A victim of unprovoked street violence or a vigilante who ‘terrorized’ homeless San Franciscans?

A man stands over a person lying under a blanket on the sidewalk and pepper-sprays them in the face
A screenshot from video shows a man pepper-spraying a sleeping homeless person in the face in San Francisco. Though the man has not been identified, prosecutors indicated it could be former Fire Commissioner Don Carmignani.
(San Francisco public defender’s office)

The video seems damning: A person wielding a metal pipe swings it wildly, striking former San Francisco Fire Commissioner Don Carmignani in the head outside a gas station.

A firestorm ensued, seeming to bolster critics who say the city has descended into lawlessness. It also drew swift action from the district attorney, who charged a 24-year-old homeless man shortly after the altercation last month.

But now, the case seems precarious, as Carmignani is apparently unwilling to cooperate with investigators, leading to the suspect’s release from custody amid allegations that the former fire commissioner had “terrorized” homeless people with bear spray.


Defense attorneys for Garret Doty, who was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon in connection with the apparent attack April 5, said he struck Carmignani in self-defense.

In an interview with Bay Area television station KPIX, Carmignani, 53, said that on that day, he had approached some homeless people who were fighting in the street and told them to move. Carmignani said the same group had been blocking the entrance to his mother’s home in the Marina District and “smoking crack cocaine” earlier that day.

One of the men struck him with a metal pipe, leaving him with injuries including head wounds and a broken jaw, he told KPIX. A bystander caught the scene on cellphone video.

“I understand how a violent attack like this can shake a community, and I am committed to ensuring that the defendant is held accountable, so that we send the strongest message that violence like this is unacceptable,” San Francisco Dist. Atty. Brooke Jenkins said in an April 10 statement announcing felony charges against Doty, including aggravated battery and assault likely to cause great bodily injury.

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But late last month, the San Francisco public defender’s office released videos and new information that it said cast the case in a new light, calling for the charges against Doty to be dropped on the basis of self-defense.

Defense attorneys are looking for a “fair and impartial investigation and a fair and lawful prosecution,” Deputy Public Defender Kleigh Hathaway told The Times.


“I don’t think that we have received, as of yet, either one of those,” Hathaway said.

Carmignani’s term as fire commissioner was short-lived — he resigned in September 2013 after he was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, about five months after he was appointed to the post, SFGate reported. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor assault charge in 2015 and received three years’ probation, according to the San Francisco County Superior Court.

In security camera video taken just before the April beating that injured Carmignani, released by the public defender’s office, he is seen walking down a street before pulling an object — pepper spray, defense attorneys say — out of his pocket.

VIDEO | 01:02
Footage taken before attack on former San Francisco Fire Commissioner

Doty jumps into the frame, and he and Carmignani appear to speak to each other. Carmignani follows Doty as he repeatedly tries to walk away.

The pair eventually disappear from view.

Although the video doesn’t show the beating of Carmignani, defense attorneys said it is evidence that Doty acted in self-defense.

“A third-party witness told police that she heard Carmignani threaten to stab and kill Doty if he did not leave the area,” the public defender’s office said in a release. “Doty responded to Mr. Carmignani in self-defense.”


In his interview with KPIX, published April 25, Carmingani said, “I didn’t go out there to fight anyone. I’m trying to get them down the road.

“They were cussing and swearing at me ... and I just said, ‘Just leave, we don’t want no problems,’ ” Carmignani said.

Carmignani did not respond to The Times’ request for comment.

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The use of force by Doty was reasonable in light of a series of attacks on homeless people that may be tied to Carmignani, Hathaway said.

The prosecution turned over to the defense information regarding a San Francisco Police Department investigation into a string of eight attacks on homeless people with bear spray, a more intense form of pepper spray.

Hathaway said most of the incidents occurred in a three-block radius, “and at the center of them is Carmignani’s house.”

In a November 2021 incident caught on video, a man strides up to a homeless person sleeping on a sidewalk and sprays for several seconds, leaving the person doubled over and shielding their eyes.


“While the identity of the assailant has never been confirmed, the prosecution indicated that it may be Carmignani and therefore relevant or exculpatory to the prosecution of Doty,” the public defender’s office said.

VIDEO | 00:20
Footage shows sleeping homeless person being attacked with pepper spray

Several other attacks documented by police involved a man spraying homeless people who were sitting on benches or sleeping, the public defender’s office said.

On Jan. 6, a person sprayed a homeless man and woman before taking the woman’s wallet, cellphone and earrings, according to the public defender’s office. The individual also threw a dog that belonged to one of the victims to the ground.

But police noted that no suspect has been identified in the series of attacks and that descriptions vary widely — with described heights ranging from 5 feet 8 to over 6 feet, and weights from 160 pounds to 300 pounds.

“The defense attorney in this case alleged that the victim [in the April 5 incident] was possibly the suspect in eight other related cases,” police said in a statement to The Times. “Once this allegation is raised, it is our job to determine whether or not that allegation is true.”


The department said it could not comment on the investigations into the attacks on homeless people or the confrontation that left Carmignani injured.

On April 10, a police investigator said in an investigatory file that the eight attacks on homeless people might be related.

According to Hathaway, two people with Doty on the day of the confrontation had been “terrorized already” in an attack documented by police.

Attempts to reach Carmignani’s lawyer were unsuccessful. But the San Francisco Standard reported that Nick Colla said his client “vehemently denies that he is the alleged individual who is committing these acts against homeless people.”

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Meanwhile, the case against Doty has stalled.

On April 26, a day after the KPIX interview was posted, the district attorney’s office said a preliminary hearing had been postponed to April 27, as Carmignani had yet to give a statement.

“This case requires the victim’s testimony,” the district attorney’s office said in a release.


“Mr. Carmignani has not provided an interview to the San Francisco Police Department on this case despite multiple requests for an interview,” the office said. “We are hopeful that he is available to testify in open court, as he has now given an on-camera media interview about the attack from his recollection.”

But Carmignani did not appear at the rescheduled hearing.

A new preliminary hearing was set for May 23, and Doty was released under a provision that bars defendants from being kept in custody if a preliminary hearing is not held within 10 court days from the original arraignment.

The charges against Doty have not been dismissed, Jenkins said in a news release. The district attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the status of the case if Carmignani fails to appear again this month.