Two apparently homeless men were grappling over a knife in the dirt when a firing line of San Francisco police officers unloaded a hail of bullets on them from just feet away.
Four officers shot and killed both Rafael Mendoza, 49, and Michael MacFhionghain, 57, as the two men struggled on the ground near a chain link fence beneath a freeway overpass in Dogpatch on the evening of May 19, fighting for control of a blade.
Police described the shooting for the first time at length Friday during a virtual meeting, where the department also released body-worn camera footage and other video and audio documenting the incident. The footage showed Mendoza—previously identified by The Standard as a homeless Cuban immigrant—on the defensive after potentially starting a fight with MacFhionghain.
The shooting unfolded after a woman who was driving by the area of Mariposa and Owens streets called 911 to report an assault. The caller said a homeless man—believed to be Mendoza—was using two large sticks to strike a makeshift shelter, which might have had a person inside. A passenger in the car used a cellphone to record shadows of the apparent beating.
Police arrived at Mariposa and Owens streets shortly after to find MacFhionghain holding a blade while on top of Mendoza. Body-worn camera footage showed Mendoza gripping MacFhionghain’s wrist in an apparent attempt to avoid being stabbed.
“I can’t breathe,” Mendoza could be heard saying in the footage. He appeared to be holding his shoulder with his hand, which was covered in blood.
Officers repeatedly shouted at MacFhionghain to drop the knife. “You told me that he attacked you, I believe you,” an officer said. “I believe you.”
Police then fired multiple types of less-lethal rounds at him and also used pepper spray. But MacFhionghain did not drop the knife.
Four officers unloaded their weapons at the men as MacFhionghain thrust the knife down toward Mendoza. Both MacFhionghain and Mendoza died from the gunshot wounds, according to the Medical Examiner’s Office.
Neither man had a known address.
Police later recovered 11 pistol casings and one rifle casing at the scene, as well as three fixed-blade knives. It’s unclear whether Mendoza was armed.
That ambiguity prompted the California Department of Justice to launch an investigation into the incident under a new state law requiring independent probes when a police officer shoots and kills someone who’s unarmed.
Police identified the officers who opened fire as Joshua Dequis, Aidan O’Driscoll, Trent Collins and Daniel Rosaia. Dequis and O’Driscoll are assigned to Bayview Station, while Collins and Rosaia work out of Southern Station. Records show their tenures span from three to 14 years.
Tracy McCray, acting head of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, defended the officers’ actions while noting the ongoing investigation.
“It was, unfortunately, a tragic situation all around,” McCray said, “but our members did what they felt was the right thing to do.”
The Public Defender’s Office, which represented Mendoza in an auto burglary case at the time of his death, condemned the shooting and criticized police for not doing more to de-escalate the situation.
“The fact that he died at the hands of police, who found him injured and being threatened by a man with a knife, is an inexcusable tragedy,” his former attorney, Alexandra Pray, said.
Public Defender Mano Raju said, “The answer to violence is not more violence.”
Mendoza was an immigrant from Cuba who slept on the streets of San Francisco. Mendoza wanted to turn his life around and get housing, but was locked in cycles of petty crime and homelessness, according to Pray and a former homeless outreach worker who also knew him.
One of the four officers who opened fire has made headlines before.
In 2018, Rosaia was named in a lawsuit claiming San Francisco police unlawfully targeted and arrested only Black drug dealers in the Tenderloin during a crackdown with federal authorities known as Operation Safe Schools. Rosaia was identified as the officer heard in a video saying “fucking BM’s”—police jargon for Black males—while police were surveilling a target. The city later settled the case for $225,000.
Mendoza also had a troubled background.
His rap sheet spanned more than two decades, beginning with an arson-related conviction in the late 1990s, according to Pray. However, she said Mendoza was not violent and mostly committed crimes of desperation.
Little is known about MacFhionghain.
This story has been updated to include additional details and comments.
Michael Barba can be reached at [email protected]