Homeless San Francisco Man Who Attacked Ex-Fire Commissioner With Crowbar Is Released From Jail, as His Lawyers Claim He Was Pepper-Sprayed, Acted in Self-Defense

The war of words between homeless man and beating victim come as San Francisco reels from lawless behavior, drug use by a burgeoning homeless population.

AP/Godofredo A. Vásquez
From left, the San Francisco mayor, London Breed, district attorney, Brooke Jenkins, and police chief, William Scott, during a press conference April 13, 2023. AP/Godofredo A. Vásquez

The case against a homeless man who attacked a former San Francisco fire commissioner with a crowbar earlier this month took an unexpected turn this week, prompting the question: Will we see a resurgence of vigilantism in American cities?

The brutal April 5 daytime assault of a former fire commissioner, Don Carmignani, by a 24-year-old vagrant, Garret Doty, was caught on surveillance and cellphone video. Mr. Carmignani says he confronted Mr. Doty and two others after he got a phone call from his elderly mother, who said homeless individuals were blocking the entryway to her house and consuming drugs.

The footage initially released to the public shows Mr. Doty grabbing a metal pipe out of a trash can, taking practice swings, and then chasing Mr. Carmignani down the street. Mr. Doty backs Mr. Carmignani against a wall outside a gas station and bashes him in the head and face multiple times with the metal rod.

Mr. Carmignani suffered a skull fracture and a broken jaw that required a metal plate being inserted in his face. He needed more than 50 stitches and was in the ICU for several days.

Mr. Doty was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated battery.

“So much of what’s creating fear in American cities is not only serious crime, but much of the minor crime that contributes to that serious crime,” a former NYPD commissioner, William Bratton, who oversaw a more than 50 percent drop in violent crime at New York City in the 1990s, tells the Sun. “If you can’t control behavior then you’re going to get an out-of-control city. And San Francisco right now is an out-of-control city.”

What initially seemed like an open-and-shut case took an unusual turn on Tuesday, when the prosecutor’s office called Mr. Carmignani to say they would be dropping the charges against Mr. Doty “based on new evidence.” Mr. Carmignani then gave an interview to CBS from his home, telling his side of the story. The district attorney quickly backtracked and said her office would be pursuing the case.

The new evidence, presented by Mr. Doty’s public defender at a hearing Wednesday, included video footage of what she says is Mr. Carmignani — the man’s face is covered by a mask and ball cap — spraying Mr. Doty with bear spray, a form of pepper spray, right before the assault. The spraying isn’t visible on tape, though Mr. Doty is seen jumping back and covering his head with a jacket. The public defender, Kleigh Hathaway, argues Mr. Doty acted in self-defense when he then attacked Mr. Carmignani with the crowbar.

Ms. Hathaway also brought up eight prior incidents of homeless persons being sprayed with pepper spray in or around the Marina District, implying that Mr. Carmignani may be responsible for those crimes. She says the prosecutor’s office included the tapes of these incidents in its discovery, implying they saw a possible connection as well. In footage of one from 2021, a masked man matching Mr. Carmignani’s description sprays a sleeping homeless person with pepper spray for about five seconds at night. Mr. Carmignani denies every pepper spraying homeless persons.

In the CBS interview, a visibly injured Mr. Carmignani details the events of April 5. He says he called the police earlier that day but there was nothing they could do but offer the homeless persons services. He says that he carried pepper spray for self-defense, as does his daughter, and that he actually sprayed himself in the confrontation by mistake, not Mr. Doty.

“I didn’t go out there to fight anyone. I’m trying to get them down the road. Go to the park. It’s three on one. I know odds. I’m 52 years old. I have two hip replacements,” Mr. Carmignani said. “When you have animals in the street saying they’re going to rape your daughter and kill your mother, and you have nothing to do or help — and when you call for help, 911, and that’s your savior and they don’t show up — what do you do?”

What should residents do when a city cannot or will not effectively respond to their quality-of-life and safety concerns?

“What Carmignani did was unforgivable,” a formerly homeless addict who is now a recovery advocate in San Francisco, Tom Wolf, tells the Sun of the alleged pepper spray attacks. “At the same time, we — the city — have done such a terrible job of responding to the homeless crisis, and at the same time have implemented all this criminal justice reform without providing any infrastructure for people struggling with homelessness and drug addiction. And the result we get is vigilantism.”  

“It’s illegal to go around and pepper spray homeless people,” a civil rights attorney and 2022 San Francisco district attorney candidate, Joe Veronese, tells the Sun. “But that’s not a crime that’s actually enforced in San Francisco. I mean, crimes are not enforced in the city.” He says the city is on the verge of vigilantism because “people in the city have lost faith in the criminal justice system.”

The turn to vigilantism sounds like New York City in the 1970s and ’80s. Then, Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” movies were popular and Bernard Goetz, dubbed the “subway vigilante,” earned support from New Yorkers angry about rampant crime. In 1984, Goetz shot four Black teenagers on the subway who allegedly tried to rob him, paralyzing one. He was acquitted of all but one charge: carrying an unlicensed firearm. He served eight months in prison.

In January, a video of a San Francisco gallery owner spraying a homeless woman with a hose went viral. The gallerist was arrested for battery and later apologized, saying he’d tried to get the woman help before but that he hit a breaking point playing security guard and social worker to the homeless residents outside his door.

“We have people carrying tasers and all sorts of weapons around the city. I just applied for my concealed weapons permit,” Mr. Veronese says. “I don’t believe this city is safe anymore. … The cops don’t get out of their cars. They have zero faith in the criminal justice system, so they’re not going to take the risks they usually take, you know, by searching people, getting pricked with needles, that type of stuff.”

San Francisco has historically had low rates of violent crime — and still does compared to similar-sized American cities. The murder of a tech executive, Bob Lee, just one day before the assault on Mr. Carmignani, though, has drawn national attention to the city’s struggles with crime and a drug-fueled homelessness crisis. Property crimes in San Francisco are through the roof. There have been more than 9,000 reported larceny thefts there since just the start of the year.

There are about 8,000 homeless persons in San Francisco. The city is hamstrung by a federal court ruling that it cannot clear tent encampments due to lack of available shelter beds. In the neighborhoods hardest hit by the fentanyl crisis — the Tenderloin and SOMA — some blocks are filled with tents, and needles and human waste litter the sidewalks. There are more than two overdose deaths a day — a startling number for a city with fewer than a million residents. Homelessness-related services cost the city nearly $1 billion per year.

Residents and business owners have hit a breaking point. Whole Foods recently announced it is closing its flagship San Francisco store “to ensure the safety” of its employees. Last year, business owners in the Tenderloin sent a letter to Mayor Breed demanding a refund on their taxes because the city refused to enforce laws against public drug consumption and drug dealing. The drug problem has gotten so bad that California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, announced he is deploying the California National Guard and California Highway Patrol to help the city crack down on fentanyl trafficking and drug dealing starting Monday.

“I love San Francisco. This is painful. I’m a third generation San Franciscan,” a former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and a two-time Democratic mayoral candidate, Angela Alioto, tells the Sun. “We need a real law and order. We need to stop the corruption in nonprofits getting a billion dollars while the homeless, true homeless people, die.”

On Thursday, Mr. Doty was released from custody with minimum supervision — only a once-a-week check in — because Mr. Carmignani failed to appear in court to give testimony at a preliminary hearing. District Attorney Brooke Jenkins said in a statement that Mr. Carmignani failed to appear “because of his injuries” but that “his testimony is necessary for us to prove these charges.” A new preliminary hearing is set for May 23.

“The DA is relying on Don’s testimony to get past a preliminary hearing, which is totally unnecessary. The entire incident was filmed on tape,” Mr Veronese says. He also calls Mr. Doty’s self-defense claims absurd. “Self-defense has a beginning and an end. It ends once the aggression stops,” he says. “It’s not self-defense when you’re chasing a guy down the street and you’re clobbering him in the back of the head with a metal pipe. At that point it’s called retribution and revenge, and that’s not legal.”

Mr. Veronese says Ms. Jenkins, his former campaign rival, is “incompetent” and “over her head.”

Mayor Breed appointed Ms. Jenkins to her post after the June 2022 recall of a progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin. Ms. Jenkins won election in November, promising to prosecute fentanyl dealers and be tough on crime.

Mr. Bratton says a focus on serious crime is not enough — cities need to “focus on both serious crime and disorder at the same time.” He pioneered the “broken windows” strategy of policing, whereby officers enforce laws against so-called nuisance crimes like subway fare evasion, painting graffiti, and public drug use. “If you don’t focus on the disorder, then effectively what you’re doing is you’re creating more opportunity for that disorder, but also more opportunity for more significant crime,” he says. The Carmignani assault is a case in point.

Mr. Bratton says most people don’t become victims of violent crimes like assault or murder, but everyone in a city is a victim of fear if chaos reigns on the streets or public transit.

“We need a strong leader like a Bill Bratton to come to San Francisco and say enough is enough. We’re going to start enforcing laws,” Mr. Veronese says. He says it’s the “small stuff” that makes law-abiding residents in San Francisco furious, like when he goes to Walgreens and people are openly stealing. “Our city is in a downward spiral we call a doom loop. We’ve had 17 major brands leave the downtown area in the last eight months … the governor has called in the National Guard, graffiti is everywhere. Now people just go breaking windows like there’s no consequence, because there is no consequence.”

“I’ve been preaching this for 30 some odd years, but the left wing politicians we have in power, they basically don’t get it. And as a result what you get is cities like San Francisco,” Mr. Bratton says. “My own projection is unfortunately that it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.”  

The New York Sun

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