San Francisco police officer Ken Katz had finished his shift at 6:40 p.m. on Jan. 19, 1979, and was on his way home after completing his off-duty assignment: buying the ingredients for his wife’s banana daiquiris.
“I took the bananas and got into my car and started driving home,” Katz said. “In about a block, I saw people on the sidewalk waving at me. I noticed a man lying on the ground and a man standing over him with a weapon.”
Katz had stumbled upon a scene out of Dante’s “Inferno.” It was the wrath of a madman, seeking revenge for an unforgivable crime. The man with the gun was 76-year-old Thomas Hufnagel, caretaker of the building on Kirkham Street near Sixth Avenue. The victim was Joel Blackman, a tenant in the building. The crime was careless parking.
In the next five minutes, Hufnagel would shoot three other people, killing one of them.
For nine years, Hufnagel and his wife had lived in the apartment. A retired railroad worker, Hufnagel took his job as caretaker of the building very seriously. He was a meticulous man, neat and helpful, but he had a darker side.
“Never argue with him,” his wife told a neighbor. “If he says black is white, go along with him.”
Hufnagel was friendly with all his neighbors in the building, except Blackman. He liked the Henrys, an elderly couple on the first floor, and Mark Johnson, a young man on the third floor. Blackman, a brash young lawyer, and his partner Mimi Rosenblatt, lived in the other first-floor apartment.
Blackman and Rosenblatt had one of the four small garages on the first floor, but they had two cars. So Blackman often left their second car, which leaked oil, on the sidewalk in front of their driveway. Hufnagel told Blackman not to park on the sidewalk, but Blackman ignored him. When Hufnagel complained to the property manager, she sided with Blackman. Over time, the situation gnawed away at Hufnagel, and he spoke bitterly about Blackman to his neighbors.
Hufnagel, who was also caring for his invalid wife, also began drinking heavily. He told Blackman, “If you drip oil one more time, I’ll kill you.”
On that fateful January day, as Blackman and Rosenblatt walked toward their car in the driveway, Hufnagel approached, pulled out a shotgun and shot Blackman. Rosenblatt ran into the Henry’s apartment while Hufnagel stood over Blackman, ready to deliver the coup de grace.
“I stopped my car, threw open the door and approached,” Katz recalled. “On the way, I pulled out my off-duty weapon, a five-shot Colt. Hufnagel saw me and ran back into the house.”
By this time, Hufnagel, having lost any sense of reason, was in a state of blind fury. As he came into the building, he shot Rosenblatt and Katherine Henry and ran upstairs to his own apartment.
“I bent over Blackman and saw that he had been shot in the eye,” Katz said. “As I was dragging Blackman to safety, I heard a shot. Hufnagel was shooting at me from the second floor. I squeezed off two shots with my left hand, and he retreated. I pulled Blackman into the vestibule of the building.“
Katz entered the building, went into the Henry apartment and found Rosenblatt and Katherine Henry, both shot in the stomach.
Johnson, who had been celebrating his 24th birthday with his mother, heard the shots. He looked out the window, saw Joel Blackman lying on the ground and went downstairs to help.
Having called the police, Katz cautiously looked up the stairs toward Hufnagel’s apartment. He saw Johnson, with a shotgun hole in his stomach, staggering down the stairs.
“Am I going to die?” Johnson asked.
“No, you’ll be fine,” said Katz, reassuringly.
A few seconds later, Johnson died and collapsed onto the first-floor landing.
By 7:02 p.m., police and emergency workers started arriving. Joe Parker, a paramedic and Vietnam combat veteran, was one of the first to arrive, dodging bullets from Hufnagel on the second floor. Parker and Katz grabbed a vanity mirror from the bathroom and set it up at the bottom of the stairs so they could see Hufnagel if he came down the stairs.
Hufnagel fired sporadically from the bay window of his second-floor apartment, and police returned fire from across the street. It was too dangerous to take the wounded out through the front door, so the police broke out a side window and the victims were removed on stretchers through the window.
By 8:30 p.m., Katz, covered in Johnson’s blood, was feeling woozy. A paramedic took his blood pressure and found it dangerously high. Katz was taken out the window and into an ambulance toward the St. Francis hotel. As they approached the hospital, Katz heard the paramedic on the phone.
“I’ve got a 31-year-old male with 220/120 blood pressure and rising. I think he may stroke out on us.”
At the hospital, Katz received Compazine and his blood pressure lowered to safe levels.
Back at the crime scene, police were weighing their options. Mrs. Hufnagel, who was unharmed, had been taken to the hospital, but police didn’t know if anyone else was in the apartment. They considered using tear gas, but the danger of starting a fire was too great.
By 10:30 p.m., there had been no movement in the apartment for more than 20 minutes. Police entered cautiously and found Hufnagel dead on the sofa from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Two people had been killed, and three seriously wounded. Blackman survived, but with permanent damage.
Against doctor’s orders, Katz returned to the scene to speak to the homicide detectives. He arrived as police were carrying Hufnagel down the stairs in a body bag.
“I ran up and zipped down the body bag so I could see him,” Katz said. “I wanted to punch him in the face. That’s how hyped up I was”
Katz later received the Gold Medal of Valor, the department’s highest award, from Chief Charles Gain. But the episode left a permanent mark on Katz. He returned to work a few days later, but suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition largely undiagnosed in those days. A few months later, he retired from the force.
In December 2016, Ken Katz returned to the house on Kirkham Street where the shooting occurred. The large white building on the corner looked the same as it did in 1979. As he stood in the foyer, trying to picture the events of that day, a man came out of one of the apartments and asked, with eyes narrowed, what Ken was doing there. When Katz explained, the man’s expression changed immediately.
“I’ve lived in Hufnagel’s apartment for the last 37 years!” he exclaimed. “I was the next tenant. Do you want to see the apartment?”
Katz climbed up the stairs and entered the living room where Hufnagel had been found. The room had the old overhead light fixture, dark wood walls and plaster fireplace typical of apartments built in the 1930s. The room had not been changed since the shooting.
Katz walked to the bay window, from which Hufnagel had been shooting, and looked outside. There, two inches from the window sill, were two bullet holes. Looking at the angle and position of the bullet holes, it became clear that the bullets had been fired from only one place, the building entrance, and from only one gun — his own five-shot Colt. These were the bullets that had saved two lives.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.