Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Witness describes
attack on gay man


San Francisco police released this video image of a person of interest in connection with the death of Bryan Higgins. Photo: Courtesy SFPD
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Almost a week after releasing photos of a person of interest in the death of a San Francisco gay man, police still have not made any arrests.

Bryan "Feather" Higgins, 31, was found unconscious near 100 Church Street August 10 and died in the hospital three days later after his family took him off life support.

Last week, police released a video that they say shows a man chasing Higgins across Church and starting to assault him.

As of Wednesday morning, August 27, there had been no arrests, according to police, but a man who said he witnessed the attack told the Bay Area Reporter this week that Higgins had been antagonizing people nearby just before the incident.

Through in-person and email interviews, John Stone, 44, of San Francisco, said he went to the area that morning to get breakfast at St. Francis Lutheran Church, at 152 Church, which starts at 7:30 a.m.

Stone said he saw a man he later learned was Higgins "acting really off the wall."

He said Higgins, who lived a couple blocks away, was "confronting people" who were in line for breakfast and "making a lot of noise." He was saying things to the effect of, "I am every gender and no gender," and he'd also spilled a couple people's coffee, Stone said. Others asked Higgins to calm down, but he refused.

Eventually, a man who was in the line appeared to be "pretty well fed up" and started "having some words" with Higgins, Stone said. They moved away from the rest of the crowd, and Stone heard the man say something about Higgins "fucking with everybody," but Stone hung back and couldn't hear much of what the men said to each other.

He remembers thinking he was "pretty sure this guy is about to get his ass kicked if he doesn't back up and leave," he said.

The men walked up Church Street, with Higgins walking backward, "still up in the guy's face," Stone said. They made their way up to the concrete island in the middle of the street, then crossed over back on to the sidewalk, in front of the Out of the Closet thrift shop at 100 Church, he said.

Stone said the man, who had been wearing "a dark jacket," took it off to reveal a red hoodie.

He said he the man threw "a couple of punches," and "I thought I saw a couple of kicks." The man punched Higgins "above the waist," but Stone seemed unsure of exactly where. "It wasn't his face," he said.

Higgins ended up laying on the sidewalk, and the man put back on his jacket and returned to the breakfast line, saying, "Well, we won't hear any more of that for one morning," Stone said.

Stone approached Higgins. "I didn't see any blood. I didn't see any visual trauma," he said. After another man said, "It looks like he's dead," Stone said he went back to Higgins and saw his eyes were "wide freaking open." He didn't feel a pulse, but Higgins was "very, very warm," he said.

Stone called 911 for an ambulance. He estimated he called at 7:30 or 7:45. Police came and tried to resuscitate Higgins but "couldn't get him going," and took him away in an ambulance. Stone said he was "one of the last to leave" the scene. Police asked him "a lot of questions," he said. He doesn't think the other man was still there when he left.

Stone said he'd never seen Higgins or the other man before. Police have described the person of interest as a white man in his 20s or 30s. Stone said the man had "very short" brown hair and was about six feet tall. He said the man also wore a baseball cap, but he didn't recall what it said. Other witnesses that Stone said saw the incident couldn't immediately be reached.

He said he spoke with a police sergeant about the incident, but the sergeant didn't return the Bay Area Reporter 's call.

Stone, who indicated he didn't want his sexual orientation published, said the other man didn't use any homophobic slurs like "faggot" until after the attack, when he "was speaking to others in line."

Brian Busta, 50, a friend and neighbor of Higgins, has said hours before he was attacked, Higgins had been dealing with "medical issues."

Saturday, Higgins had been "getting too out of hand" and "running around like a cat in a cage." He said police were called twice "so we could get Feather into General [Hospital]." However, he said, police had said they couldn't do anything unless Higgins was a danger to himself or others. Higgins had taken off the first time and he'd calmed down the second time police were called, Busta said. (Higgins, who was a member of the Radical Faerie community, was also known as Feather.)

People who knew Higgins have consistently remarked on his kindness, and Busta said his friend hadn't seemed dangerous.

Brian Hagerty, Higgins's husband, has declined to speak with the B.A.R.

The B.A.R. has requested the Department of Emergency Management's records on calls for service from Higgins's address around the times Busta said the police were called.

In an emailed response, DEM spokeswoman Kristin Hogan said, "We learned from the San Francisco Police Department that the records you are requesting are under active investigation and we are unable to release this information" per the Public Records Act. "Once the investigation is complete, we can process your request, should you want to do so."

In response to an email about Hogan's statement, Albie Esparza, an SFPD spokesman, said the "investigation is active and no other details will be released."

Esparza has said there were no obvious signs of trauma to Higgins when he was found at the scene, and it wasn't until a cab driver handed over footage of the "person of interest" in the case beginning to assault Higgins that police began investigating the incident as an attempted homicide and assault with a deadly weapon. Once Higgins died, the case became a homicide investigation. It will likely be months before the medical examiner's office releases the cause and manner of death.

In response to a records request, Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said in an email that the incident was reported "as an assault to a 25-year-old male" at 7:25 a.m. "as in front of Out of the Closet" August 10.

The person who reported the assault "indicated that they had witnessed what had taken place between the patient and the assailant," Talmadge added, but "The assailant had left the scene."

"The medical crew transported the patient with CPR in progress," she said.


Lack of cameras

Staff at Out of the Closet said they don't have surveillance cameras inside or outside the shop, but the pharmacy at the site may have one.

The building is owned by Maitri Hospice. Michael Smithwick, the executive director, said his organization doesn't have cameras on the Church Street side, though there is video surveillance at its Duboce Street entrance that wouldn't "reveal what's happening down the block."

The spot where Higgins was attacked is near a Muni stop. In response to emailed questions, Muni spokeswoman Kristen Holland said, "We are always happy to assist our colleagues at SFPD whenever we can," and referred the inquiries to police. She said Muni has "two cameras in the area of Church and Duboce."

A representative for the Safeway supermarket across the street from the scene didn't respond to a phone call from the B.A.R.

Dave Walda, the office manager for St. Francis, said the church doesn't have surveillance cameras.

Anyone with information in the case may call the police department's anonymous tip line at (415) 575-4444, or text a tip to 847411 and type SFPD, then the message. The incident number is 140 665 807.


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