One of the two men killed in a police shooting that unfolded last week after officers responded to an assault in Dogpatch was a Cuban immigrant who lived on the streets of San Francisco, The Standard has learned.
Rafael Mendoza, 49, died from a bullet wound after four officers saw two men fighting with a knife and discharged their weapons at Mariposa and Owens streets on the evening of May 19, according to authorities.
The other man, Michael MacFhionghain, 57, also died after being shot multiple times.
SFPD has released scant details about the shooting, even declining to confirm whether Mendoza or MacFhionghain were struck by police bullets. It’s also unclear which of the two men had the knife or who was the aggressor.
However, the California Department of Justice has launched an investigation into the shooting, suggesting that one of the men was unarmed. The DOJ initiated the probe under a new state law requiring independent investigations whenever police shoot someone who’s unarmed. The agency cited “uncertainty” over the incident as the cause for the probe.
Mendoza immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba as a child only to find himself locked in cycles of homelessness and petty crime as an adult, according to an attorney who represented him at the time of his death. He had an adult son but lacked support from his family.
“As far as I knew him, he was a desperate person who committed crimes of desperation,” said Alexandra Pray, a deputy public defender in San Francisco. “He was always very sweet and gentle when I met with him and I was just shocked to learn that he could be involved in a violent incident.”
Pray said Mendoza was chronically homeless for the last five years, mostly living in and around South of Market. He would frequent Seventh and King streets—not far from the shooting that killed him.
Pray acknowledged that Mendoza had a rap sheet that spanned more than two decades from an arson-related conviction in 1997 to a 2019 car burglary case. But Pray said Mendoza did not have a history of violence.
Shy Brown, an activist with the Coalition on Homelessness, said she first met Mendoza while doing outreach along Division Street during the pandemic.
Brown remembered how Mendoza would hold up a sign on the side of the road, asking for money. He would push his belongings in a shopping cart, sleep in tents and move around a lot.
“He was tired of being out on the streets, doing what he was doing, going back and forth into jail,” Brown said. “He wanted to change, he wanted to do better for himself.”
Brown said she last spoke to him three weeks ago when he was hanging out by the Civic Center BART Station. She greeted him with a hug. “He said, ‘I'm doing good, I’m doing real good,’” Brown recalled.
Police have not identified the officers who discharged their weapons.
A police spokesperson declined to answer questions about the shooting Wednesday, saying SFPD was “precluded from disclosing further details” about the case beyond a brief statement issued the night of the incident.
Michael Barba can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org