San Francisco artist Sylvester Guard paints a trashcan near O’Farrell and Hyde streets in the Tenderloin in 2017 (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

SF artist who punched older neighbor to death claims self-defense

Sylvester Guard had lost his keys. So the 38-year-old artist known for painting trash cans in the Tenderloin rang the doorbell at the residential hotel where he lived and waited for a neighbor to answer.

Instead, 66-year-old James Montgomery appeared and flipped him the bird. Montgomery, who was known for having a temper when he drank, looked wobbly as he walked away from the door before returning minutes later to open it.

Guard quickly took control of the fistfight that ensued Sept. 2 at the residential hotel in the Tenderloin, according to Assistant District Attorney Michael Swart. He delivered a final blow to the neck that knocked Montgomery to the ground.

“Death came quick to this elderly man as he died as a result of a tear of his vertebral artery that leads from his neck to his brain,” Swart later wrote in a court filing. “Although defendant attempted to render aid to the victim it was futile.”

Guard has since been charged with felony voluntary manslaughter, assault and elder abuse in connection with the death of Montgomery at the residential hotel on O’Farrell Street between Hyde and Larkin streets.

Swart cited these alleged details and surveillance footage of the fight in a motion to detain Guard without bail. A judge ruled against that motion earlier this month, releasing Guard from jail pending trial on home detention, among other conditions.

Deputy Public Defender Abigail Rivamonte argues that Guard acted in self-defense after Montgomery threw the first punch. She hopes that the District Attorney’s Office will reduce the charges to misdemeanors.

“This is so out of character,” Rivamonte said of Guard. “The one thing that gave him a lot of comfort and just happiness in life is art. He can’t do that, he can’t be out on the street all day because he’s on home detention.”

Rivamonte said Guard is a community organizer who has mentored youth. He has had the support of groups like the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in court.

The San Francisco Examiner first wrote about Guard late last year when he painted trash cans for the THC as part of an effort to beautify the neighborhood.

“It brings a little bit more positivity to the Tenderloin,” Guard told the Examiner at the time. “It makes it look like more than poverty. We have artists here. We have a culture here. And we have people that can do art and do creative things.”

Rivamonte said Guard suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of growing up homeless in San Francisco. She said those experiences help explain why he engaged in the fight.

“You have a person who has spent decades in the streets,” Rivamonte said. “As a youth having to fend for himself and having to have that fight or flight response, it’s hard.”

Guard is likely charged because he is accused of continuing to attack after gaining control of Montgomery in the fight.

As Swart said in court records, Montgomery “at this point is defenseless yet defendant continues to deliver numerous blows to the victim about the head and neck while victim attempts to protect himself.”

“Eventually, the defendant then delivers a series of blow with a final blow to the neck area that results in the victim collapsing to the floor,” Swart said.

Swart said Guard later told police that “he just snapped, that he lost it and that he blacked out and that he suffers from PTSD.”

Guard also told police that Montgomery hit him first and with the cane that he used to walk, according to Swart.

Rivamonte said the doorway where the fight happened is a daily reminder of the incident for Guard.

“It’s very traumatic,” Rivamonte said. “Where it happened is his home.”

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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