One Year After Alex Nieto’s Death, Bernal Family Is Transformed by Tragedy

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One year ago, on March 21, 2014, Bernal neighbor Alex Nieto was killed in an officer-involved shooting on Bernal Hill.

Several times during the last few months — and as recently as just last week — I have seen Alex’s parents, Elvira and Refugio Nieto, walking along the sidewalks not far from their home on Cortland. There’s nothing particularly unusual about the affect of Neighbor Alex’s parents as they walk the streets of Bernal Heights. Yet while opinions may differ on the sequence of events that transpired on the evening Alex died, there can be no doubt whatsoever about the anguish they feel after having lost their son — and that comes to the forefront for me every time I see them.

It is heartbreaking.

Mission Local captures the Nieto family’s new reality:

About to retire from her long career as a housekeeper in a downtown hotel, Bernal Heights resident Elvira Nieto looked forward to her retirement. She and her husband, Refugio, had plans to surprise their son with a trip to the town of Tarimoro, in Guanajuato, Mexico, their shared birthplace.

But then on the evening of March 21, 2014, that son, Alejandro “Alex” Nieto, died during an officer-involved shooting in Bernal Heights Park. Neighborhood and police versions of the story conflict radically, but what’s painfully clear is that the Nieto family’s course has changed drastically.

Rather than ease into retirement, Elvira and Refugio Nieto have a new job—they’ve become full-time activists against police violence. Today marks the one-year anniversary of their son’s death and, for them, the work is far from over.

“[Alex] would ask me, ‘What are your plans for when you retire?’ I told him the only plan is to rest, but instead this happened,” said Elvira Nieto this week. “It’s all that we’ve done. I never imagined that this is what we’d be doing.”

There is a crowdfunding effort underway by Neighbor Alex’s family and friends to support the Alex Nieto Memorial Fund and create a memorial bench for him on Bernal Hill.

IMAGE: Top, Video still of Bernal neighbors Elvira and Refugio Nieto, parents of Alex Nieto, on Bernal Hill, December 16, 2014

KQED: Lama Family Feud Lies at Heart of Big Bocana Rent Increase

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Veteran reporter Dan Brekke knows how to do the legwork required to crack a story open. These days he works for KQED, where he just published a remarkably detailed report on the Lama family dispute that lies at the heart of the now-infamous 355 Bocana rent-increase controversy.

Brekke’s reporting largely confirms rumors that have been rippling through Bernal Heights for the last few days, to the effect that as a result of the family feud, Bernal neighbor and 355 Bocana property owner Nadia Lama hoped to evict Neigbor Deb Follingstad, because Neighbor Nadia herself needs a place to live.

Brekke reports:

Superior Court filings show that Nina Gelfant and Gayle Worrell alleged they were forced from their one-bedroom, one-bathroom, 720-square-foot Cortland Avenue apartment [in 2013] after the Lamas raised the rent from $1,650 to $4,250 — 157 percent.

The suit argued that the rent increase was far above market rate and designed to get Gelfant and Worrell to leave so that Lamas could sell the property.

That sale, [tenant-rights lawyer Joe] Tobener suggested in a trial brief that outlined more than $1 million in potential damages, was triggered by a battle among Shukry Lama’s heirs over the property he’d left behind when he died in 2012.

“Chuck Lama’s heirs were fighting over their share of the inheritance which demanded selling properties or having the heirs occupy them as residences,” Tobener’s brief says.

That alleged squabble also appears to have played a role in Nadia Lama’s dramatic increase of Deb Follingstad’s rent.

In September 2013, she filed a probate petition in Superior Court seeking to compel her sister Claudia, the overseer of several family trusts set up by [deceased family patriarch] Chuck Lama, to account for the family’s assets. Assets named in the petition and exhibits include a small Cortland Avenue market, Chuck’s Store, the store’s liquor license, eight residential properties in San Francisco, one in Burlingame, and unspecified real estate in Chile.

The court proceeding resulted in an agreement last Dec. 31 in which the three Lama sisters and their three brothers, along with some of their children, agreed to close the family trusts and distribute their assets.

The property Nadia Lama was to receive includes a 2006 Toyota Avalon; $25,000 to pay the legal bills she’d incurred; a little more than $750,000 in cash due upon the sale of two of the family’s properties; and finally, the Bocana Street residence occupied by Deb Follingstad and the $7,500 to hire a lawyer to evict her.

The agreement also requires Nadia Lama to vacate her current home, a couple of doors up from Follingstad and still owned by her siblings, by the end of April. If she doesn’t, the document says, she’ll have to pay $4,000 a month rent to four of her siblings who will continue as owners; and if she does anything to interfere with their renting out the home she’s supposed to vacate, she’ll owe her siblings $10,000 in damages.

Kudos to Dan Brekke and KQED for the excellent work following the paper trail. Read Brekke’s full report on the KQED website, right here.

PHOTO: Telstar Logistics

District Attorney Releases Report on Alex Nieto Shooting, Will Not Press Charges Against SFPD Officers

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The San Francisco District Attorney decided to release some important news late Friday afternoon, likely in the hope that you wouldn’t pay much attention over the holiday weekend. So Bernalwood brings you this news today, in the hope that you are now paying very, very close attention…

Last week, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced that the four SFPD officers who participated in the March, 2014 officer-involved shooting death of Cortland resident Alex Nieto on Bernal Hill will not face criminal charges as a result of the incident.

Henry K. Lee of the San Francisco Chronicle summarizes DA Gascón’s report:

Gascón’s report said all four officers had “continued to believe their lives were in danger … until Mr. Nieto’s head and weapon went down.”

The four — Lt. Jason Sawyer and Officers Roger Morse, Richard Schiff and Nathan Chew — had responded to witness reports that Nieto, a 28-year-old Mission resident, had a gun and was acting erratically on March 21.

The officers “saw what appeared to be a gun as soon as they encountered him on a hill,” the district attorney’s report said. “Mr. Nieto refused to obey orders to show his hands and, instead, immediately drew and pointed his weapon at the officers.”

At a news conference, Gascón added, “Given the circumstances, I’m not sure this was a preventable shooting.” In such instances, he said, “a shooting is likely to occur. It is lawful. It is clearly constitutional, and I’m not sure there is much that could have been done to prevent it.” […]

Gascón’s report to [SFPD Chief Greg Suhr] provided the most detailed account by authorities of the shooting. It said that on March 3, less than three weeks before he was killed, Nieto was accused of firing a Taser at the estranged husband of a friend.

On the day of the police shooting, prosecutors said, several dog walkers at Bernal Heights Park reported feeling threatened by Nieto. One witness told investigators Nieto had pulled what looked like a pistol from his holster and pointed it at his dog — the animal had taken interest in a bag of chips Nieto was eating — before realizing it was a Taser.

“When he turned it into profile and aimed it at my dog, that’s when I could tell that it was a Taser just because of the size of the muzzle area,” the witness said.

The witness said he begged Nieto not to shoot his dog with the Taser, telling him the dog wasn’t aggressive and “just wants some chips,” according to the report. Nieto aimed the Taser at the witness and yelled expletives, the report said, before the witness left the park, while warning others about Nieto.

After Schiff and Sawyer arrived, in uniform, and ordered Nieto to show his hands, Nieto allegedly walked toward them, lifted his sweatshirt to expose a black holster, and shouted back at the officers, “Let me see your hands!” Nieto then “squared off with them in a defensive stance,” the report said, drew what turned out to be the Taser and pointed it directly at officers.

Schiff and Sawyer, who was then a sergeant, opened fire, authorities said. Nieto fell to the ground with his hands in front of him, police said. Schiff reported seeing a red light coming from the object Nieto was carrying and “thought it might be a laser sight. Both officers believed Mr. Nieto was still trying to fire back at them, and continued to fire,” the report said.

For better or worse, Gascón’s long-overdue report now stands as the most detailed official chronology of the events that took place on Bernal Hill on March 21, 2014. You can read the complete text of Gascón’s report to SFPD Chief Suhr right here (PDF); It paints an unsettling picture of the scene that evening. An excerpt:

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Responding on behalf of Neighbor Alex Nieto’s family and friends at the Justice4AlexNieto website, Ben Bac Sierra says DA Gascón’s report is not credible:

Scholarship student and security guard Alex Nieto never pointed a taser at San Francisco Police Officers Sawyer and Schiff. There is at least one witness who saw everything and emphatically confirms that Alex Nieto never pointed a taser at officers. This witness was never interviewed for the district attorney’s report.

But for one moment let’s forget the witness. The district attorney’s report accepts the police department narrative: two veteran San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) police officers have their weapons drawn aiming directly at Alex Nieto who is eating a bag of chips walking down the hill. Both officers KNOW he has a firearm. These two READY police officers then allow Alex to square off with them, reach into his holster (they KNOW he has a gun), and they allow Alex to point this “gun” directly at them BEFORE they finally make the decision to start shooting at him 59 times.

This tale is ridiculous and unbelievable, yet they expect us to accept it.

There was no reason for Alex to have been shot at 59 times! This entire sham is a cover up to hide the SFPD’s incompetence, lack of fire discipline, and illegal and intimidating investigation. They will not take responsibility for killing an innocent, promising young man, Alex Nieto, our brother.

While no charges will be filed against the SFPD officers, other aspects of Neighbor Alex Nieto’s case are ongoing. Mike Koozmin from the San Francisco Examiner describes the next steps:

Gascon said today that he recognizes that Nieto’s death was a tragedy and has offered to meet with Nieto’s family members, but that they have so far declined to meet with him. While the district attorney’s office has concluded that the police officers believed they were in imminent danger when they discharged their weapon, Gascon wrote in his letter to the chief of police that his office did not examine issues such as compliance with the policies and procedures of the San Francisco Police Department or ways to improve training or tactics. The letter also does not address any issues related to civil liability.

Gascon has also recommended the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for further investigation.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of the Nieto family against the city for violation of Nieto’s civil rights, on the grounds that police officers allegedly used excessive force against him, is pending.

 IMAGE: Photo illustration by Telstar Logistics

How to Help a Bernal Family Recover from the Massive Mission Fire

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The massive fire that destroyed the Mission Market building on the corner of Mission and 22nd Street on January 28 was a tragedy on so many levels — one fatality, 40+ residents lost their homes, businesses destroyed, and a historic Mission building gone forever.

Lisa Mudd is a former Bernal neighbor who recently relocated for work. She tells Bernalwood the fire has had a devastating impact on the Alvarez family, longtime Bernal residents who moved into the building at Mission and 22nd a year ago. Lisa writes:

We lived on Folsom between Eugenia & Powhattan,  at 3658. Our neighbors, Betty & Paolo Alvarez, raised their family and grandchildren in the house next to us. Marcie is one of their children and Mayra & Alfonso are their grandchildren.

They are a 30+ year Bernal family. Mayra was our babysitter and she is flat-out wonderful. She would often invite all the cousins over to our house to play and our kids loved it. Marcie, Mayra’s mom, is a single mom putting Alfonso and soon Mayra through college. They moved to the Mission about a year or so ago. Betty & Paolo have since moved, as well, because the cost of living became too much to bear.

They are a very kind family. I am heartbroken for them, but so incredibly thankful that they were rescued by our firefighters.

Former Neighbor Mayra Alvarez set up a crowdfunding page to help her family get back on its feet. Mayra tells us how she escaped the blaze:

My name is Mayra Alvarez. I am 17 and currently a senior at Galileo high school. Like every other senior, I am currently in the process of applying to college, hoping to pursue a career in nursing. Nursing is my career choice because I love to help people in need and give back to my community. I have been surrounded by nurses all my life due to my asthma and kidney illness. The college process is very difficult, especially when there are obstacles along the way; such as this one.

In the time of the fire, I was enjoying my dinner with my mother, as we began to smell the smoke. No yells or fire alarms were heard to warn us, just the black smoke burning our eyes and making it hard for me to breathe. I didn’t have many escape options, I was seconds away from jumping out the window, three floors up, as the fireman began to pull me out. Very little breathe, no inhaler, hope is all I had. I truly thought I would take my last breathe in apartment 316, my home, which is now gone for good.

We are currently looking for a stable place to live, but need as much help as we could get. I live with my brother and my mother, a hard working single mother. My brother is currently enrolled in college, and this tragic event has truly affected us all. We have lost everything: clothes, shoes, food and savings. Just like every new start, it’s time to start from scratch.

Oof. You can make a direct donation to help the Alvarez family right here.

Otherwise, you can also contribute to a general fund for victims of the January 28 fire here.

Finally, Miss Emmy from Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack on Mission Street in Bernal has also been in contact. She tells Bernalwood, “Please let our neighbors know we are collecting stuff for the fire victims this weeknd and forever how long.” The list of items the displaced families need is here; you can drop things off at Emmy’s, 3230 Mission Street (near Valencia).

PHOTO: Fire by Mission Local

Peaceful March Remembers Neighbor Alex Nieto as Shooting Investigation Drags On

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Turnout was strong, peaceful, and focused during yesterday’s march and memorial to mark the nine-month anniversary of Bernal neighbor Alex Nieto’s death in an SFPD officer-involved shooting on March 21, 2014. Yesterday’s march to remember Alex began on 24th Street in the Mission before heading up to the spot on Bernal Hill where Neighbor Alex was killed. Our friends at Mission Local had reporter Daniel Hirsch on hand at the rally:

The march was peaceful and no police officers were noticeable on scene. It began with a rally at the Bart Plaza on Mission and 24th Street around 4 p.m.. When those gathered began to move what started as a procession along the sidewalk quickly spilled onto the street, blocking traffic along 24th Street in several directions. Led by Aztec dancers and chants of “No Justice, No Peace, Stop the Racist Police,” the march lingered at the corner of Folsom and 24th Street for several minutes, before making its way up to the top of Bernal Hill [for] a ceremony honoring the dead.

MissionLocal also captured video of the march; click through to watch.

Bernalwood will provide updates if SFPD or City officials release any more information about Neighbor Alex Nieto’s death as part of an ongoing investigation that remains shamefully slow and opaque.

PHOTO: Daniel Hirsch for MissionLocal 

Procession to Mark Nine-Month Anniversary of Neighbor Alex Nieto’s Death, as Vandalism Strikes Memorial Again

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Within the last month, the officer-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City have become the focus of intense protest across the country. Yet much, much closer to home, this week marks the nine-month anniversary of Bernal neighbor Alex Nieto’s death in an SFPD officer-involved shooting on Bernal Hill.

Many of the circumstances surrounding Neighbor Alex’s death on March 21, 2014 remain unknown. An autopsy report was (belatedly) released, but the names of the officers involved in the shooting have not been made public, no grand jury has been convened, and the City’s formal investigation into the incident remains maddeningly opaque.

On Sunday, December 21, Alex Nieto’s family and friends are holding a procession and Mexican Posada to remember Neighbor Alex:

4pm @ 24th Street and Mission Street (BART Plaza on Northeast corner):

Opening ceremony & words by families who have lost loved ones in 2014 to police brutality.

Confirmed visiting families:
Family of Yanira Serrano Garcia (killed in Half Moon Bay). Family of Antonio Lopez (killed in San José)
Friend and/or family of Errol Chang (killed in Daly City)

Sidewalk procession to Bernal Hill.

@ Bernal Heights Park, Alex Nieto Memorial Site, northside slope: Words by family and supporters of Alex Nieto.

Closing ceremony.

Walk to site of Mexican Posada, to be announced on hill.

Additional details about Sunday’s event can be found on the Justice 4 Alex Nieto website.

Separately, Alex’s parents, Elvira and Refugio Nieto of Cortland Avenue, report that their memorial to Alex on Bernal Hill was recently vandalized yet again. This time, the entire memorial was taken, leaving nothing behind. This video shows Elvira and Refugio Nieto rebuilding part of the memorial to their son:

IMAGE: Video still of Bernal neighbors Elvira and Refugio Nieto, parents of Alex Nieto, on Bernal Hill, December 16, 2014

Heavy Rains Turn Cars into Submarines at 101 Hairball Onramp

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The (much welcomed) rains were intense last night — so much so that a storm drain for the Hairball interchange clogged up and flooded the 101 South onramp from eastbound Cesar Chavez.

When I drove past the site at about 8:45 am this morning, the onramp was closed and a DPW crew was vacuuming out the offending storm drain with a giant sucker-truck.

But a tweet from Neighbor Brian informed us that the flooding had been so intense before sunrise that a few cars became thoroughly submerged:

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Meanwhile, Neighbor Anita reports things looked similar around the Alemany 101/280 Spaghetti Bowl:

 

PHOTO: @brianhollinger