance in the encampment that Thursday, April 7, and called 911 after seeing Gongora swinging his knife.
Guevara said Gongora was not swinging it but was stabbing a nearby tree with it. Other residents had received warnings of a sweep of the encampment, Guevara said, and Gongora may have been upset that he was being forced to leave.
Guevara is the eighth witness to challenge the police department’s narrative that Gongora had threatened officers before being shot at seven times. He is also the only witness quoted in the press to mention Gongora using the knife before the shooting.
The morning of Gongora’s death, residents of the encampment had just received word they would have to move, Guevara said.
“They were going from tent to tent starting from 18th Street up to 19th Street,” said Guevara, referring to members of the outreach team. “Luis’s tent was the fourth or fifth, he didn’t receive a warning yet but he knew that he would get one too.”
Guevara said that he saw Gongora exit his tent and stab a nearby tree with his knife “a bunch of times.”
“[They were] giving warnings to the first two or three houses. He was the fourth or fifth house,” said Guevara. “He felt he would get a warning and probably took his frustration out on the tree.”
All trees in the area have significant scratches, old and new.
Guevara said that he saw Gongora with the knife but didn’t approach him. “I didn’t ask what was going on. Even if that’s your brother you don’t ask.”
“I knew Luis as a neighbor. We knew each other but we don’t know each other [well],” continued Guevara, adding that in the two months that he lived on the block of 19th and Shotwell streets he never perceived Gongora as a threat. Guevara said that he saw Gongora “playing soccer” shortly before he was killed.
“The only bad thing he did that day was grab the knife when he left his tent,” said Guevara, who said he witnessed Gongora “walk out onto the sidewalk” and sit “by the garage” of a PG&E building on Shotwell Street.
Gongora was confronted on that spot by police officers, according to other witnesses, who said Gongora would frequently rest there after playing soccer on the block.
“He sat down. The knife was on the ground when the police came,” said Guevara. Guevera saw the officers shoot Gongora “with rubber bullets” — possibly a reference to the bean bag rounds an officer used before the second officer fired his handgun. Guevara said that he did not see Gongora lunge at officers.
Guevara, a former carpenter, said he became homeless around Thanksgiving. After losing his job, Guevara said he “started to do drugs.” He was asked to testify by a lawyer who had come to the encampment after the shooting, but feared retaliation by the police, though he did talk to a reporter.
“If I do say something and it’s the truth something is gonna happen to me,” said Guevara.
Last Tents Disappear from Shotwell
Two witnesses to the shooting at the Shotwell encampment said they were told by police officers to move their tents or face arrest on Saturday night, and other homeless campers told the San Francisco Chronicle that they were “shoved out” of the encampment, but later returned.
The day after Gongora’s shooting, Mayor Ed Lee told the Chronicle he would begin a crackdown on the city’s homeless encampments and said he would “be ordering the Shotwell camp to be taken down and for it not to come back.”
After an almost week-long process of dismantling the camp, some 10 residents near the corner of 19th and Shotwell streets had been entirely cleared out by the end of Thursday, April 14. Some had been relocated to the Navigation Center days earlier, but the last tents around the corner from the shooting site were ordered dismantled on Thursday.
“They want us out of here by today. They came and told me that around 7 a.m. this morning,” said 21-year-old Daniel Perez while folding a blanket and sorting his belongings into bags near 10 a.m.
Another resident of the encampment who gave his name as “Jose” was also busy consolidating his belongings and echoed Perez’ account.
“I went to a bakery on 24th Street around 5:30 a.m. to get my pan and cafe,” said Jose, adding that when he returned to his tent around 7 a.m., he found a police officer “looking at it” who told Jose that it was “time to leave.”
Jose said the officer warned him of a Public Works sweep later in the day and told him that camping on the sidewalk is illegal. “Where am I gonna go? It’s illegal everywhere,” said Jose.
When asked if a sweep of the area had been planned that day, Public Works spokesperson Mindy Linetzky said that she was unaware of “any special clean-ups planned for that area. Our folks clean up daily around the city as needed.”
Others at the camp were also unsure of why they were suddenly told to move.
Guevara speculated that it had to do with the recent shooting of his neighbor.
“I pick up and leave when I start feeling the heat,” said Guevara. “I started to feel the heat the morning that Luis was killed.”
Perez, who had been camping at the site for some two months, said that an officer told him that morning that complaints had come in from the fire station across the street.
“[The officer] said that someone broke into the fire station’s storage unit and building overnight and stole some things, and I guess they are assuming it was us,” said Perez.
But Jonathan Baxter, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Fire Department, said that no such complaints were made and that no break-ins had been reported at the station.
“The fire department has not requested for the tents to be moved,” said Baxter.
The police department did not immediately return a request for comment.
By 5 p.m., Jose was sitting on a white bucket next to his belongings where his tent had stood that morning. “They haven’t been by,” he said with a shrug, referring to Public Works crews.
Perez and Guevara were gone, but their belongings were packed up and could still be seen stacked along the sidewalk at the campsite.