By Alexis Terrazas
“How many shots does it take to kill a guy this high?” Eduardo Roman demanded to know, lifting his hand to the center of his chest roughly five feet above the floor.
It was roughly the height of his friend and coworker Amilcar Perez-Lopez—the 21-year-old Guatemalan immigrant gunned down by two plainclothes San Francisco police officers on Feb. 26 on Folsom Street between 24th and 25th streets.
“There were six shots fired,” was all San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr could muster amid the ire and shouts that charged the auditorium during a March 2 town hall meeting at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, where nearly 250 emotional community members demanded to know why Perez-Lopez was dead.
“I can only tell you the facts,” Suhr said.
But many in attendance challenged the SFPD’s version of events leading up to the shooting.
Hours after Perez-Lopez’s death, the SFPD released a statement saying that they had received a call of a Hispanic male armed with a knife chasing another male, and allegedly trying to rob the other man’s bike. Suhr reiterated that statement at the town hall, where he was met with shouts of “lies” from the crowd.
Fernando Quinonez, a native Guatemalan and friend of Perez-Lopez, echoed those sentiments.
“If you knew this person, you’d know that he is incapable of even robbing a single cent,” he said.
Friends and neighbors alleged that Perez-Lopez was not trying to steal the man’s bicycle, maintaining instead that he was trying to retrieve his cell phone, which the cyclist had stolen. Bill Simpich, one of the neighbors, collected witness statements and said that the cyclist was an acquaintance of Perez-Lopez.
Simpich said things escalated after the cyclist asked to borrow Perez-Lopez’s cell phone, and later tried to stop Perez-Lopez from entering his own home.
What neighbors and friends didn’t dispute is that Perez-Lopez got a knife from his home and attempted to retrieve his phone.
Suhr said Perez-Lopez—whom he referred to as the “the suspect,” alleging that he couldn’t identify him by name because the medical examiner had been unable to notify the next of kin—chased “the victim” who had dropped his bike.
According to Suhr, two plainclothes officers saw the confrontation “almost at the same time.”
A parked car stood between the two men when police arrived. Suhr said that Perez-Lopez, who couldn’t speak English, was on the sidewalk hovering over the car with a knife and refused to comply with police. The initial officer attempted to position Perez-Lopez so he could see his hands but Perez-Lopez slashed at both officers.
“Both officers fired,” Suhr said. “One firing once, the other firing five times.”
This account was challenged as well.
Fernando Gonzalez, who attended the town hall, said he witnessed the incident as he was crossing the street.
“When they got out, they yelled at the guy,” said Gonzalez, who took pictures of the aftermath with his phone. “He [Perez-Lopez] got scared. He ran. And the cop grabbed him from behind and they shot him twice.”
Gonzalez’s account was supported by Perez-Lopez’s roommate, who wished to keep his identity anonymous.
“When the police came up from behind, he didn’t realize they were police,” his roommate said. “They told him to drop the knife. He dropped the knife right there. And when he dropped the knife, they shot him.”
An immigration story
Perez-Lopez was born in rural and bleak town of San Jose La Arada, in the Chiquimula department of Guatemala. The oldest of three brothers, he was the main provider for his family, who lived in a shack along a hillside. His parents spoke an indigenous dialect, his father could barely speak a few words of Spanish.
It was Perez-Lopez’s father whom his coworker, Roman, had to call.
“Somebody had already called him, but I told him that I was going to make sure that his body would be returned to Guatemala,” Roman said. “He came to this country to better his life. He only wanted to work hard so he could feed his family.”
Two days before his death, Perez-Lopez told Roman that he had just acquired a place to live, and that he planned to send toys and clothes to his brothers, ages four and six.
Perez-Lopez, who was taking ESL classes at City College of San Francisco, worked for Ashbury Construction as a radiant heat installer. He had worked the day he died.
“He’s a 20-year-old kid. He looks like he’s 14 years old,” said Kevin Born, Perez-Lopez’s employer, who identified his body at the coroner’s office. “I mean this is like the best of what immigration in America is. I just hope the truth [is revealed].”
A justified shooting?
Attorney Arnoldo Casillas, who represented 13-year-old Andy Lopez’s family after he was fatally shot by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy in 2013, has taken on case and is said to be filing for a private autopsy report before Perez-Lopez’s body is sent back to Guatemala.
Police Commission President Suzy Loftus and Commissioner Petra DeJesus sat to Suhr’s right during the town hall. DeJesus said that the investigation will be conducted by the District Attorney’s office, the Office of Citizen’s Complaints and the police department. After it’s completed, the Firearms Discharge Review Board, which comprises various people from the department, the OCC and the police commission, will rule whether the shooting was within policy.
Few at the town hall were reassured. SFPD neglected to even mention that two bullets struck a house. When Perez-Lopez’s neighbor, Eddie Stiel, tried to discuss this at the meeting, Inspector John Monroe took exception and attempted to rip the microphone from his hand. Stiel was allowed to finish after Monroe obeyed Suhr and returned the microphone.
Suhr encouraged anyone with firsthand info to speak to investigators.
District 9 Supervisor David Campos was also in attendance, and called for a full independent investigation.
“This can’t keep happening,” Roman said. “I don’t know if they do it so they cover up their own crimes, but It’s something that has got to stop.”