Expert: Bullet likely ricocheted off Pier 14 before fatally striking woman

The single bullet that struck and killed a 32-year-old woman in broad daylight on San Francisco's waterfront last month appears to have ricocheted off a cement pier prior to hitting the victim, according to expert testimony provided Wednesday during the second day of the murder suspect's preliminary hearing.

The suspect, identified as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who goes by numerous names, including Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, attended the second day of his preliminary hearing today, this time free of the shackles that bound him in court the day before.

With the assistance of a Spanish interpreter, Lopez-Sanchez listened to the second day of testimony provided by members of the San Francisco Police Department and the San Francisco medical examiner's office.

Wednesday, Lopez-Sanchez often yawned, closed his eyes for extended periods of time, rubbed his face, and glanced around the courtroom.

Among the key points made by a firearm expert and a crime scene investigator on the stand today, before San Francisco Superior Court Judge Brendan P. Conroy, was the assertion that a single bullet was fired from a semiautomatic pistol.

The bullet then ricocheted off the cement pier before continuing in an upward path, ultimately striking the victim, San Francisco resident Kathryn "Kate" Steinle as she walked on the pier with her father and a family friend at about 6:30 p.m. on July 1.

San Francisco police criminalist and ballistics expert Gerald Andrew Smith took the stand Wednesday and held up for the judge to see in court the black Sig Sauer P239 .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol, that was recovered from the San Francisco Bay near Pier 14 the day after the homicide.

Smith processed the loaded pistol, which later was discovered stolen from a Bureau of Land Management ranger during an auto burglary, and determined that one of the bullets had been fired.

He said that upon examining the one spent bullet retrieved from Steinle's body during the autopsy, it is his opinion that the signatures of the bullet matched the test bullet he fired from the pistol.

Smith noted that the bullet is damaged significantly on one side, leading him to believe that it likely ricocheted after being fired, but before striking Steinle.

"There was no mechanical malfunction," Smith said, explaining that this firearm is commonly used by law enforcement officials because of its reliability.

San Francisco police Inspector John Evans, who was tasked with investigating the crime scene, said that on July 5, investigators located a strike mark on the cement pier.

He said that based on the approximate place on the pier where witnesses saw the suspect and where the victim was standing when she was struck, it appears the projectile struck a hard surface prior to striking the victim.

Tests run four days after the shooting, of the gouged cement where the bullet is believed to have ricocheted, turned up negative for traces of lead and copper that might have been left by a bullet.

San Francisco's chief medical examiner, Dr. Michael Hunter, said the autopsy showed Steinle suffered a fatal gunshot wound to her back and that the bullet struck her aorta and lodged in her abdomen.

Hunter said the bullet that struck Steinle was traveling in a slightly upward direction.

"It is an atypical entrance wound, which to me has a lot of significance," Hunter said on the stand. "This is anything but a classic entrance wound."

He said that due to the "rectangular" shape of the entry wound, before the bullet entered the victim's body, it either ricocheted off a hard surface, traveled through something, or there was a defect with the barrel of the gun.

He said, in his expert opinion, that it was consistent with a ricocheted bullet.

A photograph of the bullet, which normally would be cylindrical, shows that the one taken from Steinle's body is crushed and covered in striations.

A plainclothes police officer who assisted in the arrest of Lopez-Sanchez near the scene following the shooting, also took the stand Wednesday, and recounted an incident in which he stopped another person on the street prior to stopping Lopez-Sanchez.

San Francisco police Officer Joshua Fry said that before detaining Lopez-Sanchez at the intersection of Townsend Street and The Embarcadero, he and his partner had stopped someone briefly at Market Street and The Embarcadero.

The officers had not yet seen a photo of the suspect and were going off of vague suspect descriptions coming in over their radio.

The man they stopped didn't seem to be a "homeless-type person" as the suspect description indicated, and the man was let go without further questioning, Fry said.

At Tuesday's hearing, testimony from three police investigators as well as photographic evidence captured by tourists appear to place the suspect at the crime scene.

Chief attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender's Office Matt Gonzalez, who is representing Lopez-Sanchez, said today he is hopeful that the judge will see Lopez-Sanchez' actions as accidental.

Francisco Ugarte, an immigration specialist with the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, also urged the public not to "pre-judge" the suspect "because of his immigration status."

Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, said that when someone shoots a gun in a crowded public place and kills someone it remains a murder, regardless of the person's intention.

The preliminary hearing will continue Thursday at 10 a.m., at which point the defense it expected to call additional witnesses to the stand.

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