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Criminal Charges in Zumbi Homicide Investigation Still Possible, Family Says

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Friends and family remember Steve 'Zumbi' Gaines as an insightful lyricist, spiritual practitioner and devoted father. Now, lawyers are investigating the cause of his untimely death at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center.
Friends and family remember Steve 'Zumbi' Gaines as an insightful lyricist, spiritual practitioner and devoted father.  (Jason Sinn)

This story has been updated. 

Criminal charges may still be filed for the death of popular Bay Area hip-hop artist Stephen Gaines, best known as Baba Zumbi of the duo Zion I.

Gaines died at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley on Aug. 13, 2021, after being held down by three hospital security guards and handcuffed by Berkeley Police officers while unconscious. Berkeley Police investigated the case as a homicide, but did not announce suspects or make arrests.

The Mercury News reported last week that the Alameda Country District Attorney’s office had declined to pursue criminal charges despite the death being ruled a homicide. But Wednesday, after meeting with District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, Gaines’ mother, Carolyn Gaines, and her lawyer, Elizabeth Grossman, released a statement that the D.A. still could bring criminal charges.

“Nothing has been finalized on criminal charges related to my son’s death,” Carolyn Gaines said in a statement. “I feel assured and confident that this case is not over and criminal charges remain likely. I am holding steadfast that the institutions responsible for my son’s death will be held accountable.”

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In the same statement, Grossman echoed the possibility of criminal charges. “I spoke directly with Nancy O’Malley today and a final decision has not been made,” she said.

The district attorney’s office confirmed this development. “We are looking at potential new information. That’s all we can say at this time,” a spokesperson for the district attorney told KQED on Wednesday.

The circumstances surrounding Zumbi’s death have been shrouded in secrecy. Over the past year, KQED repeatedly requested interviews with the Berkeley Police Department and the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau and did not receive a response, even after Berkeley Police concluded their investigation in August 2022. BPD also denied KQED’s public records request for officer body camera footage from the incident.

The slowness of the investigation and lack of transparency has frustrated Zumbi’s loved ones. “I’m infuriated. I’m mad and angry and sad, but I’m not surprised,” said rapper and activist Equipto, Zumbi’s close friend and collaborator, in an interview in August, adding: “I think people power is really the only way that we’re really going to get anything accomplished.”

Zumbi’s family joins the main stage for the Zion I tribute concert at Hiero Day on Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez)

The coroner’s report, obtained by The Mercury News, revealed previously unknown allegations from Berkeley Police investigators and hospital staff. The report noted that Gaines checked himself in during a mental health crisis during which he experienced suicidal ideation, and was diagnosed with COVID-related pneumonia. According to staff and investigators, prior to his death, Gaines woke up before a CT scan, chased hospital staff through the halls and put a pregnant security guard in a “choke hold.”

But family and friends of Zumbi question what happened in those last moments. Those who knew him describe Zumbi as a spiritual practitioner, loving father and kind, supportive friend.

“He was just a really great human. They took a really, really, really amazing person from a lot of people,” said Zumbi’s longtime friend Liv Styler, who added that she didn’t know him to have serious mental health issues. She and others are demanding that the hospital release its security footage.

“If he was having a mental health episode, crisis, whatever, he should still be alive,” said Styler. “No matter what version of a mental health situation he was in at the time, they decided it was OK to take his life.”

Styler, an activist and independent journalist, said on Tuesday that the incident points to a larger issue: the difficulty in holding private security guards — who have little use-of-force training, and no public oversight — accountable for deaths and injuries. (A new California law will require use-of-force standards and training for private security in 2023.)

Styler is frustrated by the lack of transparency in the investigation. “None of this has been handled well, and no one in the system is ever forced to really think about the kind of detriment that they do to the people who are actually impacted on a day-to-day basis after someone is murdered,” she said. “But for those of us that are still here, it’s like watching him die over and over again.”

Styler and others are compiling tributes, and possible future calls to action, on a recently created Justice for Zumbi Instagram account.

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