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Federal agent describes car break-in that led to the killing of Kate Steinle with stolen duty weapon

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Bureau of Land Management Ranger John Woychowski is surrounded by sheriff’s deputies as he enters the courtroom during the fourth day of trial in the case against Jose Ines Garcia Zarate for the 2015 killing of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco, Calif. Thursday, October 26, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

The federal ranger whose stolen weapon was used to shoot a woman in San Francisco triggered a chain of events that led to the killing, a defense attorney for the undocumented immigrant charged with the crime argued Thursday.

John Woychowski, a Bureau of Land Management ranger stationed near the border of the U.S. and Mexico, set in motion one of the most controversial killings in San Francisco in recent history, according to defense attorney Matt Gonzalez, when he parked his luxury sports utility vehicle along The Embarcadero the night of June 27, 2015.

Woychowski testified Thursday that he and his family had stopped in San Francisco on a trip up the California coast when someone busted into two rear windows of his car, stealing a fully loaded handgun he stashed in a backpack underneath the driver’s seat.

“My fiance yelled out, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this,’” Woychowski said in court, describing the moment he realized his car was burglarized. “I saw the back seat on the passenger’s side was smashed out.”

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Four days later, prosecutors say an undocumented immigrant named Jose Ines Garcia Zarate fired the stolen handgun on Pier 14. The bullet ricocheted off the ground and struck 32-year-old Kate Steinle in the lower back, sparking a national debate on immigration.

“Whether or not somebody bears some responsibility is different than whether or not somebody bears criminal responsibility,” Gonzalez told reporters. “There’s no question that he acted negligently and he triggered a course of events that led to the death of Kate Steinle.”

Word of the killing spread all the way to President Donald Trump, who used Steinle’s death to paint undocumented Mexican immigrants as criminals during his presidential campaign.

The testimony of Woychowski on Thursday offered new details into the auto burglary that defense attorneys say started it all.

Two federal attorneys appeared in court to support Woychowski and deputies hid him from the media when he exited the courtroom.

“I’ve never seen a witness this protected,” Gonzalez told reporters outside the courtroom.

The testimony also led to the most fiery round of questioning in the trial so far, with prosecutor Diana Garcia objecting to nearly every question that the defense asked Woychowski.

Police never solved the auto burglary. But the Bureau of Land Management investigated whether Woychowski violated internal policy and determined that he would not face discipline, according to Gonzalez.

“‘A law enforcement officer is responsible for ensuring that firearms are secured at all times,’” Gonzalez told Woychowski, reading the conclusion of the BLM investigation. “Is it safety conscious to leave a loaded firearm unsecured within your personal vehicle?”

Garcia objected.

Questioning and testimony revealed that Woychowski parked his 2015 Buick Enclave across the street from Pier 5 the night of the auto burglary to grab dinner with his fiance and three children.

The family had traveled up U.S. Highway 101 on the way to a 14-day work detail in Helena, Mont. But Woychowski said he was not on duty the day of the auto burglary, a Saturday.

Woychowski said he placed a black backpack with the semi-automatic Sig Sauer P239 inside under the driver’s seat. The gun was in a holster and zipped into an inside pocket. The backpack also contained his federal law enforcement badge and credentials.

The federal ranger said he spoke with a person who appeared to be a security guard before leaving his car for about an hour and a half. The back windows were tinted and the car had an alarm.

“It appeared to be at the time the safest location,” Woychowski said. “It was well lit.”

But when he returned just before 11 p.m., the car had been burglarized and the backpack was missing.

Woychowski said he immediately reported the crime to 911 and his superiors in the Bureau of Land Management.

The gun was loaded with a full magazine and an additional round in the chamber. Another magazine was also inside the backpack.

Though the bureau issued Woychowski a gun safety device that prevents it from being discharged, the ranger had not secured the weapon.

Woychowski later told BLM, “I really don’t know in my mind why I left it like that,” according to Gonzalez.

“At the time, I didn’t really have an answer cause, to clarify, when I said it’s something I don’t ever do, it’s in regards to leaving my firearm,” Woychowski said in court. “I normally carry it with me, however I’m not required to.”

Woychowski is unfamiliar with San Francisco. The law enforcement ranger patrols 1.4 million acres of public land from the BLM El Centro Field Office. The office is southeast of San Diego near the U.S. border with Mexicali.

San Francisco has struggled in recent years with rampant car break-ins, particularly in tourist areas including the Embarcadero.

GUNSHOT RESIDUE
The police officer who tested Garcia Zarate’s hands for gunshot residue after police arrested him also testified in court Thursday.

Andrew Clifford, an officer at Tenderloin Station, said in court that he took the samples within an hour of the arrest.

The samples resulted in the San Francisco Police Department crime lab finding just one gunshot residue particle.

Gonzalez argued that the particle could have transferred from the back of the police car Garcia Zarate sat in or from one of the arresting officers.

Linda Abuan, a gunshot residue expert who tested the samples that Clifford recovered, said in court that the crime lab does not consider the amount of particles.

“Whether we find one particle, or five particles or 10 particles, it’s still considered a positive result,” Abuan said.

Gonzalez also argued that the single particle supports his theory that the shooting was accidental. Gonzalez claims that the weapon was wrapped in clothing when it went off on the pier.

The trial is scheduled to resume Monday morning with more witness testimony.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional information.

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