The Forgotten: Two Deaths on the Streets of Potrero Hill
Two black men were murdered on the same stretch of San Francisco sidewalk within one week. Why aren't we talking about it? (Matt Jalbert/Flickr under the Creative Commons.)
Donald Trump didn't tweet about the killings of Prince Johnson or Jamar Samuel. Hillary Clinton didn't ask why San Francisco hadn't deported someone to prevent their deaths. California's senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, didn't offer the city any advice after the two black men were shot to death.
Police didn't flood the area minutes after they were shot, and no press conferences were called. Witnesses didn't come forward and offer cellphone pictures of the alleged shooter. And the news media didn't go into a frenzy and fuel a game of point-the-finger among politicians and law enforcement officials. Nobody felt compelled to ask "why?" or "what can be done?"
All that attention was devoted to the tragic fatal shooting of Kate Steinle on July 1, as she walked with her father on Pier 14, on San Francisco's waterfront.
Two days before that and a short drive south, Prince Johnson, 33, was found bleeding to death from gunshot wounds outside a rowhouse in the Potrero Terrace public housing development. On Independence Day, Jamar Samuel, 26, was gunned down on the same sidewalk.
The men appear to be as different from each other as Pier 14 is from Potrero Terrace, but their close proximity in death to one of the higher-profile San Francisco homicides in recent memory seems to too perfectly illustrate two very different cities -- one in which lives are valued, witnesses cooperate and murders are solved, and another with a different set of rules and expectations.
Potrero Terrace and Annex were built during World War II, a few years after the federal government allocated funding to San Francisco and other cities for the effort. Connecticut Street curves through the heart of the main section of the developments, and cinderblock rowhouses terrace the steep grade on either side. The location offers a sparkling view of San Francisco Bay and is breezy and cool even on days that are downright hot elsewhere in the city.
Based solely on location, the area could be the tourist draw that San Francisco's waterfront offers. But it isn't. Nearby neighborhoods have all the amenities and sport the affluence typically associated with San Francisco, but Potrero Terrace is isolated by its curved streets, a steep ridge to the west and Interstate 280 to the east.
There's an industrial pocket to the south, and the tennis courts of the Potrero Hill Recreation Center to the north. Green grass blankets a baseball field there, where young families were gathered on a recent afternoon. But despite nudging right up to the housing development, the rec center doesn't really seem to belong to Potrero Terrace.
A redevelopment plan for the projects describes the area this way:
"One of San Francisco’s most sought-after locations to live, Potrero Hill features spectacular views, parks, restaurants, shops, and proximity to downtown and freeways. Yet dead-end streets and steep topography mean Potrero Terrace and Annex sit isolated from the Potrero Hill neighborhood."
That's where Jamar Samuel grew up and where he still spent a lot of his time, although he was living with family in the Bayview. He'd been a happy child, the fourth of Barry and Beatrice Samuel's five children. Friends and family say he was always ready with a joke and couldn't help but wear a wide smile -- his mother called him "smiley face."
His grandmother, who called him "Pooh Bear," often brought him to church at St. John's Missionary Baptist on Third Street. Whereas Potrero Terrace seems worlds apart from nearby neighborhoods on Potrero Hill, many people living in the Terrace have close connections to the historically African-American Bayview, about a mile to the southeast.
Friends and family say Samuel changed when his grandmother died in 2006, when he was 18.
"He became a loner," his mother says. "He was almost 10 years a loner."
He never really had a job and kept mostly to himself, but he didn't completely lose his jokester streak, friends and family say.
Most people on the Terrace knew him as "Mar Mar."
"He was a good guy," says Billy Ray, a Terrace resident who said he often ran into Samuel on the street.
"I can’t really say nothing bad about him, but sometimes he could be annoying," Ray says. "But everybody that know Mar Mar would say the same thing. And he had one of those odd laughs. You knew he was coming -- 'Here come Mar Mar' -- cuz you'd hear that laugh a mile away."
I talked to seven people who say they knew Samuel. They say he had dabbled in "the game," or drug sales, for a while, but he wasn't scary. His mother said he'd been dating a girl for a few years, but the relationship ended a couple months before he died. As far as anyone knew, he'd quit "the game." One sign of that: For the first time since his grandmother brought him to church in the late '90s, Samuel came back to St. John's Missionary Baptist in early June.
"One morning I got to the church, he was out there, he welcomed my kids and I," the Rev. Mervin Redmond says. "It was kind of amazing because he just got in the church, and now he’s doing something, and he talked to several of the men about a change he wanted to make."
Samuel also talked to Redmond, who got the impression "he wanted to change from doing certain things that he had been doing that he knew were negative and destructive, and I took it to mean maybe drugs or the company he was keeping."
Samuel and Redmond had a long phone conversation on Friday, July 3, about Samuel's re-baptism scheduled for Sunday.
"It was good to talk to him," Redmond says. "When I walked away from that conversation, I was like, 'Wow I think he’s serious,' and after that Friday, he said, 'I’ll see you Sunday.' Little did we know ..."
Redmond's voice trails off, as it did several times when we talked in a meeting room in his church.
"I kind of value moments like that more now," he says, "because that’s the first time that’s happened -- not the first time I’ve seen someone and they passed soon after, but in that fashion. I’ve never talked to somebody and the next day they got murdered. You know that was just, yeah..."
Police aren't releasing many details of their investigation into Samuel's shooting at about 11 o'clock the night of the Fourth of July. The scene, a sidewalk outside a Terrace rowhouse, now features a shrine with a Winnie the Pooh centerpiece.
There have been no arrests.
Police did make arrests after Prince Johnson was shot on that same patch of concrete June 29.
My attempts to reach Johnson's family were unsuccessful, but I did find a woman who says she knew him well.
"Overall, he was a great person," says Marie, who gives only her first name. "I mean everyone encounters certain things in their life, but I don’t think he deserved what happened to him."
Johnson stood just over 5 feet tall. An attorney who represented him for years said she had once introduced expert testimony that years of child abuse had permanently stunted his growth. When he was in jail, she said, he'd "level out" because she would make sure he got the psychiatric medication he needed. But then, "He'd get out and couldn't keep it together because the support network wasn't there for him."
An ex-prosecutor said Johnson had been brought up on handgun charges under a federal program called Triggerlock, under which repeat violent offenders are targeted for longer federal sentences for illegally possessing handguns.
According to court records, Johnson was arrested in 2005 for threatening a woman with a gun near Haight and Fillmore streets. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison on federal gun charges for the crime in 2009. But the sentence included a unique request from the judge, who wanted Johnson incarcerated at one of two federal prisons with better health services "for the reason that the defendant requires intensive mental health and psychiatric treatment."
Records show he served the sentence and ended up back in San Francisco, this time in Potrero Terrace. On June 29, he was out on Connecticut Street. Marie says she had seen her friend moments before when the street erupted.
"I ran there," she says. "... He was reaching out asking me to help him. He was on the ground and he was reaching his hand out asking me to help him."
Police made an arrest in connection with Johnson's killing the same night, based on a vehicle description. They served a search warrant the next morning at a home near the shooting and arrested a second suspect.
But prosecutors did not file murder charges. The first suspect was released the next day. The second, Jabar Hickman, was held on two felony charges, possession of a firearm by a felon and possession of ammunition, according to the San Francisco District Attorney's Office. He's due to be arraigned on the gun charges Aug. 4.
San Francisco police Cmdr. Toney Chaplin rose through the department working in some of the city's more violent neighborhoods, including public housing. He was recently promoted from heading the department's homicide division to overseeing all investigations. He's aware of the Johnson case.
"It’s a tough case," he said. "It’s a convoluted case."
He wouldn't go into details of any open cases, but was willing to discuss in general the kind of cases he's worked. Other police sources said on background that Chaplin could have taken cushier assignments. He's earned some admiration and credibility in and out of the department for turning them down.
"You’re dealing with a lot of folks, they’re almost held prisoner in those particular neighborhoods," Chaplin said, "and so when they witness something, to come forward, they feel like, 'I’m painting a target on myself, with no means of escape or getting out of here.' "
He said the department offers witness relocation, but "it's tough to ask somebody to go somewhere when they've never been anywhere."
So investigators try to "work around" the unwillingness to cooperate, Chaplin said, seeking evidence from surveillance cameras and hoping for a witness to surface. Cameras were recently installed in Potrero Terrace, but many have been shot with paintballs or otherwise disabled, and they don't cover a lot of the angles created by the jutting corners of the rowhouses.
Chaplin confirmed a statistic recently cited by Police Chief Greg Suhr that African-American men have been the victims of about half of the city's 30 or so homicides this year -- although black males make up only about 3 percent of the city's population.
"The numbers are staggering, and I’m not shocked by any of them," Chaplin said. "It’s been like that for a very, very long time, and if you look at the location where a lot of these murders are happening, a lot of these are happening in public housing developments. And if you think about it, it’s almost like shooting fish in a barrel because you know the guy is here. It’s literally just a matter of waiting for an opportunity to do it."
Chaplin described a desensitization of society, the news media, neighborhoods and police to sustained violence. He said he had heard the phrase, "Hey, it's just crooks killing crooks."
"At the end of the day, how many of those crooks have kids, who haven’t done anything?" he said. "How many of them have a mom who is in church every Sunday or works at San Francisco General Hospital as a registered nurse and is a single parent? How many have a brother or sister who's in middle school or high school and are going to be saying tomorrow, 'Hey where’s my older brother?' "
A group of Potrero Terrace residents is holding a Sunday barbecue on Dakota Street on July 26, part of an effort they've made the last few years to prevent violence and support the community's young people.
Most people there know Jamar Samuel ("Oh -- you mean Mar Mar?"), who grew up there. Fewer know Prince Johnson. There's talk of an incident the previous Friday in which three women in their early 20s had been wounded -- nonfatally -- in what's suspected to have been crossfire on Turner Terrace, in the part of the development called Potrero Annex.
But people also want to talk about something else -- why they care about each other and the community's positives. Drumsticks and hotdogs sizzle on the grill. Music plays from scratchy speakers. Young boys run back and forth across the street while they gnaw at homemade popsicles in Styrofoam cups.
"This is not just like a housing development, this is like, we’re all family here," says Prince Johnson's friend, Marie. "There’s a lot of people that care, and they’re loving."
When it happens, we barely notice a single pop in the distance and figure it came from a leftover July 4 firecracker. Then come the speeding police cars heading for the corner of Dakota and 25th. A woman shot through the leg is quickly loaded onto a stretcher and whisked away.
"That's why this is a drama-free zone," Uzuri Pease-Greene says of the barbecue. She says the woman who has just been shot had been there earlier with her boyfriend, and they'd been fighting. She'd asked them to leave. "What if he would have did the shooting right here where all these kids are running around?" she asks.
Pease-Greene lives on Dakota Street, is married to a co-founder of Community Awareness Resources Entity, the group holding the barbecue, and works for Bridge Housing, a private company slated to redevelop and then manage the development in the coming years. It's part of a massive shift in the city's public housing -- with deteriorating sites formerly identified for rebuilds with local funds under a program called HOPE SF now poised to be part of the federal Housing and Urban Development Rental Assistance Demonstration program.
Changes are coming. On the bright side, developers say Potrero Terrace will become less isolated and join the greater Potrero Hill community through a street redesign, the units will be rebuilt and mixed with affordable and market-rate housing.
"All different people will be mixed in together," Pease-Greene says, "and it will slow down a lot of the crime. Crime will never stop."
But people, some with a generational claim to the site, are going to have to relocate. And it remains to be seen whether private management will fare better than the city's Housing Authority. The first phase of Potrero's rebuild is tentatively scheduled to begin next year.
The people in Potrero Terrace watch the news. They saw the frenzy over the Kate Steinle killing, and they noticed that gunfire and death in their own neighborhood won just passing attention.
"You’ve had this on the news forever," Pease-Greene says of Steinle's shooting. "I haven’t heard anything about these two young boys. I haven’t heard anything about the three young girls that just got shot over on Turner Terrace. ... You’ve got black boys and brown boys and Samoan boys that's dying all over the place. Young kids is getting killed."
Redmond, the pastor of St. John's Missionary Baptist Church, says he wasn't surprised that there have been no arrests for Samuel's murder, and that Johnson's killing wasn't charged.
"Far too often, we don't see justice," he says. "That's unfortunate. I think in many cases, people in our community, and I'm talking about African-Americans, we don't ever think there's going to be justice, because we've become accustomed to injustice."