BLM Ranger Tells Jury How His Gun Was Stolen Before Steinle Killing

Bureau of Land Management ranger John Woychowski (center) was named El Centro Field Office 'Ranger of the Year' in 2011. Salvador Nieblas (left) went on to become the chief BLM ranger for California. Margaret Gordo (right) was the chief BLM ranger for El Centro in 2011. (Bureau of Land Management California via Internet Archive)

Updated Thursday, 8:10 p.m.

The federal ranger whose stolen gun was used to kill Kathryn Steinle on San Francisco’s waterfront in 2015 testified Thursday that he was “confident” his gun was secure when he left it in a backpack in his locked car.

Appearing at the murder trial of Steinle’s accused killer, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, Bureau of Land Management Ranger John Woychowski confirmed details of a trip on June 27, 2015, that brought him over 600 miles north from his station at the BLM’s El Centro office to a parking space several blocks from the site of Steinle’s shooting four days later.

Woychowski said he was driving his personal vehicle and traveling with his family — his then-fiancee and three children, ages 5, 10 and 14. He said he was on his way to a two-week assignment in Helena, Montana, but started the trip on a day off and drove up the California coast on U.S. 101.

He said he decided to stop in San Francisco for dinner around 9:30 p.m. and parked on the west side of the Embarcadero across the street from Pier 5.

“It was well-lit, metered parking with other pedestrians in the area,” Woychowski testified. “I thought it would be pretty safe.”

He said he placed his Eddie Bauer backpack containing the gun and his law enforcement credentials behind the driver’s seat of his SUV, which automatically reclines when the vehicle is parked. Then he locked the SUV and headed to dinner.

When the group returned just before 11 p.m., Woychowski’s fiancee was the first to notice the break-in, he testified.

“My fiancee yells out, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this,’ ” Woychowski testified. “The back-seat passenger side window was smashed out.”

He said he called 911 and also reported the theft to his own agency. A BLM investigation found the way he transported and stored the gun did not violate the agency’s policy at the time, and he was not disciplined.

Woychowski was promoted to a supervisory position in December 2015, five months after Steinle’s death. The agency updated its rules in 2016 to require two-level locking of firearms in personal vehicles, according to internal polices provided to KQED by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.

The public defender’s chief attorney, Matt Gonzalez, represents Garcia Zarate, a Mexican citizen. Gonzalez is arguing that Garcia Zarate unintentionally fired Woychowski’s gun within seconds of finding it wrapped in cloth on Pier 14.

Gonzalez’s cross-examination of Woychowski was interrupted by repeated objections from the prosecution on the relevance of the questions. Most of the objections were sustained, meaning Woychowski did not answer.

Gonzalez referenced a BLM internal investigation memo written by a bureau special agent probing the loss of Woychowski’s gun. It appeared to find the ranger violated general rules for law enforcement rangers.

“‘A law enforcement officer is responsible for ensuring all authorized weapons are secure at all times,'” Gonzalez quoted from the memo. “Do you concede you should not have left this firearm in your vehicle in the way that you did?”

The prosecution successfully objected to the question and Woychowski was prohibited from answering.

Woychowski was directed to answer whether he told the BLM investigator that he typically kept the gun in the backpack with him for his family’s safety.

“Yes, typically, yes,” he said.

Gonzalez asked Woychowski about his familiarity with the safety manual issued with his semi-automatic Sig Sauer P239 handgun, and specifically its warning to keep the gun unloaded when transporting it.

Prosecutor Diana Garcia objected.

“He’s a law enforcement officer,” she said. “That doesn’t apply to him.”

Judge Samuel Feng overrulled the objection, and Woychowski said he didn’t remember reading that warning.

The ranger testified during Garcia’s questioning that he was required to keep the gun fully loaded with a round in the chamber. Gonzalez argued that rule shouldn’t apply when the ranger was off duty.

BLM Ranger Tells Jury How His Gun Was Stolen Before Steinle Killing 26 October,2017Alex Emslie

  • James Higginbotham

    this officer knowing he and his family were going to be eating should have PUT HIS BAG WITH THE GUN IN HIS TRUNK OF HIS CAR.
    SO HE IS PARTLY RESPONSIBLE I FEEL.

    • Mikey P

      It’s an SUV, so it has no trunk, but in general, I think you are correct in saying that he’s partially responsible. A reclined seat partially obscuring a backpack is not safely securing your weapon. Take it with you if you can’t put it somewhere that would take more than a window smash to grab it. Even when I’m travelling anywhere in the USA with a decent camera, even in the safest of areas, I decline any offers for a free upgrade to an SUV at the rental car counter because I know I won’t be able to properly secure my luggage. I request a car with a trunk and then the first thing I do is mechanically disable the interior lever release so that the trunk will then require the key or a crowbar to open it. The fact that this officer was subsequently promoted shows a real lack of criteria around accountability for stored firearms. If it was $100k, would he have felt comfortable leaving it in backpack in an SUV? Probably not.

      • James Higginbotham

        i didn’t know it was a SUV.
        then he SHOULD’VE TAKEN HIS FIREARM WITH HIM.
        i NEVER leave a firearm in my vehicle no matter where i travel, or money ext.
        what GOOD would a firearm do you if you NEEDED IT LOL.
        he is a DUMB ASS.

Author

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.

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