As the dozens of supporters of Luis Alberto Quiñonez exited the Juvenile Justice Center on Jan. 10, not a single person left without embracing Rene Quiñonez, Luis’ father. 

“I’m in the search of truth at the moment,” Quiñonez told El Tecolote, whose 19-year-old son was ambushed and shot to death last September while sitting in a car with his girlfriend in San Francisco’s Crocker Amazon neighborhood. “What I want to do to honor my son’s legacy is to get him—at minimum—recognized as a victim in all of this.”

For the last four months, Quiñonez has waded through pain and fear in his search for justice and answers surrounding his son’s death. But Quiñonez’s quest for justice reaches back five years ago to when Luis—who was 14 at the time—was wrongfully accused of murdering his former classmate.

On Sept. 2, 2014, 14-year-old Rashawn Williams was fatally stabbed on the corner of 26th and Folsom streets after a verbal altercation between Williams and two boys, one of whom was Luis. At the time, Williams’ family claimed that Luis had bullied Williams. Quiñonez is determined to correct that narrative.

Williams’ death and police mismanagement of the case, Quiñonez said, directly led to the killing of his son. Williams’ younger brother, who is now 17, stands accused of killing Luis and is in police custody.  

Rene Quiñonez poses for a portrait on the corner of 24th and Florida streets in San Francisco, on Jan. 10, 2020 while wearing a hoodie in honor of his son, Luis Alberto Quiñonez, who was fatally shot last September. Photo: Alexis Terrazas

“From the very beginning, there’s been this narrative that juxtaposes an angel and a devil,” said Quiñonez. “And that narrative that everyone in the media ran with was created less than 24 hours after Rashawn’s death. It was literally created overnight. I feel, that in its language, it justifies retaliatory street violence.”

Though Luis was arrested and held in police custody for five months following Rashawn’s death, during which Williams’ family petitioned for him to be tried as an adult, murder charges were dropped against him when surveillance video—released by the late Public Defender Jeff Adachi—exonerated Luis and showed that the other boy he was with actually stabbed Williams.

But despite Luis’ exoneration, the narrative that he was a murderous bully responsible for Williams’ death had already gone viral. And the SFPD’s failure to arrest Williams’ true killer—despite having video evidence—sealed Luis’ fate, Quiñonez said.

Today, Quiñonez is sharing his story to clear his son’s name and end the cycle of violence that led to the deaths of three young men and the incarceration of another. 

“What isn’t being told is that Luis and Rashawn had a restorative justice circle at Horace Mann in April [2014], where they sat down together and created that peace. Because the truth is, it’s not bullying. These two boys were going back and forth,” Quiñonez said. “But my son didn’t want to bring harm to Rashawn … My son mourned for that boy. I mourned for Rashawn. I knew what was coming. I felt it. And the police department didn’t do anything. I knew that there was going to be retaliatory violence because of this, and they just stayed back.”

Luis Alberto Quiñonez

A legacy cut short

Rene Quiñonez was once a gang member who wreaked havoc on the streets of his community in the Mission — before he committed to changing his life and those of people around him.

He worked in violence prevention for eight years as a case manager of a tattoo removal program and was the director of a neighborhood nonprofit. He focused on hiring and training people who came from gangs.

His son Luis hoped to build a similar legacy. 

According to Quiñonez, Luis was a blossoming young man who immersed himself in social justice circles. He fought for the closure of  juvenile hall and mentored young men on their way there. He advocated at the State Capitol to create alternatives to incarceration and was a Dream Beyond Bars fellow at Oakland’s Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ).  

“Even though the same fucking system viciously punished him, my young boy had the tenacity and the strength and the fire to fight,” Quiñonez said, referring to the time Luis spent in police custody prior to his exoneration. “Five months they kidnapped my boy, he was in there … with people who actually killed people, with people who were charged with rape and the worst fucking crimes in our community. And these men are telling my 14-year-old, ‘We’re going to fucking rape you, we’re going to kill you’… So I had to work with him on that. I had to help him heal. And no one is talking about how fucked up that must have been for a 14-year-old.”

Quiñonez remembered the last conversation he had with his son, one where Luis revealed that he was ‘going all in’ into social justice. 

“And I told him, ‘Son be careful, you’re going to be disappointed … social justice, this whole idea of building community, sometimes that shit ain’t real, mijo,’” Quiñonez said.  

To that, Luis replied: ‘Dad, it hasn’t stopped you.’ 

“That was four days before my son was killed,” said Quiñonez. “He was one of the smartest young men I’ve ever known. At 19 years old he was breaking down institutional oppression and violence in ways that in my 30s I was struggling to comprehend.”

Quiñonez brought up Williams. 

“It was literally the day after his anniversary,” Quiñonez said. “And I’m like, ‘Mijo, you’re going to run into people who signed that petition against you, who were educators, who were social justice “activists,” who were “warriors” for the people. You’re going to run into these people who take these titles and these positions and then create more harm.’”

Four days later on Sept. 8, 2019, Luis was with his girlfriend when he was fatally shot 10 times. 

El Tecolote spoke with a San Francisco resident who witnessed the fatal shooting, but because he has been subpoenaed by the city, he spoke with El Tecolote on the condition of anonymity.  

The resident and his wife were at home when they heard the gunfire. It occurred outside their master bedroom, and home surveillance cameras captured everything. 

After hitting the replay button on his surveillance monitor to see what had happened, the resident exited his house and encountered Luis’ girlfriend, who was on the phone with a 911 operator. 

“When I got to her, I knew that she was shot,” said the resident. “I looked inside the car and saw the condition the fellow was in. I sat her down and took my t-shirt off and tried to render her first aid … the police were there almost immediately.” 

After staying with the woman until paramedics arrived, the resident returned to his home to watch the replay again and confirm what he had seen. Police then accessed  the video to document what had happened.

“I can only tell you that I saw the entire sequence of events,” the resident said. 

“And it’s something that once you see, you can’t unsee it. It’s a very brutal thing that happened.   

“It was not a random occurrence,” the resident continued. “It was a culmination of a long series of events. It’s really sad. It’s a heartbreaking series of events that I hope ends here.”

Justice for Luis

Quiñonez had a distrust in the police and criminal justice system long before the death of his son. The Jan. 10 pre-trial hearing for his son’s suspected killer exacerbated it. 

According to Quiñonez, Judge Daniel A. Flores gave an unprecedented speech during the pre-trial hearing, addressing the large presence of community members and law enforcement. 

“Then [Judge Flores] further went on to say ‘Rene Quiñonez’ — mentioning me more than once by name — ’had used social media as a platform to address several injustices.’ And that he was attaching that posting into official court documents … that now makes me a target,” Quiñonez said. “I feel that that judge now put my family and my life at harm.”

Quiñonez has long been an outspoken critic of how police and the district attorney’s office —  then headed by District Attorney George Gascón — handled not only Luis’ death, but Williams’ as well. 

“[Williams’] killer was known to the police,” Quiñonez said. “So ask the police why wasn’t he arrested. Don’t just settle for ‘There wasn’t enough evidence.’ That’s bullshit because the same evidence that they tried to use against my son in trying to convict him for murder, that evidence is the same evidence that exonerated him but that should have been used to try Miguel.” 

According to Quiñonez, Luis had met 16-year-old Miguel Alvarez a few hours before Williams was killed. Quiñonez had tried to keep Luis from hanging out on 24th Street, knowing the dangers of the street and gang-type mentality.

“Our family has never attacked Rashawn. But the truth is, that these three young men were all posturing in a way that led to Rashawn’s death,” Quiñonez said. “My intent is not to smear or defame Rashawn. I want you to understand that. The bigger issue here is there is toxic masculinity that exists within our community, and we’re failing to address that.” 

According to the video released by Adachi, Williams exited Rubin’s Market after Luis and Alvarez had passed the store. 

“And to quote my son, he says, ‘Dad, Rashawn came out saying, ‘Fuck you, this is Army Street. This is my block…,’” Quiñonez said. 

“And Miguel turns around — and the video can corroborate this — and they start jawing at each other … and they’re about to get into it … and Miguel reached out and stabbed (Rashawn) and ran. It was a cowardly move.”

Though the video would corroborate Quiñonez belief that Alvarez’s identity was known to the DA and police, he was never arrested. In December 2015, roughly a year and three months after Williams was killed, Alvarez was fatally shot in Bernal Heights. 

Quiñonez has been in contact with Alvarez’s family and says they are “really hurt” and agree “that the police department was complicit in the murder of their child, because the act of charging him and possibly sentencing him alone would have prevented his life from being taken. He would be in prison, and they would be visiting him.” 

As for the suspect in custody for killing Luis, Quiñonez is not convinced that he was the gunman because three other individuals who were involved are still at large. Regardless, Quiñonez isn’t asking for a life sentence from whoever killed his son.

“I personally will not ask a minor to be charged as an adult,” Quiñonez said. “But this case warrants a discussion about an appropriate sentence … I’m not trying to be vindictive and punish this young man. I do believe that he may find at some stage in his life the opportunity to heal from this and to contribute to our community and to talk about healing, but I don’t think he’s going to do it at 24 [years of age].”

Still, Quiñonez can’t help but feel that the police knew what would eventually happen to both Alvarez and Luis. 

“My history and my trauma may play into this idea, but I feel the police knew what would happen to Miguel, knew what would eventually happen to my son. You talk about disposable men of color; this is a perfect example of how the police department created this scenario where street justice and street vengeance would be allowed to exist. And then they’re sweeping it under the rug by not allowing media to know all of the facts or state all the facts,” Quiñonez said. “And this is why I’m coming forward, this is why I’m sharing my truth … because I want people to understand how this criminal justice system continues to perpetuate violence.” 

Despite multiple calls to George Lazarus, the San Francisco attorney representing Luis’ accused killer, he could not be reached for comment.

The first day of the trial is currently scheduled for Feb. 18 at 400 McAllister St. at 9 a.m.