“This will never go away,” said Luis Poot, just days before the anniversary of his cousin’s death.
“This will never be forgotten. This is for life.”
This April 7 will mark the seven year death anniversary of Luis Góngora Pat — a Mayan unhoused man who was living in a tent encampment on Shotwell Street when he was killed by SFPD Sgt. Nate Steger and SFPD officer Michael Mellone.
Góngora Pat’s death at the hands of police was one of many that gave rise to a movement that not only condemned police violence in San Francisco, but that demanded accountability from those who killed the likes of Alex Nieto, Mario Woods, Amilcar Perez Lopez, and Jessica Williams. The Frisco Five hunger strike took shape after Góngora Pat’s death, which resulted in the eventual resignation of SFPD chief Greg Suhr. But even after the swearing-in of a new chief of police, the killings continued. With zero accountability.
And then Chesa Boudin, despite heavy opposition from backers of law enforcement, won his election and became San Francisco’s new District Attorney in 2020, promising criminal justice reform and police accountability.
Justice for Luis, finally, seemed like a possibility.
“There was a lot of hope,” remembered Poot, who supported and met with Boudin to discuss reopening his cousin’s case. In the fall of 2021, Rebecca Young, then working on Boudin’s staff, intensely learned everything she could about the case, hoping to bring charges to both Steger and Mellone by way of an indictment through a grand jury.
Young met with Luis’ brother José and Adriana Camarena, a community organizer and supporter of the Góngora Pat family. She interviewed and issued subpoenas for half a dozen witnesses, and had subpoenaed experts as well. But with pressures already mounting to recall Boudin, Young knew she was in a race against time.
“The District Attorney’s office had a procedure in place where you had to meet with the Grand Jury coordinator … and the Grand Jury coordinator felt the case was not ready to be brought to the Grand Jury. Even though we had the dates preserved and the court was going to pick jurors,” Young told El Tecolote.
Young was told she needed Mellone’s records from the Antioch Police Department — who hired him days after quitting SFPD — in order to get an indictment. Young then decided to move towards an Investigative Grand Jury, to at least have their testimonies preserved.
“And one week before we were to start the Grand Jury, our star witness was killed in a hit-and-run,” Young said. “It was unbelievable.”
That star witness was Rosalyn Barnett, who was riding a scooter on May 1, 2022, when she was struck by a vehicle and killed in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, just a block away from her home.
“And no one has ever been prosecuted for it. And I was devastated,” Young said. “She was standing outside of her tent, and watched these cops gun Luis down … And I was going to keep going. She had made a fantastic statement that was videotaped, but there was no way to introduce her videotape statement because it’s hearsay.”
Trying to keep hope alive, Young wrote an arrest warrant affidavit, working 60 hours over a span of four days, and submitted it for review. But the District Attorney Investigator didn’t sign the arrest warrant.
“And that kind of ended it right there,” Young said. “And that I would say happened about three weeks before the recall election.”
Following Boudin’s recall, Mayor London Breed appointed Brooke Jenkins, who has not only ignored the Góngora Pat family, but the family of Keita O’Neil as well. O’Neil was killed by then SFPD officer Christopher Samayoa in December of 2017.
“Pretty much in every case like this in San Francisco, this disgraceful District Attorney [Jekins] is worse than the previous one when the incident happened, [George] Gascón,” Poot said. “My cousin was not only murdered, he was executed. And [Gascón] never filed a charge … what he did was defend the police … and that’s unfortunate. The justice system here is garbage for the people who live through these cases. And there are several cases.”
“Brooke Jenkins, one of her platforms was police accountability,” Young added. “And that clearly was a lie. She’s not doing anything about police accountability. I think, for some reason, she’s really beholden to the POA. It’s interesting to me that all across the country, police officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter, in cases of unwarranted, unreasonable, excessive use of force, but not here in San Francisco. And the irony is that San Francisco has this reputation of the land of ‘progressive hood.’”
Camarena has been by the side of the Góngora Pat family for the last seven years.
“It’s worth reminding that it cost a chief of police his position,” Camarena said in reference to Suhr, who resigned in May of 2016. “And still, it’s all been washed over with promises of reform. And then in the end, what we see is a return to conservative stances on policing that have been proven in time, to not actually make our community safer, but only criminalize people of color and people in conditions of vulnerability.
“They continuously try to solve the tail end of a problem, without making the city accountable for the lack of resources for people who are unhoused, for people suffering from problems with substance abuse,” Camarena continued. “There could be very progressive solutions, but they’re catering now to the richest people in the city, who don’t want to think about these problems. They just don’t want to see poverty, when it’s precisely the gentrification of the decade that caused these problems.”
Before being killed by police, Góngora Pat shared an apartment with his brother Jose for about 10 years. He was illiterate and didn’t speak English, but worked hard as a dishwasher at Mel’s Diner. Luis and Jose were evicted when they didn’t understand the rent payment system, and never received receipts for the rent they thought they were paying.
When Luis Poot heard that his cousins were living on the streets, he tried to help. Doing the best he could, Luis Poot was able to help and offer a roof to only one of his cousins, Jose. He couldn’t house Luis, for fear of being evicted himself for having too many people living with him.
“Just like my cousin, there are many people who are on the street,” Poot said. “We don’t know the reason why they are on the street. We cannot judge the people who are on the street.”
As for a path forward in terms of charging Góngora Pat’s killers, Young doesn’t see one.
“I don’t think there’s any way forward. The statute of limitations is now passed,” Young said. “Here’s the interesting thing about the Góngora Pat case. The eye witnesses I spoke to were so happy that something was happening. These were civilians who didn’t know Góngora Pat at all … and it felt really devastating to let everyone down like that. But particularly Adriana and Góngora’s family. I think that they developed a lot of hope. I thought I was going to be able to carry through, but I was just thwarted at every turn.”
While charging Góngora Pat’s killers seems out of reach, Camarena is focusing on the healing of the family.
“I mostly just care about what’s happening to the families and the people who have stood by them. And I want them to find some measure of wellness,” Camarena said. “Sanando solo sin justicia. It’s now brought up again, for us, how we can heal ourselves from these traumas, so they don’t become generational traumas.”