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SF synagogue shooting suspect fired blanks as ‘form of prayer,’ police testify

Dmitri Mishin during his arraignment on Feb. 17, 2023. | Matthew Kupfer/The Standard

A man accused of firing a replica gun in a San Francisco synagogue considered the shooting an act of prayer for his neighbor’s bird, according to new police testimony.

Dmitri Mishin, who faces two felony hate crime charges and six misdemeanors in the Feb. 1 incident, made the strange statements to officers interrogating him after his arrest a couple days later, police said in court. Mishin has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.

The revelation came up Monday in a San Francisco Superior Court hearing to determine whether there’s enough evidence to proceed with Mishin’s prosecution. The hearing adjourned without a decision.

Read our coverage of day two of the hearing.

“He admitted to being at the [synagogue],” SFPD Sgt. Michael Zhang told the court. “He told me he was there, shot the gun, that he did it because it’s a form of prayer—it’s his form of prayer."

“He was there to pray for his friend’s bird,” Zhang later clarified.

The sergeant’s testimony was one of several highlights in the first day of a preliminary hearing that brought cops, a rabbi and Mishin’s mother to the witness stand.

The hearing also offered a glimpse into defense and prosecution strategies, with Deputy District Attorney Jamal Anderson portraying Mishin as antisemitic and Deputy Public Defender Olivia Taylor leaning into claims that Mishin is Jewish and suffers from mental illness to suggest his actions were not motivated by hatred

According to Zhang, Mishin made contradictory and, at times, nonsensical claims during interrogation by the San Francisco police. 

Much of what emerged Monday came from Taylor asking Zhang to confirm details in a police chronology she read for the court.

Among statements police say Mishin made during interrogation:

  • He’s related to Jewish people and harbors no anger against Jews;
  • He converses with world dictators in North Korea and Japan, as well as with members of Norteños and Sureños gangs;
  • He lives on a submarine;
  • Weapons found at his home were movie props.

Rabbi Takes the Stand

On the evening of Feb. 1, Mishin allegedly walked into the Schneerson Center, a synagogue in the Richmond District that largely serves Russian-speaking Jews, and fired several blanks from a replica pistol. Then, he waved goodbye and left the building.

No one was injured, but the shooting rattled worshippers, who waited until the next morning to tell police what happened.

In the days after the shooting, The Standard reported that several social media pages that seemed to belong to Mishin contained antisemitic propaganda and photos that appeared to show him in a World War II-era German uniform.

Police records show that Mishin has a long history of documented violence in his past.

The Schneerson Center | Russell Yip for The Standard

During Monday’s preliminary hearing, Rabbi Bentziyon Pil said he was teaching a class when Mishin showed up and said, “Regards to you from the Mossad,” referencing the Israeli intelligence service.

Pil figured he was joking—until Mishin allegedly pulled out a gun and started shooting it overhead.

“At that moment, I reminded myself about the shooting in San Diego, and I thought it was the last seconds of my life,” Pil testified, referring to a 2019 mass shooting at a Poway synagogue that killed one person and injured three.

Pil said he was about to run to the synagogue’s kitchen for a knife to attack the shooter once his magazine ran out—but Mishin left before the rabbi could execute the plan.

“I was scared he would take new bullets and shoot again,” Pil said.

When Anderson asked why the congregation didn’t go to police sooner, Pil declined to say because he didn’t want Mishin to hear.

The rabbi relented after Judge Loretta M. Giorgi explained how the American legal system gives defendants the right to hear all testimony.

“We felt police will let him go afterward and he will come and retaliate,” Pil explained.

Rabbi Alon Chanukov (far right) puts on a tallit, a Jewish ritual garment, as he prepares for morning services at the Schneerson Center. | Russell Yip for The Standard

‘I Consider Myself Jewish’

When it was time for the defense to call their witnesses, Taylor brought Mishin’s 73-year-old mother Ludmila Mishina.

She testified that she and Mishin were born in the former Soviet Union and that her son was about 20 years old when they both came to the United States over 30 years ago.

“I consider myself Jewish,” Mishina said. “I don’t practice anymore, but I believe in God.”

She explained that her mother was Jewish and, according to Jewish law, that makes her Jewish. She also told the court that Mishin’s daughter is Jewish because her mother—Mishin’s ex-wife—is Jewish.

Mishina testified that her son has mental health issues and has been a patient at a Richmond District area clinic for decades. She also said she provides in-home support services for him, sometimes spending much of the week with Mishin.

With Mishina still on the stand, Taylor played a clip from a 2010 short film about World War II called “Grave Dawn” in which Mishin played a Nazi soldier.

Mishina said she recognized her son in the film and that he told her about it when he took part in its 2009 production.

Taylor appeared to suggest that widely circulated photos of Mishin in a German uniform came from the movie, and did not reflect any biases he might hold against Jews.

The preliminary hearing is set to continue on Tuesday morning.

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