Judge Christine Van Aken addresses Austin James Vincent, a suspect in an attack outside a condo building near the Embarcadero, and his attorney, Saleem Belbahri, at the Hall of Justice on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Judge decides to hold Embarcadero attack suspect in jail

Facing new charges, man at center of controversy will not be released ahead of trial

The San Francisco Superior Court judge who came under fire for releasing a man charged in a widely publicized attack near the Embarcadero has had a change of heart.

Judge Christine Van Aken decided Tuesday that Austin James Vincent would be held in custody pending trial after prosecutors filed new charges against him.

Vincent, a 25-year-old homeless man, is said to have been suffering a mental health crisis when he allegedly grabbed a woman outside her Embarcadero condo building Aug. 11.

Van Aken initially released Vincent from County Jail against the request of the District Attorney’s Office last Tuesday b ecause he had no criminal convictions in San Francisco.

But after a widely shared video of the attack surfaced and outrage mounted over her decision, she ordered Vincent to be placed on GPS monitoring Friday.

Van Aken said his concerns about public safety grew when police obtained a warrant for Vincent’s arrest Friday night in connection with a February assault in the South of the Market.

Vincent surrendered to authorities Monday morning at the Hall of Justice.

On Tuesday, Van Aken said she was too concerned about public safety to release Vincent again after learning that the new allegations involved criminal threats and a knife.

“I take this very seriously,” Van Aken said.

Vincent shook his head in court as the judge decided to hold him in custody.

His attorney, Saleem Belbahri, had argued that Vincent should be let out because he was a “model client” in the treatment program Van Aken initially released him into.

“He’s been open to getting treatment,” Belbahri told the judge.

Belbahri told reporters outside the courtroom that he was disappointed in the decision.

“He was getting the help that he needed,” Belbahri said. “He was having the root causes of his issues being addressed and now he’s in jail where he’s not going to get help with those issues”

District Attorney Assistant Edward Chang had argued for Vincent’s detention.

The allegations

Court records filed by the District Attorney’s Office allege that Vincent swiped and jabbed at the first assault victim with a knife as she waited for an Uber with her friends on Feb. 4.

The confrontation started when Vincent allegedly approached the woman and her friends outside a restaurant and spoke “incoherently,” prosecutors said in court records.

Vincent allegedly pulled out the knife after a group of men told him to leave them alone.

“I’m going to f— kill you,” Vincent allegedly told the woman with the knife raised over his head.

The woman used her purse to defend herself and was not cut. She ran across the street with her friends and left in the Uber.

The case was not charged until the woman saw a mugshot of Vincent in the news and contacted the police.

In the more recent attack, court records show that Vincent allegedly told the victim that the front desk woman at the Watermark condo building was “a robot.”

The victim, Paneez Kosarian, was trying to get inside the building at 501 Beale St. when the suspect confronted her at around 1:50 a.m.

Vincent then allegedly demanded that the victim hand him her phone and wallet.

Video of the attack shows the suspect grabbing her as she tried to push past him into the lobby. She is drawn to the ground but eventually gets in with the help of the front desk woman.

Vincent has pleaded not guilty to various charges stemming from both incidents including assault with a deadly weapon and criminal threats.

He is next scheduled to appear in court Sept. 3.

The fallout

Vincent’s case has made headlines because the Embarcadero attack occurred next door to where city officials are building a homeless shelter.

Neighbors who oppose the shelter immediately used the video to call for construction to be halted and the victim, Kosarian, has since joined their calls.

“It’s a drug problem, Kosarian told reporters Sunday. “This is mental illness and you’re putting them right next to our house. How can you put us in danger?”

The group Safe Embarcadero for All has also claimed that the attack is part of a growing problem of increasing crime in the neighborhood. But recent crime statistics suggest otherwise.

Mayor London Breed has not backed down on her plans to build the shelter, and homeless advocates question how the shelter could be blamed for an attack whens it has not opened. 

“There are horrific assaults that happen every day, perpetrated by folks whose housing status is never mentioned,” Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said on Twitter.

News that Van Aken, the judge, had initially released Vincent, upset the rank-and-file police union. The San Francisco Police Officers Association issued a statement calling for her demotion to Traffic Court.

“Van Aken should not be allowed to preside over any criminal cases,” said Tony Montoya, president of SFPOA . “She may have been a reasonably competent civil attorney, but she’s a catastrophe of a criminal judge.”

Unlike Van Aken, the District Attorney’s Office has largely not been blamed for the release. Yet court transcripts obtained by KPIX may raise eyebrows.

The transcripts show that Chang, the prosecutor, did not articulate the evidence included in the police report or video of the Embarcadero assault to Van Aken when she decided to release Vincent last Tuesday.

“You can present the evidence in a way that’s more persuasive,” said Nancy Tung, a prosecutor who is running for district attorney.

Van Aken did, however, have a copy of the police report, and Chang told her that Vincent had a criminal history from New York including a petty theft and a misdemeanor conviction for menacing with a weapon.

“I’m not discounting the fact that defendant might be might have been at a point of crisis, but there is enough evidence to show that he’s a public safety risk,” Chang said at the initial hearing, according to the transcripts.

Tung was at the most recent hearing to see whether Van Aken would decide to release Vincent again.

“She should have detained him in the first place,” Tung said. “This was her opportunity to right that wrong and she made the right decision this time.”

This story has been updated to include additional information.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com å

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