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Man arrested after slipping through the system following alleged Castro assaults

by Sari Staver

The intersection of 18th and Castro streets, where a Castro resident said he was attacked in February. Photo: Sari Staver
The intersection of 18th and Castro streets, where a Castro resident said he was attacked in February. Photo: Sari Staver  

A man accused of assaulting and harassing people in the Castro was arrested on unrelated charges June 28, stemming from an alleged attack on a family in the city.

At his July 1 arraignment in San Francisco Superior Court, Triball Zero pleaded not guilty to charges of robbery, battery, assault with a deadly weapon, and child endangerment. He is being held without bail in San Francisco County Jail. A preliminary hearing is set for July 15, according to Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney's office.

According to Bastian, the arrest took place after Zero got into an altercation with a family at a local park. When the male victim began filming the dispute, "words were apparently exchanged," Bastian said, before Zero allegedly grabbed and smashed the phone.

The San Francisco Public Defender's office, which is representing Zero, did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. A spokeswoman's voicemail was full and unable to accept messages.

Zero, 37, who is known to some Castro residents and merchants for his unruly behavior, allegedly attacked Zack Karlsson in the middle of a busy Saturday afternoon at 18th and Castro streets earlier this year. Karlsson, a tech CEO who lives and works in the Castro, made a citizen's arrest and police cited Zero for battery following the February incident. Karlsson accused Zero of punching him in the head while walking behind him crossing the street at 18th and Castro.

Four months later, Canela Bistro and Wine Bar owner Mat Schuster called police after Zero allegedly harassed him in the Castro, screaming and following him closely during a 30-minute chase.

Zero has not been charged in the alleged incidents involving Karlsson and Schuster.

Both men have expressed frustration that Zero had apparently fallen through the cracks in the city's public health and law enforcement systems.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said the case is illustrative of the need for change.

"Triball is a known challenge to the neighborhood, is clearly a danger to himself and others, and it shouldn't take committing multiple serious crimes to get him off the streets and into care," Mandelman told the Bay Area Reporter in an email on July 2. "After slipping through the system time after time, I hope there is a good outcome to this case that gets him the help he needs and also protects Castro residents and businesses."

Tried to help
People in the Castro had reached out to help Zero, to no avail. Billy Lemon, executive director of the Castro Country Club, a clean and sober space, wrote in an email to the Bay Area Reporter: "Both Brandon [Stanton, assistant director] and I tried for about six months to help Zero ... trying to direct him to treatment, as we know it is an important first step for healing." Lemon said that like many other locals, Zero knew the country club was a space that was safe.

"I think Zero needs supportive care. I'm not a social worker so I can't say for sure what that would look like. I can say that folks living on the street (as he did at the time) suffer from events that make it hard to ask for help. I, too, hope Zero gets some help. Due to a series of events that were not supportive of our code of conduct at the club, Zero was asked to leave."

Zero was often seen in the neighborhood. On February 8, police cited him for misdemeanor battery after Karlsson called 911 to say that someone had clobbered him at 18th and Castro streets.

At 6 feet, 5 inches tall, Karlsson said he had never worried about the growing number of street assaults in the neighborhood.

"Who's going to mess with someone my size?" asked Karlsson, 42, who typically travels with Norman, his 55-pound, one-eyed pit bull.

A gay man who has lived — "and loved" — the Castro for the past four years, Karlsson said that he has started to change his mind.

The incident occurred as Karlsson walked down 18th and arrived at the Castro rainbow crosswalks on a busy afternoon. Seemingly out of nowhere, Karlsson felt "a searing pain" on the side of his head.

"It felt like I was hit by a two-by-four," he said in a recent interview. His head spinning, Karlsson pulled himself together and asked the handful of people at the bus stop if any of them saw what had just happened to him.

Half a dozen people nodded yes ("But not a single one asked me if I needed help," he said), while two men continued to walk away, screaming and swearing at Karlsson. Karlsson followed them and pulled out his cellphone to capture images of his alleged attackers. Karlsson called 911 and police "showed up almost immediately," he said.

Much to Karlsson's surprise, one of the men, whom Karlsson identified as Zero, seemed to confess to the cops immediately. "I'm the one you're looking for. Just give me the battery citation and fuck off," Karlsson said the suspect told police. The man identified himself, according to the police, listing his address and phone as unknown.

Police explained that in order for them to issue a citation, Karlsson would have to fill out the paperwork to make a citizen's arrest, which he did.

As he walked the few blocks back to his home, Karlsson said to himself, "That was too easy. Cops show up immediately, guy confesses, fill out paperwork, done."

After a number of back and forth phone conversations while the case sat on the desk of an assistant district attorney, Karlsson learned in June that the DA's office dropped the charge.

"I was really pissed," said Karlsson. "I didn't want him sent to jail. I wanted him to get help. The DA [Chesa Boudin] ran on a platform of prosecuting violent crimes. I don't believe any voters want violent crimes to go unprosecuted, but that seems to be where we are now."

Testimony at supe's hearing
Now, ready to see if he could find out where the system failed, Karlsson was one of the first people to testify at Mandelman's June 25 public safety committee hearing. Mandelman is among the most vocal local politicians expressing concern about street assaults in his district, and called the hearing hoping to kick-start the discussion about getting help for homeless, mentally ill people.

Like the victims, Mandelman said he too is "frustrated beyond belief."

At the hearing, Mandelman also voiced his frustration that the conservatorship program — a program under a new state law — had gotten off to such a slow start.

"I am very perplexed" about why it has taken an entire year and we still haven't had a single person conserved" under Senate Bill 1045, he said.

The law by gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) creates a five-year pilot program for San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego counties, allowing for strengthened conservatorship laws that focus on providing housing and wraparound services for people suffering from mental health and substance use issues. Then-governor Jerry Brown signed it in 2018.

Specifically, said Mandelman in a recent telephone interview, "I want to find out why the program hasn't gotten off the ground."

Karlsson had the same question.

"We are nearly two years from Governor Brown's signing this bill, 40% of the way through a five-year trial. While I don't have the vocabulary or the history, I do have experience with having been assaulted by a mentally ill person with substance abuse problems," he said.

"Why is there a lack of urgency? I apologize for how inflammatory this sounds, and it's not an accusation. However, this is life or death for some people; it was for Leo Hainzl," he added.

Karlsson was referencing the case of Hainzl, a Glen Park resident who was killed in May. The man who allegedly killed him was also well known to local residents, businesses, and the police. (Peter Rocha, a homeless man, has been charged with suspicion of homicide in that case.)

When informed July 1 that Zero was in jail for the unrelated assault, Karlsson wrote in an email, "I'm glad he's not currently a danger to himself or others. But we, as a city, failed this man."

He continued, "He's now likely to spend real time behind bars. Isn't the point of having conservatorship measures, explicitly, to intervene before these cases get to be too serious that they end up in jail for long periods of time, unable to be rehabilitated. Isn't that what we were trying to avoid?"

Other alleged incident
Four months after Karlsson was assaulted, the same man allegedly attacked Schuster, a longtime Castro business owner and executive chef of Canela, which he opened with his partner in 2011.

"When I moved to San Francisco, I fell in love with the Castro," said Schuster, 43, a gay man who has lived in the neighborhood for the past 15 years.

In a telephone interview with the B.A.R., Schuster described a terrifying incident on June 10. While picking up lunch at a sandwich shop in the Castro, the same man who had allegedly attacked Karlsson four months earlier was blocking the doorway of the cafe, telling the restaurateur he "wasn't going to move" and suggested Schuster "call 911."

Schuster brushed past him but the man followed closely behind, screaming, causing several drivers on Market Street to pull over and offer help.

"He was practically on top of me," said Schuster, noting that the subject wasn't wearing a protective mask.

"If I get sick, and have to close the restaurant, that affects everyone who works there," said Schuster, who has kept Canela open continuously for takeout since sheltering in place began in March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Canela added outdoor tables when it was permitted.)

Schuster said he filed a police report. The DA's office says it never saw it and only became aware of the incident when the B.A.R. asked about it while reporting for this story.

The man followed Schuster to the Castro Farmers Market, he said, where market manager Mia Simmans said in an interview that she was "unfortunately, very familiar" with the man, who visits the Wednesday market regularly.

"He has made it almost impossible for me to do my job," Simmans said. "The police suggested I get a restraining order" to keep him at a distance.

She said that she has not yet begun the process for a restraining order.

Schuster determined it was Zero who allegedly attacked him after Simmans saw the chase and said that she has known Zero for years.

Like Karlsson, Schuster expressed his concern that people with severe mental illness "get the kind of help they need," not a trip to jail.

Schuster, who had worked with at-risk youth earlier in his career, said, "The city needs to have a structure in place to help at-risk people. Right now, it's like all hell has broken loose. It's an overwhelming problem."

The city has "quickly mobilized around COVID, which gives me hope that it is possible" to come up with solutions for other issues facing the city, he added.

Karlsson hasn't given up just yet.

After several visits to Walgreens adjacent to the attack, Karlsson was convinced that its security cameras had not captured any images of the incident. "That would've been important," said Karlsson, "because I was hit from behind and did not actually witness" the crime. By the time the police left the scene it was too late to find any people who might've been at the corner to identify the suspect.

Karlsson is still awaiting the body cam footage from the SFPD. He hopes the officer's body cam footage may have captured the spontaneous confession of the alleged assailant, evidence he can use to convince a judge to grant him an order of protection.

"It's not like me and Norman can just blend in. We stick out. We're going to be an ongoing target," he said.

As far as the difficulty of getting the DA's office to prosecute more cases, Mandelman told the B.A.R. in a telephone interview, "It seems to me there is something pretty broken with both the public health and criminal justice systems" in the city.

"I think the police should be citing more, the DA should be charging more, and we should be using charges to help leverage people who need treatment into such programs. I have expressed my interest repeatedly to the police and DA's office to try to better understand what is keeping crimes, such as Zack Karlsson's" from being charged and prosecuted.

In a phone interview with the B.A.R., Bastian, the DA spokesman, confirmed the details of Karlsson's case but said he could not reveal any other information about the subject, including whether the suspect had a criminal record.

As far as why the DA decided to drop the Karlsson case rather than press charges, Bastian said, "We are not allowed to discuss any specifics of the case. I can only tell you that in order to charge," the district attorney must believe that a San Francisco jury would be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect was guilty.

Mandelman said one of the challenges of the system is to "get different departments" to work together.

"It's absolutely essential that we work together to take more responsibility for what is going on in the streets. We've had a lot of finger pointing and passing the buck," he said.

Aside from issues surrounding the novel coronavirus pandemic, Mandelman said, "This is the biggest problem facing the residents of District 8."

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