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Witness contradicts police version of Alex Nieto killing, says officers opened fire without cause

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Benjamin Bac Sierra and family members of Alex Nieto, who was killed by San Francisco police on March 21, 2014, hold a press conference in Bernal Hills Park following the release of a Medical Examiner’s report detailing Nieto’s cause of death on Sept. 11, 2014. (Mike Koozmin/2014 S.F. Examiner)

In an unprovoked shooting, police opened fired on Alex Nieto with little warning moments after they approached him in March 2014, according to testimony Thursday in a federal civil trial.

The testimony of shooting witness Antonio Theodore contradicts the version of events given by the four officers who fired their weapons that day and killed Nieto.

“They all started firing while [Nieto] was on the ground,” Theodore said in federal court. “It was unnecessary to shoot him up so much.”

Three of the four officers, who are defendants in the federal civil rights case, have testified that Nieto pulled what they thought was a gun and pointed it at them, prompting the officers to fire more than 50 rounds in order to protect themselves.

The involved officers — Jason Sawyer, Roger Morse, Richard Schiff and Nathan Chew — were responding to a call of a man on the hill with a pistol. The weapon turned out to be a stun gun.

“As soon as he went down and pulled the gun, that’s when I attempted to fire back,” Officer Schiff testified earlier this week. Schiff said he had no choice but to fire his pistol.

But in testimony Thursday, Nieto family lawyer Adante Pointer questioned Theodore, who saw a completely different version of events unfolded.

Theodore was jogging on March 21, 2014, when he saw several police cars enter Bernal Heights Park and drive a steep, dirt road. The first car up the road stopped about 150 feet away from Nieto, who was wearing a red jacket. Two officers exited their vehicles and pulled their weapons, according to Theodore.

Theodore said Nieto was walking calmly with his hands in his pockets when the officers yelled for him to stop. Then the two officers began shooting.

“One officer yelled ‘stop,’” Theodore testified. “After the ‘stop,’ [one of the officers] fired a first shot at the man in the red jacket. [The officer] then fired another shot. He fired a third shot. The person then fell on their knees. Then [the officer fired] a fourth shot, and he [Nieto] fell on his face.”

Moments later, Theodore said he saw more officers arrive. After a brief pause in shooting, the newly arrived police began to fire.

Theodore, who was shaken up after seeing the killing, said he then saw the police move in and cuff Nieto’s limp body.

“I felt really disturbed by the situation,” Theodore said. “After all of that, [they] still kind of roughed him up and handcuffed him. I don’t see the need for that.”

While the officers who have taken the stand said Nieto pulled a weapon and then pointed it at them, Theodore says he did not see anything like that unfold.

“When you saw Mr. Nieto go to the ground, did you see him point his pistol at cops?” Pointer asked.

“No,” Theodore replied.

“Did you see a red light pointed at the officers?” Pointer asked.

“No,” said Theodore, who added he never heard anyone yell, “Show me your hands,” as police previously testified.

Theodore also said he did not report what he saw to the the police out of fear.

“I just think it would be hard to go tell an officer that I just saw fellow officers shooting up somebody,” he said. “I didn’t trust to speak to the police about it.”

Some time after the March 2014 incident, an investigator with the City Attorney’s Office interviewed Theodore; he was eventually deposed by the District Attorney’s Office.

Theodore is scheduled for questioning by defense lawyers Friday morning in Judge Nathanael Cousins’ courtroom.

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