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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.