U.S. District Court

Urban Alchemy gunman avoids prison time in federal court

An on-duty Urban Alchemy employee who fired eight shots down a Tenderloin street “filled with pedestrians and passing cars” avoided prison this afternoon when a federal judge placed him on probation for three years.

Darnell Houston had earlier pleaded guilty to one count of a federal indictment stemming from his role in the April 2021 gunfight that left passersby diving for cover.

“It was awful, it could have been so much worse,” said U.S. District Judge William Orrick.

He went on to recognize Houston’s “excellent record” on supervised release since the incident: “You are a remarkable guy and you have so much to offer the community, your family, the employees who work with you, your employers and the people on the streets of the Tenderloin.”

The court heard that Houston has been rehired by Urban Alchemy and is well-placed to become the organization’s next director of community engagement.

Darnell Houston firing at three men on April 25, 2021

Hous­ton – who has three prior felony con­vic­tions for firearms of­fenses – was work­ing out­side the Larkin Street Youth Cen­ter at 129 Hyde Street on April 25, 2021.

An al­ter­ca­tion took place be­tween him and three un­known males at around 5:25pm. One of the group drew a gun and fired at Hous­ton’s feet be­fore walk­ing away.

Hous­ton ran to his nearby car, a dark grey Chevro­let Ca­mara, where he re­trieved a firearm, pursued the men and then let loose a hail of gun­fire in their di­rec­tion.

In re­sponse two of the other males ap­peared to draw weapons of their own and footage, say pros­e­cu­tors, shows a shot be­ing fired in re­turn.

Pedes­tri­ans, in­clud­ing a per­son us­ing a per­sonal mo­bil­ity scooter, were in Hous­ton’s line of fire.

One of Houston’s targets running away

Less than an hour be­fore the in­ci­dent, court records show, Hous­ton en­gaged in a phys­i­cal al­ter­ca­tion with a man who he saw ar­gu­ing with a woman. This, ac­cord­ing to his em­ployer, “es­ca­lated the sit­u­a­tion into a phys­i­cal al­ter­ca­tion vi­o­lat­ing com­pany pol­icy.”

Hous­ton was ar­rested by SFPD and ATF Agents on May 18 2021 and re­leased from fed­eral cus­tody on June 28 2021 on an un­se­cured $25,000 bond by or­der of U.S. Mag­is­trate Judge Alex Tse.

A search of his res­i­dence un­cov­ered a Smith & Wes­son .40 cal­iber hand­gun and a Poly­mer 80 9mm firearm plus am­mu­ni­tion. Hous­ton claimed he had found the weapons in Oak­land a few months pre­vi­ously.

One of the guns found at Houston’s residence

In a sen­tenc­ing mem­o­ran­dum sub­mit­ted to the court As­sis­tant U.S. At­tor­ney Joseph Tar­takovsky in­vited it to im­pose an 18 month prison sen­tence.

Tar­takovsky ac­cepted that Hous­ton was shot at and notes that he told ar­rest­ing of­fi­cers that he acted in self-de­fense. But he pointed out that he shot at men who were by that point nearly half a block away and the con­fronta­tion had at that stage ended.

He de­scribed the “breath­tak­ing reck­less­ness” of Hous­ton’s con­duct – dis­charg­ing mul­ti­ple rounds “at dis­tant tar­gets on a crowded street on a week­day af­ter­noon”.

Before Judge Orrick at the sentencing hearing, however, Tartakovsky resiled from his own recommendation for custody. He drew the judge’s attention to Houston’s time being “occupied with heavy machinery during the day and crossword puzzles at night” – describing it as “wholesome” – and pointed out that the job training certificates, and a made bed, at his residence were further indications of conscientiousness.

In his sentencing memorandum As­sis­tant Fed­eral Pub­lic De­fender David Rizk said that his client was “shocked and rightly feared for his life”. His client had no idea who the men were.

Since the in­ci­dent, says Rizk, Hous­ton “has demon­strated to the court that he is a valu­able and pro­duc­tive mem­ber of the com­mu­nity” through his work, fam­ily and com­mu­nity ac­tiv­i­ties.

“He has no his­tory of vi­o­lence, is not a gang mem­ber and has never been to prison or served more than 60 days in his life,” Rizk adds. The de­fense asks the court for three years of su­per­vised re­lease.

Hous­ton ben­e­fited from a num­ber of tes­ti­mo­ni­als sub­mit­ted on his be­half from em­ploy­ers, fam­ily and friends. One, from Bay­ron Wil­son, chief of op­er­a­tions for Ur­ban Alchemy, noted that “[h]e is par­tic­u­larly strong in the skills of de-es­ca­la­tion, cus­tomer ser­vice, con­flict res­o­lu­tion, and trauma-in­formed care.”

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