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Steinle’s accused killer seen staring, laughing

Witnesses Tuesday described Jose Ines Garcia Zarate staring at people and laughing shortly before Kathryn Steinle was fatally shot more than two years ago at Pier 14, and said they saw him leaving the scene immediately afterward, as testimony continued in his trial in San Francisco Superior Court on murder charges.

Garcia Zarate, 45, who is charged with second-degree murder in the July 1, 2015 shooting, was seen by East Coast resident Michelle Lo, who was visiting San Francisco with her sons and sister, sitting on a chair on the pier shortly before the shooting.

Lo, speaking through a Cantonese interpreter, said she saw “a man dressed in black” looking at the people passing by, swiveling around and around. He was grinning, she said, and appeared to be laughing although she could not hear him.

Lo said:

“When we walked by he would just look at you, he would grin and he would spin in his chair.”

Lo said she saw who she thought was the same man in black leaving the area just after she heard a loud bang and saw a woman on the ground, but did not see his face.

Two other witnesses, Central Valley elementary school teacher Maria Moreno and her roommate, restaurant manager Aryn Carpenter, were staying in a hotel room directly across from the pier when they heard the gunshot.

Moreno and Carpenter both said they looked outside and saw a body on the ground and groups of people on the pier. One woman was at the end of the pier talking on the phone and a man in black clothing was walking away.

“He had a scowl on his face,” Moreno said, and was walking “briskly.” Carpenter, however, said she could not see the man’s face and thought that he walked “casually” at first, then picked up the pace.

They took photos of the man from their hotel room and showed them to police a short time later. Later in the evening they identified Garcia Zarate as the same man after police picked him up within a mile from where the shooting occurred.

All three witnesses initially told police Garcia Zarate appeared to be African American or darker skinned, and commented in court today that he now appeared to have a lighter complexion.

Defense attorneys are not disputing that Garcia Zarate handled the gun that shot Steinle, but are instead arguing that the weapon, which had been stolen from an off-duty Bureau of Land Management agent’s car a few days earlier, went off in his hands when he picked it up. The bullet that struck Steinle ricocheted off the ground first, lending some support to their theory that it was accidental.

Prosecutors, however, are arguing that Garcia Zarate deliberately fired at Steinle or others in the crowd, and may have simply not raised the gun barrel high enough.

Outside court, Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney for the public defender’s office, said Lo had not told police Garcia Zarate was laughing or acting strangely when she was interviewed after the shooting.

He noted there were some inconsistencies in the witness statements, including the speed at which Garcia Zarate was seen leaving the area, and questioned the prosecution’s depiction of him.

Gonzalez said:

“They’ve gone so far as to suggest that he had the gun and purposefully tried what was described as a skip shot and planned his getaway so as not to be seen. … And yet on the other hand you see this depiction of him that would be really at odds with his ability to develop this plan, so I’m not really sure what the prosecution is doing.”

Testimony is set to continue Wednesday morning, with a forensic investigator for the police department expected to be the first to take the stand.

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