By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Howard Cole
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
A hazy twilight was descending on the Potrero Hill public housing projects, a labyrinth of decaying barrackslike apartment buildings, when they arrived.
They were the media print reporters and local TV news crews and at least four politicians, along with activists affiliated with several different organizations.
A genuinely stunning display of violence had drawn them to the neighborhood, with its 600 apartments overlooking the white concrete of the 280 freeway and the smokestack-studded flats along the city's eastern waterfront.
A week earlier, on Oct. 14, 2005, an assassin equipped with an assault rifle loosed a swarm of .223-caliber rounds into a beat-up gray Acura Integra in two quick bursts. Sitting in the car were 22-year-old Dernae Wysinger, his 2-year-old son Naemon Wysinger, and his girlfriend Jazmanika Ridout, who was also in her early 20s. It was dusk and they were parked a few feet from a day care center for poor kids.
At least 10 bullets razored through Dernae, who was seated behind the wheel, shredding sinew, flesh, and organs. Two rounds punched through the chest of little Naemon. Two more bullets caught Ridout, wounding her leg and hand.
The gunfire killed father and son. Ridout, remarkably, survived with relatively minor injuries. Even for a city overloaded with murders, this one sparked outrage.
Now, the pols and the press and the activists had somberly gathered on Turner Terrace, the cul-de-sac where the killing occurred. Speeches were made. Candles were lit. The crowd, about a hundred strong, stood in a circle, clasped hands, and prayed for something or someone to quell the upsurge in homicides that has claimed hundreds of lives predominately those of young African-American men over the past several years.
The authorities and media tend to roll out a stock explanation for the mayhem gripping the city's tougher census tracts: gangs. But when it comes to the Potrero Hill slayings and many other homicides it's just not that simple. Although Dernae Wysinger kicked it with a tight clique of hard-assed dudes, he definitely didn't claim membership in any gang. And while he was a purveyor of illicit substances, the murder of Wysinger and his son doesn't appear to have sprung from a squabble over drug profits.
In all likelihood the killings were personal the product of a beef that originated with a handful of pissed-off young men and escalated and escalated until it engulfed an entire neighborhood.
It seems Dernae Wysinger, Naemon Wysinger, and Jazmanika Ridout were casualties of an ongoing civil war, an armed conflict that's claimed the lives of far more San Franciscans than the combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, though outside of the black community, few people are aware of the origins, scale, or depth of the hostilities.
Five days after the murders occurred, cops grabbed a suspect, a young African-American man named Joseph Stevens, who was then 22, just as Dernae Wysinger was at the time of his death.
There were many other symmetries between suspect and victim.
Wysinger, Ridout, and Stevens had all grown up together on the southern fringe of the city, in the area between San Francisco State University and City College, a district most black people refer to as Lakeview, and most white people call Oceanview, although no body of water is visible from this blue-collar quadrant. It's a neighborhood of small, tidy single-family homes, with a few apartment buildings sprinkled in.
While Lakeview doesn't have the reputation for drug activity (like, say, the Tenderloin or the 16th Street/Mission nexus) or violence (like Bayview-Hunters Point), the area has seen plenty of both.
Wysinger and Stevens both spent much time hanging out on Randolph Street, one of the area's main drags, peddling crack cocaine, according to people close to both men. The two even lived, at different times, in the same house at 164 Margaret St.
For many years Wysinger, Stevens, and Ridout were all friends. After Stevens was jailed, Ridout describes her bond with Stevens in sworn testimony. "We had like a brother-sister relationship," she said. "We would be hanging at the park together, riding around together. He would come to my house." Stevens and Wysinger were also tight, according to Ridout's testimony; at times Stevens would even baby-sit Naemon.
But in June of 2003 the friendship started unraveling. Just what destroyed the bond between Wysinger, Ridout, and Stevens remains a matter of some dispute, though most of Wysinger's friends trace the falling-out to a melee that occurred in the middle of Randolph Street.
Sources who witnessed the fist fight say Wysinger attacked Stevens and another friend after motioning to Stevens to stop the car he was driving. Other people charged into the brawl and it quickly became a full-blown battle royale, with fists and feet flying. There were no guns or knives involved, but it was pretty brutal nonetheless. Witnesses said Stevens fled, his body battered and pride damaged.
On a recent afternoon two men close to the conflict explained the situation to SF Weekly, with the understanding that their names wouldn't be used in this story. Both men are former dope hustlers from the Lakeview area, and at our meeting both sported plenty of bling gleaming jewel-encrusted pendants, expensive watches, diamond ear studs, etc. and sagged-out designer jeans. Because violence stemming from the fight continues to this day, they took the precaution of meeting us far from Lakeview, in an Oakland apartment on a quiet street shadowed by the North County Jail.
The brawl "was a dividing point," recalled one of the men, whom we'll call R, who was loyal to Wysinger. "When the fight broke out it opened up an area for cats to say, 'I don't like him, I don't like him.'"
The dispute bifurcated the loose group of roughly 30 or so young men who controlled the trade in crack and marijuana in Lakeview Wysinger remained a player on Randolph Street, while Stevens was exiled to Oceanview Park, a low-traffic area designated a drug-free zone by the city, which meant stiffer penalties for anyone caught holding drugs in the vicinity.
Those closer to Wysinger stuck with him; those allied with Stevens went over to the park. Neither group, however, could really be called a gang. The factions weren't hierarchical, and didn't have rules, codes, or organizational structures. The groups didn't even have names.
Some participants in the feud "were ready to fight," while "a few were ready to die," R said. And indeed, before long people started dying.
At the same time the conflict was simmering, the drug game was mutating. Crack and weed sales were down. Meth and ecstasy were supplanting rock cocaine in popularity, and the Lakeview hustlers weren't as well connected when it came to acquiring the new drugs. Meanwhile, the clientele was disappearing as poor drug users left the city for cheaper environs in the deep East Bay and elsewhere.
Guys who were accustomed to pulling in $500 a day watched as their profits dwindled. "Lakeview was always about money, hustling," R told us. "There's not that much money in the drug areas anymore."
Our other source, whom we'll call W, echoed the thought: "There's a lot of frustration on the streets. There's not much money in the dope game. If you can't live comfortably, you got nothing but anger."
The anger expressed itself in gunfire, as the two factions began taking aim at one another and that, the sources say, is when the feud really exploded, with each shooting sparking a retaliatory barrage of bullets. What began as a fist fight and hurt feelings quickly morphed into a string of grisly tit-for-tat killings.
Less than a week after the fight, Sean Anderson, 18, one of the alleged participants in the brawl, and an ally of Stevens, was murdered. Marking his demise with a five-sentence-long blurb, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, "Anderson was walking on Capitol Street in the Oceanview district at 8:30 p.m. when the two men started chasing him. He stumbled between two parked cars, and the men opened fire. ... Inspector Thomas Cleary of the homicide detail said police have no suspects or motive."
Three years later detectives probably have a theory about the case, but they still haven't taken a suspect into custody for the slaying of Anderson. That's not unusual for the San Francisco Police Department, which has been struggling to make arrests in serious cases for many years. As of early December, 80 people had been slain within the city limits during this calendar year; police, according to a well-placed source at the Hall of Justice, had made arrests in only 21 cases.
After many fairly quiet years, the city's murder rate began ballooning in 2004, hit a 10-year peak in 2005 when 96 people were killed, and today remains well above the levels documented in the mid- to late 1990s.
In this violent context, Wysinger was known both as a heavy-handed pugilist, and a fun-loving, weed-smoking partier. "He liked everything a young nigga would, like partying and feeling good," W told us, adding that Wysinger loved fast cars, motorcycles, and bikes. "You could see Dernae going to the X Games or somethin'. I saw him wheelie all the way up Randolph, and if you been to Randolph, you know that's a long way."
In R's opinion, "[Dernae] was respected and feared in Lakeview. My perspective is a lot of people were scared of him and they didn't want to fight him, so they went the alternate route." As in using bullets to take him down.
Guns, especially military combat weapons, are easy to come by in Lakeview. W, for example, owns a Chinese-made AK-47, a Russian-made AK-47, and a third rifle, a collection he picked up for a mere $750. "It's easier to get an assault rifle than a handgun. You can get one before you can get a 9 [mm handgun]," W told us, explaining that assault rifles retail for less on the streets because they're harder to conceal.
Wysinger's father, Randolph Wysinger, says the gunfire that popped off around the neighborhood didn't faze his son. "Dernae wasn't scared of anything," he recalled. "That's probably what got him killed. These guys were looking for him for months."
Before the feud erupted, Dernae had more opportunities to display his warm, gregarious side. "He could get along with anybody. There was a time when we lost our place and we were staying in a hotel in San Bruno. It wasn't but a couple days we were staying there and Dernae had met everyone around there," his father recounted.
Today Randolph Wysinger is still wrestling with the loss of Dernae and Naemon. He's also dealing with another painful loss: an adopted son who's been banished to state prison for his role in the fratricidal street war.
In many respects, Mike Howard was a second son to Randolph Wysinger.
Howard wasn't blood he's the son of Randolph Wysinger's common-law wife but he was very much part of the family and he grew up in Randolph Wysinger's home, along with Dernae. Though Dernae and Howard weren't actual siblings, by all accounts they loved one another like brothers.
A tall character with a mess of unkempt hair and a despondent expression, Howard last month celebrated his 25th birthday while confined to a cell in the county jail, and will be spending many more birthdays behind bars.
Not long after Anderson was killed in 2003, somebody pointed a gun at Howard and began firing. The shooter missed, but ricocheting bullet shrapnel tagged Howard, the fragments burrowing into his leg.
Silence rules the streets. You do not snitch to the police. Even if someone has just tried to put you in a casket.
Because hospital staffers are required to call the police when shooting or stabbing victims show up at the emergency room, Howard chose not to head to San Francisco General, the city's major trauma center. Instead, he took a do-it-yourself approach, attempting to handle the wound himself.
"Fuck the hospital," Howard said. "I didn't go. I went and got me some drank and got some tweezers and tried to get [the bullet fragment] out. I never got it out."
After unsuccessfully trying to dig the metal out of his leg, Howard apparently decided to retaliate against Stevens and his crew.
Not surprisingly, Howard wouldn't tell SF Weekly who was trying to kill him code of the streets, again but in mid-October he pled guilty to fatally shooting Parish Williams, an 18-year-old who ran with Stevens.
The slaying, which occurred in early 2004 after a foot chase through Lakeview, made Williams the city's 12th homicide victim that year. Under the terms of the plea arrangement, Howard accepted a seven-year prison term, which is set to begin in the coming weeks.
Police and prosecutors theorize that the execution of Williams infuriated Stevens, prompting him to strike back at the other faction with overwhelming force. Stevens, the authorities claim, was seeking revenge on that night in October 2005 when he allegedly blasted Dernae, Naemon, and Ridout in Potrero Hill. (In court, Stevens has insisted he's innocent ever since he was first arraigned.)
Asked if he felt responsible for Dernae's and Naemon's death, Howard paused, drew several deep breaths, pointed his eyes toward the ceiling, and then slowly, quietly uttered the word "No."
However, Howard does think there may be a link between the murder he's jailed for and the murders of Dernae and Naemon. He says both he and Dernae figured prominently in 'hood gossip about the Williams killing and some people thought Dernae was the assailant. "There was always rumors. Names kept popping up 'He did it! He did it!'" Howard explained. "They had to get one of us [for revenge]."
A year later as he sits in jail, he's still haunted by the deaths of Dernae and Naemon. "[Jazmanika] sent me some pictures in a little yellow envelope. I had a picture of him and the little boy and I couldn't take it. I can't look at the pictures, you feel me? I can't take the pictures. I gave them to my lawyer," he said, pausing as tears collected in the corners of his eyes.
"That shit fucked me up," continued Howard. "I had to see a motherfucking psychiatrist. I was gonna slit my wrist. I'd switch places with Dernae. I'd switch places with his son. For my brother I'd do anything in this world."
When it comes to the subject of the murder of Williams, Howard is evasive, reluctant to take the blame for the slaying, or to confront the obvious parallels between the suffering he's experiencing and the suffering he's inflicted on others during the neighborhood civil war.
W figures the feud between the two factions has taken "eight to 10" lives. Each time one side lost a friend, they hit back at the other side. "I done lost a lot of homies," he said. R puts the number at 10, noting, "That's a lot for Lakeview, 'cause we a small community it's only about five blocks long. ... As black people it seems we don't have nothing to fight any more, so we fight ourselves."
If there's anybody who's well acquainted with the horrors humans visit upon one another, it's Thomas McDonald, an investigator assigned to the nightshift at the medical examiner's office. McDonald is tasked with picking up the city's dead and transporting them to the morgue.
He got the call on the night of Oct. 14, 2005, rolling out to Potrero Hill in a white van equipped to carry cadavers. Even for a seasoned veteran the violence was overwhelming.
"It was indeed a very disturbing scene for us even though we have been present at literally hundreds of death scenes including many homicides, suicides, accidental deaths, and natural deaths," he said in a written statement. "It was very disconcerting documenting the scene, and, in particular, the gunshots through the baby's car seat.
"After our investigation at the scene, we went to the hospital for further investigation and to pick up Naemon. This was very emotionally straining for me as well, due to my having a daughter of about the same age. Carrying a dead 2-year-old child in your arms through the empty halls of a hospital is an experience that is unimaginable."
Later, Assistant Medical Examiner Jon J. Smith performed autopsies on the two bodies, cataloging their wounds and the charting paths the bullets had taken as they passed through flesh. The killer had put bullets through Dernae's head, neck, jaw, lower back, back, left shoulder, left arm, left forearm, left hand, left buttock, left thigh, stomach, right forearm, right armpit, and right thigh. Two shots had punched through Naemon's chest, leaving copper shrapnel in his small heart.
Ridout escaped serious harm by flinging herself from the car and crawling on her stomach toward the cover provided by a Chevy station wagon parked nearby.
She and Dernae had been in the process of taking Naemon to stay with a cousin on Turner Terrace who'd offered to baby-sit the boy.
When police arrived Ridout told them she'd seen Stevens approach the car on foot, clad in an oversized black hooded sweatshirt and carrying some type of long gun. There were shots. Lots of them. Then he'd vanished.
Based on the strength of her statements, police quickly captured Stevens and prosecutors later charged him with two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder with "special circumstances," a legal distinction making Stevens eligible for the death penalty or a life term in the penitentiary without the possibility of parole. For the police the arrest of Stevens was a rare success, but that triumph wouldn't last long. By April, Stevens was standing trial in the courtroom of Judge Ksenia Tsenin, and that trial did not go well for the prosecutors.
After six weeks of testimony, the jurors found themselves unable to reach a unanimous decision on any charges; 10 were set on guilty verdicts, while two were equally adamant that he wasn't guilty.
"I thought since Jazzy survived it'd be a slam-dunk case," Randolph Wysinger said. "Usually the problem they have is nobody wants to testify. But here they have a witness." Though Wysinger is disappointed, he doesn't blame the cops or district attorney, and thinks Prosecutor Marshall Khine "did a good job."
Khine constructed his case around Ridout's identification of Stevens as the shooter. But on the night of the killings, the area was drenched in shadows, because at least a half-dozen large halogen lights attached to the exterior walls of the apartment buildings along Turner Terrace were busted or burnt out. Defense lawyers for Stevens attorneys Marla Zamora and Tito Torres contended there wasn't enough illumination on the street for Ridout to make an accurate ID on the hoodie-wearing shooter. (See sidebar.)
The defense attorneys thought Ridout pinned the murder on Stevens perhaps subconsciously after being "bombarded" with rumors about his role in the feud. "I really don't believe that she really got a look at the person who did the shooting," Torres told the judge, according to transcripts.
SF Weekly was unable to contact Ridout, who is currently ensconced in a witness protection program.
While it's unclear exactly why the jury hung up, they may have harbored some doubts about Ridout's testimony. As the jury discovered, her story about what happened on Turner Terrace evolved and mutated somewhat in the months since the killings. During her early conversations with police, Ridout had told the officers she couldn't make out Stevens' facial expression as he came toward the car. She also said he was running at the car before he opened fire. At trial she had a different recollection, saying she could distinctly make out a scowl on his face, and that he'd stalked toward the vehicle at a fast walk, not a run.
Plus, the jury may have wondered whether she could truly make out the assailant given the dim lighting on the hill. The district attorney's office is presently preparing to try Stevens for a second time.
"At one point, a majority of the jury had indicated that they voted guilty," said Bilen Mesfin, a spokesman for District Attorney Kamala Harris. "Our office is retrying this case because we will not give up our efforts to secure justice for victims and bring some just resolution for the community."
Legal counsel for Stevens declined to comment.
For Mike Brown, the bloodshed from revenge reflects "a lack of pride, a lack of opportunities." A retired Muni driver, Brown runs the Inner City Youth center, a mentoring program for kids in Lakeview, and tried to intervene in the lives of Howard, Stevens, and Wysinger. The neighborhood war has devastated Brown, a normally upbeat and energized character with four kids of his own. "It's hard, very hard," he said soberly. "The ones who survive, they gotta be real special."
Though his family has resided in Lakeview for generations, R has abandoned the neighborhood: "The beef is still going on. They're trying to pull people into it, so I stay away."
If the killings have had one positive effect, it is this: The bloodshed prompted R to reevaluate his life and take a step away from the streets. That awful night on Turner Terrace, he explained, "woke me up. If babies are getting killed, then they sure don't give a damn about my life. ... When Dernae and his son got killed, we was just like, 'Niggas turning into animals, acting like they didn't grow up together.'"