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Finding Bob Lee’s killer: Former cops explain how SF homicide investigations unfold

Bob Lee attends the Build Gala 2014 honoring Ben Silbermann with the Pitch Prize for Entrepreneurship on March 1, 2014, in San Francisco. | Drew Altizer Photography

It’s been a full week since news broke that tech executive Bob Lee was stabbed to death in Downtown San Francisco, but the public remains none the wiser about what went down the night of the fatal assault.

There have been no arrests, no mentioned persons of interest nor any indication that the police have potential leads.

“I want to assure everyone that our investigators are working tirelessly to make an arrest and bring justice to Mr. Lee and his loved ones, just as we try to do on every homicide that occurs in our city,” San Francisco Chief of Police Bill Scott said last week. Scott has made no public updates about the case since.

The crime has garnered worldwide coverage, with some using the killing as an example of a city gone astray, characterizing San Francisco—despite what the data shows—as a place where violent crime rages unchecked. In one extreme example, outspoken tech professional Michelle Tandler appeared to suggest returning to public hangings as a way to dissuade would-be criminals. Notably, whether the attack was random or targeted remains one of several unknowns surrounding the case.

SFPD Chief Bill Scott appears at a press conference on Jan. 26, 2023. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

On Monday, Mayor London Breed warned the public on ABC7 not to turn the Lee case into an emblem of the city’s perceived crime issues, and House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi—whose husband, Paul, was attacked in his own home late last year—called the attack a tragedy.

Lee was stabbed twice around 2:30 a.m. April 4 near Main and Harrison streets, which is where he was found unconscious and bleeding out by police. He was seen in several videos wandering the area after the stabbing, trying to stop cars for help. He called 911 himself and screamed for help, saying that he had been stabbed.

Given the scant information available about the investigation, The Standard spoke with two former SFPD homicide cops for insight into how such an investigation typically unfolds.

The following information is not specific to the Lee case unless otherwise noted; this is what two former officers believe happened based on the information available and their experience on homicide cases.

The Homicide Detail 

The San Francisco Police Department’s Homicide Detail, located at 850 Bryant St., is led by Lt. Kelvin Sanders. Sanders oversees several teams that operate around the clock.

The Scene

The Lee investigation would have started with a call from the night captain—in this case in the early morning hours—telling the on-call inspector that a homicide occurred at a certain time and location.

Typically, a four-investigator team assigned to the case shows up to the scene, and Lt. Sanders usually accompanies them.

The first thing the team does at the scene is talk to the responding officers—the cops who initially responded to the 911 call—and to the crime scene investigators cataloging evidence and taking photos of the location. 

Then, the team members would be assigned various tasks. Several inspectors might be tasked with canvassing for video, and one would head to the hospital, in this case San Francisco General Hospital, where the victim died.

“It can be a grind,” said one of the former SFPD inspectors.

San Francisco police investigators cordon the area around former U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s home in the Pacific Heights neighborhood in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

The Body 

Once Lee was pronounced dead, the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office would have taken charge of the body and begun an autopsy at its Bayview facility. 

In the meantime, one of the homicide team’s inspectors would talk to the medical examiner to get an idea of what the pathologist thought might have happened. Were there defensive wounds? Did the victim struggle? How deep were the stab wounds? The details from the examination of the body can help investigators paint a picture of what happened, said one former investigator.

The Chief Medical Examiner’s Office also informs the family of the death, before homicide speaks to them.

Weeks later, a toxicology report will be made available to police, revealing whether any drugs or other substances were found in the body. Finally, a cause and manner of death will officially be determined.

On Wednesday, April 5, 2023, a pedestrian passes memorial flowers left on the block of Main Street between Harrison and Folsom where former Square Chief Technology Officer Bob Lee was stabbed the day before. | Noah Berger for The Standard

Cell Phones, 911 Calls and Video

Once investigators comb the scene for surveillance video, the team then contacts the Department of Emergency Management for a recording of the 911 call to listen for any potential leads. They would also ask for calls made to 911 about the incident. If someone other than Lee called 911 from the area, the officers would try to find that person and interview them.

In the Lee case, he was found with his phone, so the team would also start the process of getting phone company records that could show whom Lee talked to or texted, and generally where he was located. Those records would show every call, their duration and recipient, said one former investigator.

But that can take time, because a judge has to sign a warrant to get that information and the team has to serve that warrant to the phone company. The company then has to find and turn over that evidence.

When the phone records are handed over to the homicide unit, SFPD’s Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) tech team turns the data—phone calls, texts and social media—into digestible formats such as Excel spreadsheets with details about the numbers most often dialed or the last phone calls made that morning.

On Thursday, April 6, 203, a man crosses Harrison Street in Rincon Hill in San Francisco, two blocks from where tech executive Bob Lee was stabbed two days before. | Noah Berger for The Standard

Once video evidence—including surveillance and security cameras footage—starts coming back, the team would review it along with the cellphone data. Thus far, the existence of at least three such videos, discovered by The Standard and the Daily Mail, have been reported. Police have requested video from a number of buildings in the area, The Standard found.

“That’s the tedious part, but you gotta review all of that evidence,” said one of the investigators.

Personal Connections

Once family and friends have been located, as well as the people who last communicated with the victim, the team would start making personal contact to try and build a more detailed picture of the victim and the crime.

Investigators speak with those close to the deceased to see what kind of lifestyle and habits they had and their whereabouts before their death.

“There’s some questions you’d rather ask in person,” one investigator said.

In the case of Lee, that process could even include flying an investigator to Miami, where the former Square chief technology officer lived after recently leaving the San Francisco area.

The Weapon and DNA

If a weapon was found at the scene, it would be collected, bagged and recorded as evidence by CSI. Once in evidence, CSI checks the weapon for DNA and sends it to a lab in Richmond, which can do a quick-turn job and send SFPD results back within a week, one of the inspectors said. 

If a suspect is in custody, that DNA would be run against theirs for a hit. If there is no suspect, police send the DNA samples to the FBI to see if it matches DNA in its national database.


As police worked the case, a group of Lee’s friends gathered Saturday in the South of Market neighborhood, not far from where he was killed, to commiserate over his death, Lee’s friend Johnny Harrisino told The Standard. 

No one talked about whether they knew what Lee was doing that night, or about who had been contacted by police, said Harrisino. But some said they thought the police have more information than they are releasing.

More than anything, Harrisino said the sentiment that everyone repeatedly expressed was shock at “Bobby’s” killing.

“He didn’t have any enemies,” Harrisino said, “that I knew of.”

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at