Let’s say this now, with finality: Alejandro Nieto did not deserve to die.
Nieto, a San Francisco native, died in a hail of 59 bullets fired from San Francisco Police Department guns two years ago.
A jury trial ended last week, finding the officers acted within conduct — legally backing their claim they believed Nieto had a gun and that they had no choice but to fire.
Now, Roger Morse, one of the officers who shot at Nieto that day, allegedly penned a Facebook comment enraging Nieto’s loved ones.
“Smiling. Ugh how about burning down his house and tazing his friend who pressed charges,” Morse allegedly wrote on Facebook as a comment to a news story about Nieto, which showed him smiling wide. The post was captured in a screenshot.
On Facebook, Nieto’s supporters took it as a threat, but others quickly realized Morse has awful grammar. He was seemingly lamenting how little attention was given to this 2011 incident, described in a memo from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office:
“Mr. Nieto’s parents told the officers their son hears voices, suffers from depression, was supposed to be on the medication Abilify but had not taken it. Mr. Nieto set a book on fire in the kitchen and ran with the burning book into the living room where he threw it on the ground and threw himself on top of it.”
Nieto mixed the book’s ashes with soap, placed them on the floor, and ate them off the ground, according to the memo.
I contacted Morse, but did not hear back.
Morse’s alleged post raises an uncomfortable question: If Nieto’s past shows he’s quick to anger, or struggled with mental health, would this lend credit to the story that he pulled his Taser on the police?
Drawing a weapon on cops defies common sense. But if Nieto were not in his right mind, as his critics allege, perhaps that explains the action.
There are two ways to consider this:
One is legal, a matter already settled. Judge Nathanael Cousins denied the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office from using Nieto’s prior mental health issues, brushes with police and even a prior restraining order from being presented to the jury during trial.
The other is by public trust. Should Nieto’s past encourage the public to believe the police side of the story?
It’s a thought I’ve wrestled with myself, because as a teenager I knew Alé.
We both attended Raoul Wallenberg Traditional High School in the early 2000s. And I remember his temper keenly. Frankly, he bullied me.
Wallenberg is a small school on a hill behind the Geary mall, and to head home I’d mosey down to the 43-Masonic stop on Geary and Masonic. Lucky Penny served greasy food across the street, and a cacophony of cars oft-streamed by the lonely stop.
One day, I sat there listening to a CD — probably something awful and timely like A Perfect Circle — and Alé approached me with two guys flanking him.
I remember little, but I remember this: They surrounded me. I noticed how I was so much shorter than Alé I was. I looked up at his wispy, unformed mustache, and he grabbed me by my collar. Through clenched teeth, he threatened me.
His knuckles pressed into my skin. I remember my adrenaline pumping to fuel a fight, but the three larger teenagers held me still.
In the end, all they did was take my Discman. But Alé punked me often. After he died I wondered: Was he just as angry the day he was shot?
“He was this knucklehead kid,” Jose Luis Pavon told me. Pavon, now 37, was an 18-year-old working with Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth when he mentored Alé.
Pavon said Alé fared better than most. “He wasn’t blinged out, running gang colors,” he said. “He had friends like that. He could’ve went down that road.”
Alé grew up on Cortland Avenue at Bernal Hill. Nowadays, that spot is what the kids in my day would call “bougie” (slang for bourgeois). But back then, Cortland was rough.
Just walking to school “was a gauntlet, It could be dangerous,” Pavon said. To survive, kids would emulate the feel of the hood, even if they weren’t in gangs themselves.
A retired Wallenberg high school administrator told me he remembers Nieto taking a beating in Bernal Heights from a fellow Wallenberg student. Nieto brought a complaint against him, but the administrator said he “created his own problem.”
This was not the only dispute Nieto had with other students, the administrator said. Pavon offered a counterpoint, saying the school frequently targeted Alé.
When Alé died, some mutual high school friends told me they remembered him as that “knucklehead,” but later on he changed. That’s what Alé’s friend, Ely Flores, told me too.
The two met when they studied Buddhism together. They were the lone latinos at the Soka Gakkai International group, which calls itself “Buddhism in Action for Peace.”
“As a little brother, he told me the ropes on how I could change my life so it wouldn’t be as screwed up as his, you know,” Flores said.
Flores, 21, said it was regular practice for those of their faith to write letters to the president of the organization, and Alé wrote about the gangs he grew up around.
Alé prayed every day, Flores said.
When Flores first saw Morse’s Facebook post about Alé, he said he was “mad, I was furious.” But “I took a day to reflect on what he said. … I forgive him for being ignorant.”
Pavon told me in his line of work — violence prevention — forgiveness is key. Even the worst of us can change, and giving them that chance is what he did, every day.
“I had to work with people who pulled a knife out on me when we were 12,” he told me. “Now we work together, and we’re friends.”
One of the most tragic things about Alé’s death, Pavon said, was “He was one of the kids I felt I wouldn’t need to worry about anymore.”
I’m still not sure what Alé’s past says about his killing, if it says anything at all. But Pavon points to a cutting truth.
No matter his past sins, no matter how he redeemed his future, Alejandro Nieto is still dead.