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Murder case of elderly San Francisco woman beaten to death still in limbo after 5 years

Yik Oi Huang, a victim of a fatal assault in 2019, will be remembered in San Francisco as the Visitacion Valley Playground is renamed "Yik Oi Huang Peace and Friendship Park."
Yik Oi Huang was attacked in 2019 and died in 2020. Her alleged killer is still in jail, awaiting trial. | Source: Courtesy Sasanna Yee

Five years after an 88-year-old woman was attacked in a San Francisco park and later died of her injuries, her alleged killer has yet to face trial.

Yik Oi Huang was brutally beaten in January 2019 at a park in the city’s Visitacion Valley neighborhood. Huang died a year later, in January 2020, at the age of 89. In 2022, San Francisco officials honored Huang by renaming the park after her.

The assault, which happened before the rise in attacks that spurred the Stop Asian Hate movement, shook the city and its Asian American community at the time. But now, fully five years after the attack on “Grandma Huang,” the case is still pending.

Huang’s granddaughter, community activist and yoga teacher Sasanna Yee, said she has always been a strong, independent woman. But facing San Francisco’s criminal justice system, she’s feeling helpless.

“I feel like there is no closure,” Yee said. “It’s painful to still have these open and unanswered questions.”

Woman speaks at an event
Community activist Sasanna Yee speaks at an event in San Francisco's Chinatown in 2022. | Source: Han Li/The Standard

The Suspect: In Custody for 5 Years

Within two weeks of Huang’s assault, San Francisco police held a press conference announcing the arrest of 18-year-old Keonte Gathron, who has been in custody in a San Francisco jail ever since.

According to court records, police responded to a call on the morning of Jan. 8, 2019, and found Huang unconscious in a sandbox at the park. She was bleeding heavily from numerous injuries to her head. Police discovered a pool of blood near the playground’s entrance, along with a black glove and a bloody napkin, records show.

Paramedics rushed Huang to a hospital for a skull fracture, brain bleed and numerous facial fractures.

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott announces the arrest of Keonte Gathron, 18, who is suspected in the severe beating of 88-year-old Yik Oi Huang, during a news conference at police headquarters in San Francisco, Calif. on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019.
San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott announces the arrest of Keonte Gathron, 18, in the beating of 88-year-old Yik Oi Huang in San Francisco on Jan. 23, 2019. | Source: Paul Chinn/SF Chronicle /Getty Images

Gathron, now 23, was charged with a long list of crimes by then-District Attorney George Gascón, including attempted murder. Gathron was accused of committing a crime spree between Jan. 4 and 19 before his arrest, including multiple robberies and a carjacking. Of the seven victims in total, five were Asian, court records show.

After Huang died in 2020, the medical examiner ruled her death a homicide, with the specific cause of death listed as complications of multiple blunt force injuries. Soon, then-District Attorney Chesa Boudin changed Gathron’s attempted murder charge to murder.

Little was reported about Gathron since then, as he’s pleaded not guilty.

Why Has It Taken So Long?

Brooke Jenkins, who succeded Boudin as DA after voters recalled him, said her office is frustrated by the long wait for a trial. She blamed Gathron’s defense attorneys for the delay.

“My office stands ready to proceed,” Jenkins said in a statement. “The defense almost entirely controls the speed at which cases move through the criminal justice system.”

She stated that her office will fight in court for Huang’s case for as long as it takes, noting that her staff recently secured a conviction in a 2010 homicide case.

An elderly woman in a pink shirt sits and smiles with her granddaughter at her knee.
In a family photo, Yik Oi Huang sits and smiles with one of her granddaughters, Sasanna Yee's sister. | Source: Courtesy Sasanna Yee

Huang’s case is not the only high-profile case moving slowly through the justice system. The prosecution of the alleged attacker of 84-year-old Thai American “Grandpa” Vicha Ratanapakdee, who was pushed to death, is also still pending three years later. Similar to the case of Grandma Huang, San Francisco renamed a street to remember Ratanapakdee.

The suspect in Ratanapakdee’s case, Antoine Watson, was 19 when he was arrested in January 2021 and now is 22.

Watson’s and Gathron’s defense attorneys, both from San Francisco’s Public Defender’s Office, released a joint statement saying both cases are complex and serious and their trials require a lot of time to prepare for. It is not unusual for cases of this nature to take significant time to get to trial, they added.

“It requires scheduling several weeks of uninterrupted courtroom time for the trial, reviewing thousands of pages of discovery, and scheduling experts who are often in great demand,” the statement said.

They also said both suspects were arrested when they were young and they have the right to due process and a zealous defense.

Court records show that the defense attorney for Gathron said they requested more time because they needed to consult with experts of forensic evidence to be adequately prepared for trial.

Gathron’s next court date is Thursday, during which a trial date may be set, and Watson’s case will likely go before a jury in the spring.

‘I Still Want the Best for Him’

Frustrated with the delays, Sasanna Yee has learned to put some of her energy elsewhere, focusing on community-building and organizing the effort to rename the park.

The new name, Yik Oi Huang Peace & Friendship Park, is expected to be unveiled this summer. Yee’s group is also considering designating a bench in the park to remember Ronald Colthirst, a Visitacion Valley community leader who proposed the park renaming and recently died.

Flowers and a photo of Yik Oi Huang are placed at the playground where she was assaulted.
A memorial remembers Yik Oi Huang at the playground where she was assaulted. | Source: Courtesy Sasanna Yee

Yee also said she has been learning about restorative justice, which focuses on the reconciliation between offenders and victims and their families. She wants Gathron to have a bright future, she said.

“I hope there’s something that supports his healing and transformation,” Yee said. “So that he can understand what he's done wrong.”

Additionally, as an important part of restorative justice, Yee hopes to sit down and talk with Gathron at some point. But she wants Gathron to “do his inner work” first until he’s mentally and emotionally strong enough to have these conversations.

“He has so much life ahead of them,” Yee said. “I still want the best for him.”

Han Li can be reached at han@sfstandard.com