Koko Griffin, left, and Jonathan Taliaou sit for a photo with a placard of their brother and friend, Taiepisi Gutu, at Yerba Buena Gardens on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. Gutu was shot and killed on March 25, which happened to be his 19th birthday, at the CitiCenter building on 13th Street. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A student started a new job on his 19th birthday. Then his coworker allegedly killed him

Family demands to know why Taie Gutu wasn’t safe at work

March 25 should have been a special day for Taie Gutu. Early that morning, his grandfather dropped him off at his first day of work at a job training program for low-income students and handed him a birthday card with money in it.

Now 19, Gutu was excited to put a recent misstep with the law behind him and start working with the San Francisco Conservation Corps. A musician and singer, he also wanted to keep writing songs for his band.

But that afternoon, Gutu was standing in the lobby of his new workplace when a coworker allegedly walked into the building and shot him from behind. His sisters were out buying him a birthday cake when they heard the news.

“We didn’t say ‘happy birthday’ to him,” said his sister, Koko Griffin, 20. “We were going to say it to him to his face and give him a hug, but we never got to say it to him. But I know he knows that we all love him.”

Gutu was taken to the hospital where he died two days later. His alleged killer, 20-year-old Hakim Price Oden, drove away from the scene and was arrested early on the morning of March 26 after being shot in an apparent gun battle with law enforcement in Southern California.

Gutu’s family and friends believe they know why he was killed. But they want to know why he wasn’t safe in his workplace.

Gutu was a student at a continuation school called Downtown High School. His family said he may have been killed in retaliation for a recent fight with another student on campus who was from a housing project in Potrero Hill. Gutu was raised by his grandparents in a Hunters Point housing project.

Those close to Gutu said Downtown High School referred him to SFCC for job training alongside students from housing projects across The City. The organization is a city-funded nonprofit program that pays low-income students to sort through recycling and learn skills such as carpentry.

The family wants to know whether SFCC or the San Francisco Unified School District take precautions to protect students who may have potentially violent conflicts with kids from other neighborhoods. Relatives believe Oden was close friends with the student from Potrero Hill who Gutu got into a fight with.

The family is also concerned about the level of security in the building that houses not only the SFCC but also a parole office for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The building, called CitiCenter, is located at 13th and Mission streets.

“He wasn’t safe at the end of the day,” said 22-year-old Jonathan Taliaoa, a close friend and bandmate of Gutu’s. “Something like this should not be happening at all. He still should be here.”

The SFCC did not respond to requests for comment and a spokesperson for the SFUSD, which runs Downtown High School, did not answer questions about this story by press time.

Gutu was the eighth homicide victim of the year in San Francisco. His death comes at a time of relative peace in The City, when more people are dying in traffic collisions than by homicide. As of Tuesday, there had been 10 homicides in 2019 compared with 11 fatal traffic collisions.

But Gutu’s death devastated the tight-knit Samoan community in San Francisco, which has lost three men to gun violence in the last two years, including him.

Last August, anti-violence worker Joseph “Jungle” Taeotui was shot outside his house in the Bayview. In 2017, Mike Lefiti was among the victims of the workplace shooting at the UPS facility in Potrero Hill. Gutu’s family said all three men knew each other, especially Lefiti and Taeotui.

Taliaoa said his friend’s killing “was a big dent to the community.”

“This should be the last time,” Taliaoa said. “We want justice for his name and for the Samoan community.”

Gutu was raised by his grandparents in Hunters Point. Growing up on the southeast side of San Francisco, he went to Malcolm X Academy Elementary School and to KIPP Bayview Academy for middle school.

His family said he would horse around but never got into too much trouble as a child. Back then, Griffin said she and her brother were “like twins.”

“Our grandparents would always yell at us because we played too much,” Griffin said.

In his teenage years, Gutu attended three different high schools. He started at Balboa High School before transferring to Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, where he studied music at the prestigious public school. He eventually ended up at Downtown High School, where he planned to get his diploma.

“He became more mature,” Griffin said. “And I think his faith also strengthened growing up, which for others I would say their faith would also diminish going through what we’ve gone through.”

Every Sunday, Gutu played in the Bread of Life Church band. He was not only a singer but played the guitar, bass, drums, piano and ukelele. He was also the lead singer of a group called Taleni, which means “talent” in Samoan.

Taliaoa played in Taleni with Gutu. He has been listening to their music differently since Gutu died.

“When I listen to Taie, I just see his potential and all the great things he was supposed to do with his life,” Taliaoa said.

Gutu planned to study music and psychology at City College of San Francisco after graduating from Downtown High School. His family said he had already been accepted and wanted to become a music therapist.

“It wasn’t just about being a therapist,” Taliaoa said. “It was him trying to touch somebody through his words.

Gutu had just recently been released from jail under supervision when he was shot. In February, he was arrested and charged in connection with a violent robbery a month prior at a bakery in the Excelsior.

Gutu and his cousin, who was also arrested but has not been identified because he is a teenager, allegedly robbed the owner of the Good Orchard Bakery and broke his hand as he returned to the store from a nearby bank.

The robbery made headlines because police took four hours to respond.

Gese Siaki, another cousin of Gutu’s, said Gutu felt remorse about the robbery. The victim was an older man.

“We were so embarrassed,” Siaki said. “We don’t do stuff like that. We have such a reverence for older people. We’re so sorry that happened.”

Siaki said this was Gutu’s first serious interaction with the law.

Oden, his alleged killer, remains in Southern California.

On March 26 at around 2:45 a.m., California Highway Patrol officers found Oden’s unoccupied car on the side of a highway near the town of Blythe near the Arizona state line.

Oden allegedly ran when officers spotted him attempting to wave down passing vehicles nearby.

At some point Oden appears to have exchanged gunfire with officers, as he has been charged with two counts of attempted murder on a peace officer in Riverside County with additional allegations of shooting at them.

Oden was shot in the altercation and temporarily hospitalized before being transferred to the Indio Jail, where jail records show he is still being held without bail.

Private defense attorney Virginia Blumenthal is representing him.

Blumenthal said Oden has pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder charges, but she could not comment directly on the allegations as the defense had received “minimal” information from prosecutors.

“We’re at the very beginning,” Blumenthal said. “We just have so little.”

Oden is also expected to face a murder charge in San Francisco.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

 

Taiepisi Gutu and his sister, Koko Griffin, sit in a carnival ride in an undated photo. (Courtesy Koko Griffin)

Family members mourned Gutu at a vigil following his death. (Courtesy Amanda Palega)

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