After a homeless man was accused of bludgeoning a former San Francisco city official and businessman over the head with a metal rod in the upscale Marina District, his defense attorney came forward with a shocking allegation.
The victim of the beating, Don Carmignani, matched the description of a suspect who used bear spray to attack homeless people at least eight different times in the area, attorney Kleigh Hathaway said.
What’s more, she said Carmignani instigated his own assault by approaching the suspect, Garret Doty, with bear spray.
But the links between the former member of San Francisco’s Fire Commission and all of the earlier incidents are not as clear as they initially seemed, raising the specter that multiple people carried out the attacks on the homeless.
Suspect descriptions from eight earlier attacks range from a white man in his 50s with a goatee riding a bicycle to a white or Hispanic male in his 30s, according to police reports and other records reviewed by The Standard.
The diversity of suspect descriptions suggests that two or more individuals used chemical agents against their unhoused neighbors in unprovoked assaults. That possibility has concerned advocates for the homeless community since the earlier attacks came to light.
“I was certainly worried that it was multiple people,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “And I was worried that eight reports means that there are probably a lot more.”
A defense attorney for Carmignani, John Cox, denies that his client was the perpetrator of the earlier bear-spray attacks.
“The public defender can say whatever she wants to say,” Cox said, “but it’s not my guy.”
Carmignani suffered a broken jaw and fractured skull on April 5 after confronting a group of homeless people near his home and asking them to leave. One of them, identified by authorities as Doty, was caught on video chasing Carmignani down and striking him with a metal rod.
Prosecutors later disclosed the police reports on the earlier bear-spray attacks to Hathaway after an inspector noted they were “possibly related” to the case.
Carmignani has not been arrested or charged in connection with the reports.
But Hathaway maintains that Carmignani was responsible for the incidents, while acknowledging that two of the suspect descriptions are “outliers.” The suspect in those cases was a white or Hispanic male in his 30s.
Carmignani comes from an Italian family, is 53 and stands about 6 feet tall.
If more than one person was responsible for the attacks, that does not give Hathaway solace.
“Sadly, maybe that’s the case,” she said. “It’s almost worse if it is.”
A Wave of Vigilantism?
The bear-spray attacks aren’t the first time that San Franciscans—and others—have used physical violence against the unhoused. Homelessness has been a long-standing source of social tensions in the city and throughout metropolitan areas across the country.
In 2018, a music venue owner faced allegations of pepper spraying a homeless man and threatening to burn down an encampment.
That same year, a man caught on video kicking a person sleeping on the sidewalk was arrested in connection with the killing of another homeless man.
This January, the owner of a posh art gallery in Jackson Square, Collier Gwin, sparked outrage when he turned a water hose on a homeless woman. But some San Franciscans defended his actions or empathized with his frustration over the city’s homelessness problem. Gwin was charged with misdemeanor battery and apologized for his actions.
In a high-profile incident earlier this month in New York City, Jordan Neely, a homeless man with mental illness, was killed by a man who put him in a chokehold on the subway.
Each of these incidents shocked the public because they showed otherwise ordinary people meting out punishment to some of society’s most vulnerable.
But they don’t entirely surprise advocates for homeless people.
“Confrontations and fear of vigilante attacks have always been a reality for people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco,” said Christin Evans, a member of the city’s new Homelessness Oversight Commission.
Friedenbach said the situation was worse than ever before.
“There is a more heightened level of anti-homeless vitriol today than I have seen in over three decades of doing this work,” she said.
A Theory of Multiple Suspects
The bear- or pepper-spray attacks took place in and around the Marina District between November 2021 and January 2023, according to summaries of the incidents released by the Public Defender’s Office, as well as police reports and inspector’s notes reviewed by The Standard.
The documents appear to describe two distinct suspects, an older man and a younger man.
In one case, the victim also recalled that an entirely different suspect, a Black man, pepper-sprayed him in an earlier attack from March 2020.
All of the victims were homeless, and the attacks appeared unprovoked. In two cases, the victims were sleeping.
Police Chief Bill Scott told the Police Commission on May 3 that his department is investigating whether Carmignani committed the earlier attacks.
At the same time, he noted the differences in the suspect descriptions.
“There is a wide variety in these descriptions in terms of age, weight and things of that nature,” Scott said.
A police spokesperson said the suspect descriptions referred to a white or Hispanic male, with age ranging from 30s to 50s, height from 5 foot 8 inches to 6 foot 3 inches, and weight from as low as 160 pounds to as high as 300 pounds.
The spokesperson initially said that one of the suspects was a woman, but later indicated that information may have been incorrect.
One police report documented two attacks on subsequent days, but only one of the victims could describe the suspect.
Carmignani was once described by the SF Weekly as a “bull of a man with slicked-back hair, meaty fists, and a penchant for gold chains, bowling shirts that Guy Fieri might envy, and Irish whiskey.”
In several of the incidents, the attacker was described as riding a bicycle, skateboard or other “wheeled device,” records show.
People familiar with Carmignani laugh at the idea of him riding a bicycle.
“I could probably get a year of money to help our neighborhood just if I asked him to ride a bike around the Marina,” said Patricia Vaughey, who leads the Marina-Cow Hollow Neighbors & Merchants Association. “He is not a bike rider, period. This guy is the size of a Sherman tank.”
Interviews with unhoused residents of the Marina also suggest that there was more than one attacker.
Nathaniel Roye, a homeless person who witnessed the attack on Carmignani and whose presence in the Marina has been a source of significant tension, said he was “bear-sprayed” four times.
He described one of the assailants as a bald man who was not Carmignani.
Joe Barron, a man who has been living on the streets for five years, told The Standard he had been sprayed three times in the Marina—twice with pepper spray and once in the eyes with a soap-like substance.
One of the assailants had dirty brown hair and rode a bicycle, he said. Another was a short Black man.
Friedenbach said she began hearing of such attacks during the pandemic.
“We had heard rumors of people using bear spray on homeless people throughout the pandemic while people are sleeping,” she said.
Police received an image of a person of interest in a bear-spray attack from this January, in which the assailant slammed a victim’s dog to the ground.
Joe Alioto Veronese, a lawyer and former candidate for district attorney who is close to the Carmignani family, said the image was not of Carmignani.
“It doesn't look anything like Don,” he said.
Hathaway, the deputy public defender, said the suspect descriptions in the earlier attacks differ because victims of crimes often get things wrong.
“Anyone who knows anything about how victims of crime give descriptions, they know that these victims do their very best in trying to remember,” Hathaway said. “And sometimes they are totally off.”
Hathaway said there is enough of a pattern between the attacks to believe that Carmignani is responsible for them. The suspect in varying cases attacked the victims in the morning, while they were sleeping and within close proximity to Carmignani’s home, she said.
“You have to look at the whole picture,” Hathaway said. “These are classic, signature crimes. They have the same M.O.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect new information from police about the gender of one of the suspects.
Michael Barba can be reached at [email protected]
Matthew Kupfer can be reached at [email protected]
David Sjostedt can be reached at [email protected]