A gang member who murdered a teenager in a 2018 Excelsior district shooting was sentenced to 26 years imprisonment this afternoon in federal court in San Francisco.
Jonathan Escobar identified nineteen year old Gerson Romero and his friends as supporters of a rival gang. Romero was killed instantly by a shot to the head – “almost certain” to have been fired by Escobar, say prosecutors – and three others were also hit.
“They had committed no crime against Escobar and his friends,” prosecutors wrote of the victims, “they were a group of young people hanging out together on a summer night.”
“If there is no good reason to believe that Mr Escobar is not going to be dangerous to the public when he is released,” asked U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, “why, purely for the safety and protection of the public, should he not receive a sentence at the high end of the range?”
The events that led up to the shooting began with a violent and chaotic incident barely two hours earlier.
Shortly after midnight on August 11, 2018 Escobar and fellow gang members Jose Aguilar and Daniil Belitskiy, were standing outside Beauty Bar nightclub at 19th and Mission Streets.
Escobar’s group exchanged hostile words with the occupants of a silver SUV driving past. The SUV drove past again, whereupon a person standing outside the club threw a bottle the vehicle. This provoked someone in the SUV to open fire at the group on the sidewalk.
SFPD chased the vehicle, captured an occupant and recovered a discarded pistol.
Escobar the left the club with his associates and drove in a two car convoy to San Francisco’s Excelsior neighborhood – “territory” of the rival gang – to commit a revenge attack.
Arriving at the intersection of Mission Street and Amazon Avenue, Escobar draws a pistol and – “even though no victim behaves aggressively or provocatively” said prosecutors – starts firing at a group of people standing on the street who “appears to be socializing and goofing around.”
Within seconds Gerson Romero lay dead and three friends were wounded, including one shot in the back. The attack was caught on video camera and the footage was shown to the court.
Police found 15 casings at the scene from Escobar’s gun. They believe Aguilar used a revolver.
Prosecutors also told the court that, while in federal custody, Escobar and other prisoners assaulted two correctional officers. He also tried to smuggle methamphetamine into jail.
To illustrate what they said was Escobar’s pride in his criminal record and capacity for future violence, prosecutors provided the court with a recording of calls made by the defendant from jail in early 2023.
Escobar says, “I only come out of my character when I got to. I pick up that gun when I got to. N****** wanna fire at me, best believe I’m going to fire 100 shots back at you, n*****. And you ain’t gonna live, n*****. You fucking with Rico, you ain’t gonna win…Understand this: I’m in jail because I ripped it on purpose, my n*****. Because you know why? I don’t give a fuck.”
Defense attorney Jay Rorty explained that Escobar, born in San Francisco, had experienced a terrible upbringing, including losing his uncle to a life sentence in 2012 after he killed his and Escobar’s stepfather for abusing them as children on the stepfather’s release from prison. A month after that his oldest brother, Jose, was murdered in front of him.
Rorty also noted that, with respect to his client’s disciplinary problems in custody, these happened after his twin brother, Jesse, was murdered in September 2022.
“Mr Romero was nineteen years old,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Ewenstein told the court, “and here we are talking about the kind of opportunities that will be available to Mr Escobar when he gets out, which he will do. Mr Romero will have none of that – he has nothing after August 11, 2018.”
The court also head from Alameda County Sheriff’s Deputy Achmed Shikaze about the impact of the defendant’s violent assault on him and a colleague which left him injured and concussed.
“This should not go lightly,” he said. “I know this isn’t one of the bigger charges [but] this is something that has impacted me and many other people in my department.”
Judge Chhabria assessed the competing merits of the probation and defense recommendation for 24 years imprisonment versus the prosecution’s bid for a 28 year sentence.
“On the one hand Mr Escobar’s life has been a tragic one and he has gone through some terrible stuff as a child,” said Judge Chhabria, “When you look at this background, you say: how could any of us have avoided going in the direction Mr Escobar went – given the hand that he was dealt as a child and growing up? And that would seem to justify some degree of lenience.
“On the other hand, you say: is there any reason to believe that Mr Escobar is not going to be dangerous to the public when he’s released – twenty-or-however-many-years-away that is?
“So, if there is no good reason to believe that Mr Escobar is not going to be dangerous to the public when he is released why, purely for the safety and protection of the public, why should he not receive a sentence at the high end of the range?
“Given his activities in the jail…the phone calls…what reason do we have to believe he is not going to be a danger to the public when he is released, whenever that is?”
At the end of the hearing the Judge decided on 26 years as the appropriate figure.
“I usually don’t split the difference, but I’m going to split the difference and impose a sentence of 312 months,” he said.
Of Escobar’s associates, Jose Aguilar is listed for sentence on August 30th at 1:00pm before Judge Vince Chhabria having pleaded guilty to one count of ‘use of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence resulting in death’.
Danill Belitskiy was not charged and is not presently in custody.
None of the victims or their family members were willing to provide a statement to the court, prosecutors said.
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