A large photo of Kathryn Steinle is shown while her dad, James Steinle, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, July 21, 2015, in Washington, D.C. The committee heard testimony from family members who have had loved ones killed by undocumented immigrants.

A large photo of Kathryn Steinle is shown while her dad, James Steinle, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, July 21, 2015, in Washington, D.C. The committee heard testimony from family members who have had loved ones killed by undocumented immigrants. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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On July 1, 2015, a 32-year-old white woman was fatally shot while walking with her father along San Francisco’s waterfront.

Within hours, police arrested a Mexican national in connection with her slaying — and suddenly, Kathryn Steinle’s tragic death morphed from a local murder into a national controversy.

Next week, that man, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, will stand trial in Courtroom 13 at the San Francisco Hall of Justice. For the judge, attorneys and jurors, it’s a straightforward murder case — but for the country at large, it’s become part of a larger debate about crime, immigration policies and sanctuary cities.

Garcia Zarate wasn’t just any immigrant — he was an undocumented immigrant with a felony record who had repeatedly been caught sneaking into the U.S. And he was released from San Francisco Jail just two months before Steinle’s death.

Steinle’s murder exposed a long-simmering disagreement between leaders of liberal cities with sanctuary policies, such as San Francisco, and Republicans who favor a more hard-line approach to immigration.

President Trump helped stir national outrage as he campaigned for president last year, repeatedly invoking Steinle’s death.

“Countless innocent American lives have been stolen because our politicians have failed in their duty to secure our borders and enforce our laws like they have to be enforced,” he told a cheering crowd in Phoenix, Arizona, last August. “(One) victim is Kate Steinle. Gunned down in the sanctuary city of San Francisco, by an illegal immigrant, deported five previous times. And they knew he was no good.”

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate will stand trial for Kathryn Steinle’s murder. (Michael Macor/Getty Images)

In the months after his arrest, Garcia Zarate — who was identified at that time as Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez — was painted as a violent felon, a dangerous person who never should have been on the streets of the United States and who shot Kathryn Steinle point-blank. The speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, accused him of stealing the gun used to kill Steinle. Blame for her death was placed squarely on Democratic leaders in San Francisco, who refuse to cooperate with immigration enforcement.

But much of what’s been said, and repeated — about Garcia Zarate, and about the circumstances that led to Steinle’s death — isn’t true.

Here are the facts: He didn’t have a violent criminal past. The bullet ricocheted before hitting Steinle. There’s no evidence he stole the gun. And federal officials missed their own chance to deport Garcia Zarate before they sent him to San Francisco.

David Bier, an immigration expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, said nothing proposed since the July 2015 shooting would have saved Kathryn Steinle — including a bill named for her, Kate’s Law, that supporters argue would close loopholes in border security and immigration law that led to her shooting.

“The entire narrative based on this case has been: ‘We need to crack down on illegal immigration, we need more border security’ … (but) he had not crossed the border illegally without being caught since the 1990s,” Bier said. “The other common refrain is, ‘This individual was a felon, he’d racked up multiple convictions for felonies in U.S.’ — and that is true, but none of them were violent crimes.”

Bier said after studying the case at length, his takeaway “is that insufficient border enforcement played no role in Kate Steinle’s death.”

Bier believes the actions of federal authorities did.

“The only reason he ended up in San Francisco is that the federal government decided to send him to San Francisco,” he said.

How that happened is part of a longer story that does get to the heart of a fight playing out between Democrats and Republicans over how to treat people in the country illegally. But in the courtroom, that’s not going to come up.

The Murder Trial

Lawyers on both sides of Garcia Zarate’s murder trial do not plan on making the case about any larger immigration debate.

San Francisco District Attorney’s Office spokesman Alex Bastian said prosecutors simply want justice for the Steinle family.

“A loved one is no longer here, and she’s murdered. So we’re going to do everything we can within the court process to bring the family justice,” he said. “When we look at a case, there really are only two things that we have to look at: the facts and the law … to see if we have sufficient evidence to prosecute a case. We’ve charged this case as murder.”

A well-wisher drops off flowers at the site where 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle was killed on Pier 14 in San Francisco.
A well-wisher drops off flowers at the site where 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle was killed on Pier 14 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The prosecution plans to argue that firing a gun in a crowded place is likely to cause someone’s death — even if Garcia Zarate wasn’t targeting Steinle specifically.

His public defenders, Matt Gonzalez and Francisco Ugarte, believe the shooting was an accident. They will tell the jury that Garcia Zarate found a gun wrapped in a T-shirt on Pier 14, and that it went off as he was unwrapping it. But Ugarte acknowledged that outside the Hall of Justice, the case has become “an immigration story.”

“That’s in the narrative, but I think the reason it is, is that Donald Trump put it there, and focused on Mr. Garcia Zarate’s immigration status, as somehow a reason, as a motivating factor, for Ms. Steinle’s death, and keeps repeating that narrative, over and over again,” he said. “But the problem with using this case is that it’s based on a false narrative.”

Gonzalez said there is one way the politicization of Steinle’s death has seeped into the murder case.

“If he was not a Mexican immigrant with prior felony convictions, he would not be charged with this crime,” Gonzalez said. “This is a guy with crackers in his pocket, and you don’t become a killer because you find a gun somewhere.”

‘Sanctuary’ Controversy

In the weeks following Steinle’s death, critics pounced on the fact that Garcia Zarate had been released from San Francisco Jail two months before the shooting. Republicans like South Carolina congressman Trey Gowdy fumed, blaming the city’s sanctuary law, which bars local officials from communicating in most cases with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“With this horrific criminal history — they released him. So he would be free to walk around, and shoot someone’s daughter, which is exactly what he did,” Gowdy said on the floor of Congress weeks after Steinle’s death.

But Garcia Zarate’s path to that pier where Steinle was shot didn’t start in San Francisco Jail.

Not much is known about his life, but his lawyers describe him as a perpetual migrant, repeatedly coming to the U.S. in search of a way to feed himself, which he couldn’t find in Mexico.

Garcia Zarate never lasted long in the U.S. He kept getting caught. And deported. Then caught again. Garcia Zarate served three prison terms for illegal re-entry between 1998 and his release to San Francisco in 2015.

Defense lawyer Gonzalez said he asked Garcia Zarate why he kept coming back, even after serving prison time.

“And he said literally, that he was living — he was on a ranch, and there wasn’t enough food for everybody, and he was literally asked to leave because there wasn’t enough food to feed everybody,” Gonzalez said.

Before Garcia Zarate’s string of deportations, he also racked up a handful of felony drug charges — including one in San Francisco.

But it was the border crossings that landed him in prison.

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent.
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent. (John Moore/Getty Images)

After two of those prison stints, federal prison officials handed him directly to immigration enforcement agents, who deported him.

But in 2015, they did something different: Instead of calling immigration officials, federal prison authorities called San Francisco about a 20-year-old marijuana charge against Garcia Zarate still on the books.

Bier of the Cato Institute said that has never made sense.

“It’s really mystifying, and there has not been a good answer, for why they chose this time to send him to San Francisco when in every other instance he was simply deported,” he said.

Bier noted that after Steinle’s death, federal officials changed their policy so that ICE requests take priority over local county warrants. But at the time, the federal Bureau of Prisons sent Garcia Zarate to San Francisco.

The next day, his 20-year-old marijuana charge was dismissed — San Francisco authorities said the evidence was destroyed years ago.

So the deputies reporting to then-Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi were left to figure out what to do with him. For more than two weeks, Garcia Zarate stayed in San Francisco jail as deputies went back and forth with federal prison authorities, making sure he’d served his full federal sentence. He had — so San Francisco released him, even though immigration agents had asked San Francisco to hold Garcia Zarate for deportation.

It’s a routine request from ICE. But San Francisco doesn’t honor those detention requests, because of its sanctuary laws. Many other cities also ignore such detention requests, because they’re simply that: requests. And federal courts have found that if jails do hold people past their criminal release date, it’s a violation of the inmates’ Fourth Amendment rights — and the sheriff can be sued.

Mirkarimi, who was unpopular in San Francisco, was criticized for Garcia Zarate’s release by both Republicans and Democrats — including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

At the time, Mirkarimi said the critics who disagreed with his decision to release Garcia Zarate were asking him to ignore the law.

“Really, is that really how cavalier we’re supposed to operate?” Mirkarimi told reporters in 2015. “Just like on a whim or wink or nod, that we just call ICE and say, ‘Hey we’ve got this guy?’ No, we follow the law.”

But Eileen Hirst, a spokeswoman for the current sheriff, said if someone like Garcia Zarate were in jail today, he would still be released under San Francisco law. What’s different is that since the shooting, the city has changed its policies so that prosecutors, courts and the sheriff purge old warrants like Garcia Zarate’s from the system if they no longer plan to prosecute them.

Since Trump’s election, San Francisco officials have been unified in their support of the sanctuary law. But broader fault lines among Democrats that emerged because of Steinle’s death remain: For one, the case prompted some Democrats to jump on board when Republicans proposed a law named for Kathryn Steinle.

A memorial for Kate Steinle on San Francisco's Pier 14.
A memorial for Kate Steinle on San Francisco’s Pier 14. (Erika Kelly/KQED)

Kate’s Law passed the House in June. It would increase prison sentences for people who repeatedly enter the U.S. illegally. Twenty-four Democrats voted for it, including Bay Area Rep. Jackie Speier, who in August told KQED’s Forum that the bill “was all about making sure this didn’t happen to someone else.”

But Bier doesn’t think it would have made a difference, because Garcia Zarate kept getting caught at the border, and spent 15 years in prison for it.

“He was clearly not deterred after the first five-year term or the second, and ultimately it really played no role in him being sent to San Francisco anyway — so it’s not clear to me what (this bill) is trying to get at or how the authors believe this is going to prevent a future Kate Steinle situation from occurring,” he said.

The Murder Weapon

One thing might have prevented her death: If Garcia Zarate hadn’t had a gun.

How he got that firearm is a key part of the San Francisco murder trial, but it’s missing from the national debate.

The gun that killed Kathryn Steinle belonged to U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger John Woychowski. He stopped in San Francisco four days before Steinle was shot, and his duty weapon — a .40-caliber Sig Sauer handgun — was stolen out of his car.

The fact that a law enforcement officer left his official gun unsecured in a car is part of a lawsuit filed by Kathryn Steinle’s family against San Francisco, ICE and the Bureau of Land Management.

“The secret that has probably haunted all of us is how could a gun that belonged to a federal official, a ranger, somehow get taken, stolen and used in this horrible, horrible killing,” Frank Pitre, who is representing the family, said as he announced the lawsuit in September 2015.

Woychowski was not disciplined for leaving his weapon unsecured in his car. In fact, he was promoted five months after Steinle was killed.

Police don’t know who stole it, or how Garcia Zarate ended up with it. Whoever broke into Woychowski’s car broke into several others nearby, and left some of what they stole behind, including ammunition from Woychowski’s bag, found in a second car.

Garcia Zarate’s defense attorney, Gonzalez, said he has no doubt that his client did not steal the gun.

“There’s no evidence he did, and this guy has no history of theft,” he said.

James Steinle was with his daughter when she was shot on Pier 14 in 2015. He has sued the government over her death. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

That’s probably no solace for Steinle’s family.

Her father, James Steinle, was there that evening.

“I’m walking down the pier, arm in arm with my daughter,” he recounted at the 2015 news conference announcing the family’s civil suit.

The single shot ricocheted off the concrete pier about 12 feet from where Garcia Zarate was sitting. It traveled another 78 feet before hitting Kathryn Steinle in the back.

“She turns around, she’s shot. As she fell, she said, ‘Help me, Dad!’ That’s my bedtime story every night,” he said.

The jury won’t be considering all the political questions Steinle’s death has raised. It won’t be discussing immigration policy or sanctuary city laws. It will just decide if Garcia Zarate is guilty of murder.

How S.F. Killing Became Part of the U.S. Immigration Debate 20 October,2017Marisa Lagos

  • Curious

    “One thing might have prevented her death: If Garcia Zarate hadn’t had a gun.”

    Uh, false.

    The one definite thing that would have prevented her death was Zarate not being in the country thanks to SF.

  • MirrorTheObvious

    If the intent is to be compassionate to undocumented immigrant families, the big question is:
    Why are Sanctuary city policies designed to protect felons and other criminals?

    The argument that felons, such as those with a long rap sheet, should be protected from deportation for the sake of “improving safety” is ridiculous doublespeak.
    Why protect thieves, drunk drivers, drug dealers, drug traffickers, etc…?
    To improve public safety? This is an outrageous reason.
    Sanctuary policy that protects career criminals and felons is reckless and irresponsible.

    If the rationale is that criminals should feel free to come forward as witnesses to a crime committed by other criminals, then the judicial system can cut deals to provide protection only in return for actual testimony rather than provide blanket protections.

    If the rationale is the purported belief that non-violent felons aren’t a threat, then this is faulty. A person in the act of committing a crime, or drunk driving could still harm others in the process. A non-violent career criminal has a high chance of committing violence during the course of a life of crime. A career criminal could be arrested for a non-violent felony, while authorities may have no clue about an unknown history of violence.

    • Brian Wright

      If you read the article closely, you would understand that it’s not about protecting the felon and more about protecting the city and city officials from legal liability. The city doesn’t honor ICE detention requests because it can put the city and various people who work for the city in legal jeopardy for illegal detention. The point is, they had to let Zarate go free or potentially face legal consequences. However, ICE should have known that SF wouldn’t continue to hold Zarate indefinitely without cause while waiting for a deportation detail to arrive. ICE should have high-tailed it over to the city jail, nabbed him before release and deported him. That ICE failed to act timely to deport Zarate from the country is what let him go free and ultimately what led to her death.

      • MirrorTheObvious

        “The city doesn’t honor ICE detention requests because it can put the city and various people who work for the city in legal jeopardy for illegal detention.”
        Ok, if that’s the premise then why do sanctuary policies make a distinction and not apply to violent felons? I haven’t been able to find any explanation that explains that distinction.
        The main distinction found for the sanctuary protection of “non-violent” felons and others with a long criminal history is supposedly: “public safety”

        Disclaimer: I totally support Sanctuary protections for non-criminal undocumented families. However, protecting thieves, those in the drug trade, etc… is wrong. Non-criminal undocumented families should not be used as political cover to shield criminals.

        • Brian Wright

          It all comes back to detaining someone with or without cause. Even if someone has a violent criminal past (and has been previously cleared of them) and for whatever reason has landed in a city jail (let’s say for public intoxication), the city is still unable to detain that individual beyond the legal limit without cause. The point is, it doesn’t matter what the criminal history of that detainee is. If there is no current cause to continue to detain that person in jail at present, the city must release them or face their own personal legal consequences.

          With that said, sanctuary laws apply to federal immigration. The question, should city, county or state law enforcement agencies become responsible for enforcing federal immigration laws? This is ultimately your question. Personally, I would say that unless the federal government is fairly compensating / reimbursing each city, county or state for federal immigration law enforcement, the local law enforcement agencies shouldn’t become responsible for enforcing federal laws.

          ICE should be the sole agency responsible for immigration enforcement. If ICE is unable to perform this law enforcement properly, a city shouldn’t automatically become an extension of ICE out of convenience. Though, in terms of use of city or county jails, perhaps ICE should work out a better arrangement with local officials. ICE should ‘rent’ one or a few of the jail cells for ICE use and whenever an illegal immigrant shows up, transfer them into one of the ICE controlled cells. Better, ICE should build their own jails for this purpose. This gets the city off the hook for illegal detention and puts that burden squarely onto ICE. It also prevents releasing an illegal immigrant (regardless of their past) who should otherwise be deported.

          • MirrorTheObvious

            Actually, according San Francisco’s own website, the Sanctuary City Ordinance is not just about detaining someone.
            “In 2013, San Francisco passed the “Due Process for All” Ordinance. This ordinance limits when City law enforcement officers may give ICE advance notice of a person’s release from local jail. It also prohibits cooperation with ICE detainer requests, sometimes referred to as “ICE holds.”

            These ordinances were last amended in July 2016. Under current law, City employees may not use City resources to:

            Assist or cooperate with any ICE investigation, detention, or arrest relating to alleged violations of the civil provisions of federal immigration law.

            Ask about immigration status on any application for City benefits, services, or opportunities, except as required by federal or state statute, regulation, or court decision.

            Limit City services or benefits based on immigration status, unless required by federal or state statute or regulation, public assistance criteria, or court decision.

            Provide information about the release status or personal information of any individual, except in limited circumstances when law enforcement may respond to ICE requests for notification about when an individual will be released from custody.

            Detain an individual on the basis of a civil immigration detainer after that individual becomes eligible for release from custody.”

            It’s not just about detention. Without adequate advanced notice, the policy makes it harder for ICE to prepare a transfer of custody.

          • Brian Wright

            These ordinances are designed to prevent the city from becoming an extension of ICE out of ICE’s convenience. The likely reason for not respecting the “ICE Holds” is to remove the city’s legal liability for illegal detention. As for not notifying ICE of an imminent release, that wouldn’t be a problem if ICE were to rent their own cells within the city or county jails. They could then transfer the illegal immigrant to their own cells early in the process before the city would even need to notify ICE of release. Though, in this case, had they notified ICE of Zarate’s imminent release, ICE may or may not taken action timely. The only way for ICE to work these timely is to rent jail cells in cities and counties themselves. Then, quickly move illegal immigrants to ICE controlled cells to avoid the need for either notification or making hold requests that leave the city open to illegal detention issues.

          • MirrorTheObvious

            Thanks for your input, but these explanations don’t appear to explain why even Sanctuary policies would then make (a sensible, but incomplete) exemption for violent felons. It is a contradiction.

            W/regard to Zarate aka Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, Sheriff Mirkarimi apparently did not notify ICE about this felon’s pending release. It does not appear warranted to blame ICE for not immediately coming to pick up Zarate, without enough advanced notice, regardless of renting a jail cell.


            And it’s not just about detainers. Sanctuary policy seems designed to prevent adequate communication and avoid adequate advanced notice, in order to sabotage transfer of custody to ICE, of actual criminals (not merely just the undocumented).

            If the explanations about detainers and not doing ICE’s work were held true — then even violent felons would be protected by Sanctuary policies. But that hasn’t been the case — perhaps because then, such policies would become glaringly obvious political liabilities for the politicians who support it.
            It’s really a demonstration of what type of criminal histories are welcome and which are not welcome to stay in Sanctuary cities/California.

          • Brian Wright

            I should also point out that any city’s goal is to focus on the welfare of the citizens located within its city borders, not focusing its legal resources on the country’s borders, especially when that city doesn’t border another country. This is the reason ICE exists. For the feds to draft cities into doing the legal legwork for ICE isn’t what cities should be doing for its local citizens. This is the reason cities are writing ordinances around when and how they are to work with ICE. I don’t blame SF for writing these ordinances. Helping out other law enforcement agencies is one thing, but when expectations get overly burdensome and they get in the way of running a city, then ordinances get written.

  • TaiFood

    Wasn’t it the Federal government who identified the (LEGAL TERM) illegal alien?

    With at LEAST 3 aliases, we really don’t know the extent of this criminal’s past.

    I think was can REASONABLY assume holding a t-shirt with an extremely heavy object that had to have a round chambered is an omission intentionally disregarded.


Marisa Lagos

Marisa Lagos reports on state politics for KQED’s California Politics and Government Desk, which uses radio, television and online mediums to explore the latest news in California’s Capitol and dig deeper into political influence in the Golden State. Marisa also appears on a weekly podcast analyzing the week’s political news.

Before joining KQED, Marisa worked  at the San Francisco Examiner and Los Angeles Times, and, most recently, for nine years at the San Francisco Chronicle where she covered San Francisco City Hall and state politics, focusing on the California legislature, governor, budget and criminal justice. In 2011, she won a special award for extensive and excellent work in covering California justice issues from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and also helped lead the Chronicle’s award-winning breaking news coverage of the 2010 San Bruno Pacific Gas & Electric explosion. She has also been awarded a number of fellowships from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

Marisa has a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She and lives in San Francisco with her two sons and husband. Email: mlagos@kqed.org Twitter @mlagos Facebook facebook.com/marisalagosnews


Alex Emslie

Alex Emslie is a criminal justice reporter at KQED. He covers policing policy, crime and the courts.

He left Colorado and a career as a carpenter in 2008 to study journalism at City College of San Francisco. He then graduated from San Francisco State University’s journalism program with a minor in criminal justice studies. Prior to joining KQED in 2013, Alex freelanced for various news outlets including the Huffington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and Bay Guardian.

Alex is proud of his work at KQED on a spike in fatal officer-involved shootings in Vallejo, which uncovered that a single officer shot and killed three suspects over the course of five months. Alex’s work with a team at KQED on police encounters with people in psychiatric crisis was cited in amicus briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court. He received the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists Best Scoop award in 2015 for exposing a series of bigoted text messages swapped by San Francisco police officers. He was honored with 2010 San Francisco Peninsula Press Club and California Newspaper Publishers Association awards for breaking news reporting on the trial following the shooting of Oscar Grant. Email: aemslie@kqed.org. Twitter: @SFNewsReporter.