A public defender representing the man charged with fatally shooting Kathryn Steinle wants the federal law enforcement officer whose gun was used in the killing to testify in the case, according to a document filed last week in San Francisco County Superior Court.
The June 29 filing seeks the appearance of Bureau of Land Management Ranger John Woychowski in court and marks the first time he has been publicly identified as the officer who allegedly left his duty weapon unsecured in a car while stopping in San Francisco.
His vehicle was burglarized and the gun was stolen four days before Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, a Mexican national with a long record of entering the United States illegally, allegedly fired the weapon while handling it near a public pier close to the Ferry Building in San Francisco.
The bullet appears to have ricocheted before striking Steinle in the back, according to testimony at a preliminary hearing in the case. Lopez Sanchez is scheduled to stand trial for murder next week, though the case will likely be delayed.
The July 1, 2015, incident on Pier 14 immediately became the focus of the national debate over tougher immigration laws.
The San Francisco Police Department received criticism for its initial investigation of the gun theft, which did not involve crime scene investigators, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle. Woychowski immediately called police after he discovered his .40-caliber handgun, reportedly left in a bag in his vehicle, was missing.
Without identifying Woychowski by name, a Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman said after Steinle’s killing that the ranger was traveling through San Francisco on official government business when his gun was stolen.
It’s currently unknown how the weapon came into Lopez Sanchez’s possession, but that hasn’t restrained the rhetoric from Republicans in Congress, who have championed a bill they’re calling “Kate’s Law.” The legislation, which strengthens penalties for those arrested with prior convictions for entering the country illegally, passed the House of Representatives on June 29.
House Speaker Paul Ryan wrote in a June 29 web post titled “This Law is for Kate” that Lopez Sanchez “stole a gun out of a federal officer’s car, fired shots in public, and shot Kate Steinle in the back.”
In fact, there’s no evidence that Lopez Sanchez committed the initial burglary. He told reporters in a jailhouse interview after Steinle’s death that he found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt under a bench, though it’s not clear Lopez Sanchez understood the questions or the answers he was giving.
Attempts to reach Woychowski on Friday by phone and emails were unsuccessful. The supervisor at the BLM’s El Centro (Imperial County) field office, where it appears Woychowski is based, did not return a phone call seeking verification of Woychowski’s current employment with the office. A state-level BLM spokeswoman did not return calls and emails.
The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, which is representing Lopez Sanchez, declined comment on the court filing naming Woychowski.
Woychowski is listed as a “purchase card holder” based in El Centro on a Department of the Interior document from 2009. He was given the field office’s Ranger of the Year award in 2011 for “exemplary protection of our public lands and unwavering dedication to visitor safety,” according to a BLM news posting from the time that has since been taken down.
KQED accessed an archived version of the article, which was taken down sometime after Steinle was killed.
The article indicates that, at the time, Woychowski was a field training officer whose “dedication to the BLM Law Enforcement Field Training Program has insured (sic) that the BLM will be provided with newly skilled and knowledgeable Law Enforcement Rangers for years to come.”
“It is an honor to give him this award,” then-El Centro field manager Margaret Gordo is quoted as saying in the article. “John is a phenomenal ranger.”
An older archived version of the article includes a photograph of Woychowski holding his award plaque with two unidentified employees.
Chief Deputy Public Defender Matt Gonzalez, who represents Lopez Sanchez, wrote an op-ed published in the San Francisco Chronicle last week that outlines his argument for the ranger’s culpability in the case, while not identifying him by name.
“The firearm should never have been on the streets,” Gonzalez wrote. “The Bureau of Land Management official who left his loaded weapon unsecured in a car that was burglarized has never accounted for his negligence in starting the chain of events that resulted in Steinle’s death.”
The Steinle killing is one of several that inspired state legislation last year requiring law enforcement officers to lock up firearms when they store them in parked vehicles. The law makes failure to do so an infraction carrying a $1,000 fine.
A Bay Area News Group investigation published last year found that the problem of lost or stolen law enforcement firearms is widespread, with California officers losing possession of at least 944 weapons since 2010.
In his filing seeking Woychowski’s testimony, which requests the information be sealed by the court, Gonzalez wrote:
“The witness listed above is the owner of the firearm at issue in this case and his testimony is material and necessary to the defense,” according to the filing. “This witness is critical to Mr. Lopez Sanchez’s defense and he must testify in order for Mr. Lopez Sanchez to have a fair trial.”