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.
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.
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.
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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