(Courtesy Michelle Saremi)

Killing of beloved transit activist linked to rise in gang violence

The killing of a well-known transit advocate who was struck by a stray bullet minutes after tweeting a picture of a burrito at Dolores Park appears to have been connected to an uptick in gang violence across San Francisco.

While the investigation into the death of 22-year-old Courtney Brousseau is ongoing, an official with the Mayor’s Office linked the May 1 shooting to a practice that he said is known on the streets as “phone pimping.”

“They made a phone call and some individuals drove through there trying to target that one individual,” said James Caldwell, chief officer on criminal justice and public safety for the mayor. “Innocent bystanders got hit.”

Caldwell was speaking at a virtual community meeting Wednesday called by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman to address the high-profile shooting, which prompted outrage from within the transit community and beyond.

The news site Mission Local first reported on the meeting.

Brousseau was injured when 50 to 60 shots rang out at 14th and Guerrero streets near the Valencia Gardens public housing development at around 8:30 p.m. on May 1. He was taken to the hospital and died days later.

Thirteen minutes before the gunfire, Brousseau sent his last tweet.

“I just ate a delicious burrito in Dolores park and for a brief moment everything felt okay,” wrote Brousseau, a Twitter employee who co-founded a meetup for queer transit activists.

While Caldwell described the shooting as an “isolated situation,” he also said the incident was the result of violence that “spilled over” into the Mission from other areas in San Francisco and elsewhere in the Bay Area.

“We are having like a season,” Caldwell said, referring to a spate of shootings in recent months that have involved high-powered rifles and dozens of rounds fired. “It’s just not something typical that happens on a normal basis.”

Police Chief Bill Scott first shed light on the rise in gang violence at the Police Commission last Wednesday, when he said two dramatic shootings in Double Rock and Ingleside were believed to be connected.

While no one was injured, multiple shooters unloaded some 80 to 100 rounds near the Alice Griffith housing projects on April 29, according to police. Then a bystander was injured in a hail of more than 40 bullets near Ocean Avenue and Jules Street on May 12.

Scott also revealed last week that the San Francisco Police Department was working with law enforcement agencies from other counties to clamp down on the violence.

On Tuesday, the SFPD arrested executed search warrants in seven Northern California cities and arrested five suspects in connection with various shootings in San Francisco, including the one along Ocean Avenue.

The other two shootings happened in broad daylight near the Sunnydale housing projects on March 14 and April 29. Police recovered more than 30 spent shell casings in the first case and over 50 in the second. The April 29 shooting also injured a 50-year-old man.

Police identified the suspects as Joaquin Powell-Smith, 19, of Pittsburg, Dominic Logan, 25, of San Jose, Reco Maximo, 21, of Sacramento, Khejon Nelson, 22, of Concord and Rasace Fiapoto, 22, of Concord.

All are being charged with attempted murder, according to a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office.

While police also booked all five on suspicion of participating in a criminal street gang, the office does not plan on filing gang enhancements against the men, according to spokesperson Alex Bastian.

District Attorney Chesa Boudin has argued that gang enhancements, which can add years to a sentence, are disproportionately applied to black and brown defendants. He pledged to end them during his campaign.

But Bastian said the office would ask a judge to hold all of the suspects in custody without bail pending trial.

Police have declined to name the gangs involved or say whether the Brousseau shooting is believed to be directly connected to other specific cases.

At the meeting Wednesday, Mission Station Capt. Gaetano Caltagirone acknowledged that a “citywide issue” is occurring and said the Gang Task Force and Homicide Unit are working closely to investigate the Brousseau case.

No arrests have been made in connection with the homicide thus far.

“They are really working hard and I am sure that we will be hearing soon about some events that are occuring and will be proceeding,” Caltagirone said.

On Facebook, Mandelman called on police to solve the case.

“We must bring those responsible for Courtney’s murder to justice and help prevent incidents like this from claiming any more lives,” he wrote.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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