Bureau of Land Management ranger John Woychowski (center) was named El Centro Field Office 'Ranger of the Year' in 2011. Salvador Nieblas (left) went on to become the chief BLM ranger for California. Margaret Gordo (right) was the chief BLM ranger for El Centro in 2011. (Bureau of Land Management California via Internet Archive)
Five months after Kathryn Steinle was slain on San Francisco's waterfront, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management promoted the law enforcement ranger whose unsecured stolen gun was used to kill her, according to an internal BLM email obtained by KQED.
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented Mexican national, is expected to go on trial in San Francisco next week on a charge of murder in Steinle's killing. Conservative lawmakers have seized on Garcia Zarate’s history of deportations and illegal re-entry into the U.S. -- plus San Francisco’s policy that ignored a detention request from immigration authorities -- to fuel a political assault on so-called sanctuary cities.
BLM ranger John Woychowski’s .40-caliber Sig Sauer handgun has received far less attention, and how it ended up in Garcia Zarate’s hands remains a mystery.
Garcia Zarate's defense attorneys plan to argue that he found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt, and that he didn’t know what he was holding when a round accidentally fired, bounced off the concrete pier and traveled some 78 feet before it hit Steinle in the back on July 1, 2015.
But no one disputes that it was a bullet from Woychowski’s gun that killed Steinle.
Federal Agency Promoted Ranger Five Months After His Gun Was Stolen and Used in Steinle Killing
Woychowski's reason for being in San Francisco the evening of June 27, 2015, is somewhat unclear, although he will likely be questioned about it when he takes the stand.
According to attorneys familiar with his statements to police and to his own agency, Woychowski has said he left El Centro, California, near the Mexican border, on June 27. He was on his way to an official assignment in Helena, Montana, that was supposed to begin around July 4.
The trip wasn't strictly business, though.
The attorneys say Woychowski was driving his personal vehicle, and he had passengers -- his then-girlfriend and three children, 5, 10 and 14 years old. According to attorneys familiar with the case, Woychowski told investigators he left on a day off and drove up the California coast -- over 600 miles -- before stopping near the Embarcadero in San Francisco for dinner at almost 10 p.m.
When Woychowski and the group returned to the vehicle, they found it burglarized, with the backpack containing Woychowski's duty weapon and ammunition missing. It had been stashed under the driver's seat.
The gun's path from there to Jose Ines Garcia Zarate's hands -- as he sat in a spinning metal chair on Pier 14 four days later -- is unknown.
Garcia Zarate's defense attorneys attempted to introduce evidence in August that Woychowski's vehicle was among several cars burglarized in the area along the Embarcadero south of the Ferry Building the night of June 27.
Woychowski made a report to San Francisco police at 11:14 p.m., according to the defense motion. Another auto burglary, in a parking garage near 300 Embarcadero, just down the street from Pier 14, was reported at 11:34 p.m. The backpack, a .40-caliber ammunition magazine and Woychowski's BLM-issued credit cards were found near the site of the second break-in.
But that information won't be presented to the jury. To resolve a dispute over its relevance, the prosecution agreed to stipulate that no evidence ties Garcia Zarate to the auto burglaries. It was a small victory for the defense's argument that Garcia Zarate found the gun on the pier just before the shooting, and he didn't know what he was holding until it accidentally fired.
Woychowski faced neither discipline nor criminal charges for failing to secure his weapon -- a misdemeanor under California law.
At a hearing on Thursday about the scope of Woychowski's testimony, defense attorney Matt Gonzalez said the police department's treatment of the ranger during its homicide investigation would be probed in front of the jury.
"The investigation in this case is going to be criticized," he said. "[Police] adhered to an age-old custom of protecting their own. Part of that is the kid gloves they treated this ranger with."
Attorneys representing Kathryn Steinle's family in a civil lawsuit agreed.
"If the San Francisco Police Department and the district attorney wanted to, they could have pressed charges," civil attorney Alison Cordova said in an interview. "From what we know, John Woychowski did not have his gun in a locked compartment in the vehicle. It was in a backpack, unlocked in the vehicle. That is not a locked compartment. It was a violation of criminal law at the time that it happened."
Defense attorney Gonzalez says that wasn't the only crime. Woychowski had a second handgun in the spare tire wheel well in the trunk of his car that Gonzalez says was also unsecured. It wasn't stolen. Woychowski didn't mention it to police investigators, and they didn't ask, Gonzalez said.
"He was worried that he was going to be prosecuted," Gonzalez said, referring to notes of an interview SFPD conducted with Woychowski. "He wanted assurances that he wasn’t going to be, and they gave it to him."
The law that could have led to charges for Woychowski was since strengthened through legislation authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill that took effect this year. Guns are now required to be locked in a container attached to the vehicle, so the container can't simply be swiped. Leaving a weapon unsecured in a vehicle also now carries a potential $1,000 penalty.
Even though he wasn't criminally charged, Woychowski should have faced administrative discipline -- such as a reprimand, suspension or firing, Gonzalez says, for violating BLM law enforcement policies in addition to state law.
He faced none, however.
The jury won't hear about that, though. Prosecuting attorney Diana Garcia successfully moved to exclude any testimony about a lack of consequences for the ranger.
"The jury is going to be fixated on, 'Oh my God, he wasn’t disciplined,' " she said in court. "I don’t want them deliberating about that."
But the BLM policies around firearm safety and security will come into evidence, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Samuel Feng ruled. The bureau closely guards the rules that govern law enforcement officers, arguing they are exempt from public disclosure. Defense attorneys provided KQED with the BLM policies relevant to their case.
The policies came into the case over the prosecution's objection.
"The BLM policies are not on trial," prosecutor Garcia argued. "None of the policies or rules ... are applicable to him. The BLM ranger did not violate any policies or procedures in place at the time."
While there was an apparent loophole in specific regulations on storage of weapons in personal vehicles, Woychowski still appears to have violated several more general BLM law enforcement rules in place in 2015.
"An LEO (law enforcement officer) is responsible for ensuring that their authorized firearms are secure at all times," say general orders in place in 2011.
They were later strengthened in response to Office of the Inspector General findings about lax firearm security throughout the Department of the Interior, which includes the BLM.
"Firearms not in an officer's immediate control must be appropriately secured to ensure they are kept out of reach of children or other unauthorized persons," according to a Department of the Interior manual issued in 2014.
The defense plans to argue that Woychowski's road trip with three children and his unlocked firearm that was eventually stolen violates that rule.
"We can allege that he violated policy, they can argue that he didn’t," Gonzalez said after court. "But in that skirmish I assure you that the takeaway will be he shouldn’t have left his gun in a car loaded like that in a backpack. I think that’s easy."
BLM again updated its firearms rules after Steinle's death. The bureau now requires two levels of locks on firearms stored in vehicles, and it closed the personal vehicle loophole.
An instruction memorandum issued in June last year appears to reference Woychowski's conduct:
While GO [General Order] 15, 'Firearms' includes policy guidance focused on security, storage and handling requirements for firearms carried within officially assigned vehicles (e.g., government-owned vehicles such as Law Enforcement Rangers and Special Agents), it was determined additional guidance was necessary to address the securing of firearms within personally-owned vehicles, rental vehicles, etc.
The federal government's internal investigation into Woychowski's conduct is not public. But attorneys defending the federal government in a civil lawsuit filed by Kathryn Steinle's family included a description of the internal accountability for Woychowski in a footnote on a Sept. 12, 2016, motion to dismiss filed early in the case. The motion was eventually rejected.
"[T]he BLM ranger’s conduct was reviewed, and he was not found to have violated BLM rules or policies in place at the time of the theft were violated (sic)," the footnote says.
'Calm Under Pressure'
It's unclear how long it took the BLM to absolve Woychowski through its review. But the loss of his unsecured firearm didn't prevent him from being promoted to a supervisory position five months after Steinle's death, according to a former employee of the bureau and an internal BLM email thread that person provided to KQED.
"It’s astonishing," civil attorney Cordova said of Woychowski's promotion when she was informed of it by KQED. "It’s really inexcusable."
Gonzalez brought up the promotion in court on Thursday, after he learned about it in an interview with KQED.
"Your honor, he got promoted after this incident," Gonzalez said. "It’s not just lack of discipline. They [BLM] have zero credibility as an agency."
The email thread announcing Woychowski's promotion starts with a message from Stephanie Clark, then the chief ranger of the BLM's El Centro field office, sent just before 1 p.m. on Dec. 9, 2015. Its recipients include the BLM's top law enforcement official in California, Special Agent in Charge Kynan Barrios, and the BLM's chief ranger in the state, Salvador Nieblas. Both are based in Sacramento but worked previously in El Centro.
"I'm pleased to announce the selections of Ranger George Masner and Ranger John Woychowski as Supervisory Staff Law Enforcement Rangers (Field Supervisors) for the El Centro Field Office," the message begins. Clark mentions that both men had in the past served as acting supervisory rangers.
"John is an accomplished Field Training Instructor and provides tremendous guidance to his trainees, El Centro Rangers, and peers throughout the nation; experience greatly needed as El Centro prepares the next generation of rangers."
Masner went on to become acting chief ranger for the El Centro field office, according to an annual report from February. The Bureau of Land Management confirmed that Woychowski was a BLM employee in July, when KQED reported that he was identified by a defense subpoena in the Garcia Zarate trial. The agency refused repeated requests to verify Woychowski's employment history -- where he had worked and in what positions -- since joining the BLM. He is listed in publicly available federal purchase records, however, as being based in El Centro from late 2009 to 2017.
He was named ranger of the year in El Centro in 2011, according to a BLM newsletter announcement, since removed from the bureau's website (archived here). The post includes a photograph of Woychowski with then-El Centro Chief Ranger Margaret Goodro and Woychowski's then-supervisor, Salvador Nieblas.
Nieblas had himself risen through the ranks of the BLM and in 2015, he was the chief BLM ranger for all of California, as he is today. Stephanie Clark's email announcing Woychowski's promotion in December 2015 was sent to state-level BLM officials and employees in the El Centro office. Nieblas forwarded the announcement, with a message of his own to larger email lists:
Please join me in congratulating George Masner and John Woychowski as the 2 new LE supervisors for the busy El Centro Field Office. Their law enforcement field experience along with their stints as acting LE supervisors, acting Chiefs, shift leads, ops chiefs, and Incident Commanders sets a strong foundation for leadership, especially as we endeavor to rebuild our ranks. Not only are they good at making arrests, they easily transition to community policing and involving our non-LE staff to meet our mission. Calm under pressure.
The email thread and the promotions it celebrated were confirmed by current and former BLM employees who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are either not authorized to speak on the record or because they fear retaliation from the federal government, including the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. departments of the Interior and Justice, which are all involved in the criminal and civil litigation arising from Steinle's death.
Though he received no consequences, both criminal and civil attorneys allege Woychowski's carelessness played a key role in Steinle's killing.
"None of this would have been possible but for Woychowski’s negligence," defense attorney Gonzalez said. "He started the chain of events and there’s been no scrutiny of his actions."
He continued: "You don't want to punish someone for an accident which he feels bad about. OK, we understand that. But to promote him is an affront to the role that he played in starting this chain of events."
The former employee who saved and eventually provided to KQED a copy of the email announcing Woychowski's promotion said the Steinle family has a right to know about it.
"I feel horrible for the family," the source said. "I feel somewhat accountable. I worked for the agency. I know the devil is in the details. I know the fact that he really shouldn't have been there. I know for a fact that he shouldn't have left his gun in the car. He did two major no-nos."
KQED sought comment from BLM leadership involved in announcing Woychowski's promotion. Stephanie Clark could not be reached for comment. John Woychowski, Salvador Nieblas and Kynan Barrios did not return phone messages seeking comment.
"The BLM will not comment on employment history in cases where the request pertains to pending litigation," a spokeswoman for the bureau's California state office wrote in an emailed response.
Marisa Lagos, Dan Brekke and David Weir of KQED News contributed to this report.