San Francisco

SF bank robber turned guard faces abuse charges at senior facility

Further details emerged today in the worrying case of Michael Shiferaw – a recidivist bank robber who a federal court heard became embroiled in an attempt to take advantage of a nonagenarian woman living in a city senior living facility.

Shiferaw is best known for two bank raids, the second of which was committed while on pretrial release following his arrest for the first. Having served a 37 month sentence, he appeared in court again today for parole violation relating to an accusation of elder abuse.

The victim’s son told the court that his elderly mother was “groomed” by Shiferaw, who has obtained work as a security guard at San Francisco Towers – the Pine Street senior community where she lived. Shiferaw developed “a disturbing and intimate” relationship with his cognitively-challenged victim at the Towers, who at one point was “essentially kidnapped,” and who ultimately gave thousands of dollars to Shiferaw and his family.

“What Mr Shiferaw did,” the victim’s son told U.S. District Judge William Alsup at an earlier hearing, “while on probation, working as a security guard in the residential facility in which my mother lived…that was where the improper contact started.”

While the underlying allegation is one of elder abuse – the elder abuse charge itself was dismissed this morning at the request of the Government who said that state proceedings were envisaged on that specific offense. Instead, to the frustration of the judge, Shiferaw could be sentenced today only on five lesser probation violations and so was ordered released ‘time served’.

The case against the Ethiopian-born immigrant raises questions about why non-citizens who obtain serious felony convictions are permitted to remain in the U.S. and how the defendant was able to secure employment in a position of trust with vulnerable people.

Shiferaw was convicted in 2019 for bank robbery and bank larceny.

He raided the Citibank on Chestnut Street in the Marina in what quickly transpired was an inside job with his sister who worked as a teller. Having presented Meron Shiferaw with a note saying he had a weapon and demanding cash, the teller immediately provided him with “an unusually large quantity of cash” – $21,000 in total – before he made his escape.

Prosecutors noted that he wore distinctive clothing which made detectives’ task simple and which quickly brought to light his relationship with the teller.

Shiferaw served 37 months in prison for two bank robberies

Barely four months later – having been granted pretrial release – Shiferaw robbed a Bank of America in the Richmond district, informing the teller that he had a weapon and making off with $4,102. This time, said prosecutors, he engaged in unconvincing subterfuge including pretending to be speaking on his cellphone during the robbery so that his cellphone records would show him not actually on the phone and so exonerate him if caught.

He served a 37 month sentence for the robberies. At the time of his 2019 conviction, prosecutors noted that, in his eight years in the United States, Shiferaw had been arrested nine times. This included a 2013 arrest on charges of second degree robbery, second degree burglary and receiving stolen property which were apparently dismissed after successful completion of a diversion program.

It now appears that Shiferaw – an Ethiopian national who, at the time of his bank robberies, was a permanent resident of the United States – teamed up with his sister once again to commit further offenses.

The victim’s son told the court today that the defendant had “groomed” his elderly mother – who he said was cognitively challenged – for what he suspected were improper financial and romantic purposes. The victim is from a wealthy local family.

“On May 17 2023 Mr Shiferaw made arrangements with my mom to take her out of a side door of the Towers out of view of the security camera. She was essentially kidnapped for two and a half hours and I don’t know what they did or where they went.”

He said that Shiferaw had also arranged to meet his mother outside of the Towers, at her San Francisco home, for what he feared were untoward purposes. The lady in question has provided between $4,000 and $9,000 to Mr Shiferaw and his sisters, the court heard.

“He obtained the door codes for the residence as well as the arm codes for the burglar alarm. My mother was very much at risk. My mother’s relationship with Mr Shiferaw is strange. She is 60 years older than he and they have nothing in common.”

The victim’s son told the court about the “disturbing and intimate” nature of the communications between the defendant and his cognitively-challenged mother. Phrases such as “honey,” “boyfriend,” and “just the two of us” were used.

Restraining orders have already been imposed by San Francisco Superior Court.

“Until the last few months I have had a very close relationship with my mother,” he said detailing the breakdown in relationship that has happened as a result of the alleged grooming. “I have looked after her and protected her. I spoke with her every night and saw her several time a week. I cooked and shopped for her.”

Calling Shiferaw “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the victim’s son was incredulous that he was able to secure employment as security guard with his track record of convictions.

For the defense Candis Mitchell told the court that her client was not employed directly by San Francisco Towers but rather via a contractor. That company – identified by SFPSN as Whitworth Protective Services of Gilroy, California – had now lost its ability to practice because it was not following the proper rules, she said. It was the company’s responsibility to make checks and there was no suggestion that Mr Shiferaw had not been candid with them.

The victim’s son also read to the court translated transcripts of conversations between the defendant and his sister in Ethiopian. In those, they discussed “getting their hands on her telephone and changing her password and eliminating her GPS code to enable her to be tracked.”

The hearing saw U.S. District Judge William Alsup sharply criticize prosecutors’ approach to the case – saying the Government had “weak knees” over the elder abuse charge. Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick Parker had told the court that he did not want to stymie state court proceedings envisaged with respect to elder abuse allegations – fearing that they might be compromised if they were pursued in federal court.

“I want to emphatically state,” Alsup said “that, in my humble opinion, there is no way a Form Twelve [an order to appear at a federal probation violation hearing] can ever jeopardize a state prosecution and create a double jeopardy problem.”

“In twenty three years in this job, this is the first time the Government has made such an argument.”

“I just cannot believe that the United States has come to a position that it will not proceed anytime there is a pending state investigation. That will unduly hamper the United States in the investigation and prosecution of Form Twelves”

“It is an unwise policy.”

The judge asked for SFPD to attend a review hearing on August 2 at 10:00am. He had earlier heard from the government that the department’s Special Victim’s Unit was seeking to develop a rapport with the victim in order better to prosecute the defendant in state court.

After receiving a formal report of elder abuse from the victim’s son, and then later a report from the The Towers itself, officials from California’s Department of Social Services became involved. They first made contact with The Towers’ Executive Director Mark Nitsche and then, nine days later, conducted an unannounced case management visit at the facility.

A spokesman for San Francisco Towers – reached at their premises – would say only that they “do everything possible for community safety.”

Shiferaw was employed via a security contractor – Whitworth Protective Services of Gilroy, CA – who on August 3, 2023 were fined $5,000 by the California DCA Bureau of Security and Investigative Services regulator for, in effect, not having registered their staff member and hence not having conducted criminal background checks which would have revealed his conviction history.

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