Discover more from Gotham by Susan Dyer Reynolds
How Chesa Boudin's idea of justice reform led to the death of Kelvin Chew
SFDA dropped 11 firearm felonies down to one misdemeanor, releasing Zion Young just two months before the murder
Zion Young has been in contact with the justice system since he was a juvenile. Documents obtained by Gotham by the Bay show that in October of 2016, at age 16, Young committed an armed robbery. Two years later on Oct. 7, 2018, an 18-year-old Young was arrested in Marin County for trespassing, assault with a deadly weapon, and having an active warrant for his arrest in San Francisco.
On December 11, 2019, at approximately 6 p.m., officers from the San Francisco Bayview police station responded to the area of the Hunter’s Point Expressway for a report of a stolen Audi evading a San Francisco sheriff vehicle. Officers found a car matching the description at Gilman Ave. and Ingalls St. They also observed a young man jogging in the middle of the block wearing latex gloves with a suspicious bulge in the pocket of his yellow hoodie. After a struggle, officers took 19-year-old Zion Young into custody and charged him with obstruction, receiving or concealing stolen property, addict in possession of a firearm, possession of ammunition, convicted felon in possession of a firearm, and carrying a loaded firearm in public.
On Feb. 20, 2020, San Francisco police saw a silver Toyota with no license plates parked completely on the sidewalk. They discover Zion Young in the passenger seat next to the driver, 26-year-old Fagamalama Pasene, and a young woman in the backseat. Officers also observed a glass pipe, commonly used for smoking methamphetamine, which appeared to contain narcotics residue. The young woman, who says her name is Jazmine, claims the pipe is hers. They cite Pasene for having no license plates and parking on the sidewalk. When Young refuses to keep his hands on the dashboard and reaches toward the floor, officers ask him to exit the vehicle. Young obliges, then takes off running with an officer in pursuit. He jumps a fence near his residence on Hollister Ave., where a witness tells the officer they saw him toss a gun. Police locate a loaded Arminus .38 caliber “Titan Tiger,” and eventually take Young into custody. When Jazmine is mirandized she tells officers that she witnessed Young purchase the firearm two weeks prior because ”he needed it for protection.” The gun is unregistered. A records check reveals Young has a prior charge for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He is booked on 11 felonies.
Following up on the case, I noticed that Young was not listed on the inmate locater for San Francisco County Jail. When I asked then-SFDA spokesperson Alex Bastian what happened, he said new District Attorney Chesa Boudin had reduced the 11 felonies to one misdemeanor and let Young go on an ankle monitor. Bastian said Boudin “wasn’t able to charge Young with a felony because he was a juvenile during his prior offenses,” though Bastian conceded Young likely had “serious charges as a juvenile.” In a conversation that went around in circles, Bastian kept saying Boudin charged only a misdemeanor because Young had been “a juvenile during his other arrests” and therefore was not a felon, but I pointed out that he was 18 at the time of his arrest in Marin County and had an outstanding warrant in San Francisco at the time. Also, one of the 11 charges in the Feb. 20 arrest was “convicted felon in possession of a firearm.” Bastian said he would look into it further, but several followup conversations went the same haphazard way, with Bastian seemingly trying to confuse the issues on purpose.
I ran all of this by another source (who asked not to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak about the case) who indicated that Boudin had been unhappy with the way Young was arrested because it was a “pretextual stop” — when police detain an individual for a minor crime, like a traffic violation, because they believe the person is actually involved in or has committed another more serious crime. In the Feb. 20 case, the source said, officers approached the car because it was parked on the sidewalk and had no license plates, upon which they saw suspected drug residue on a glass pipe. That led to Young running from them, which resulted in his arrest.
On Feb. 28, just eight days after Zion Young was arrested and released, Boudin announced policies that would take effect immediately within his office. Prosecutors would no longer charge people with the possession of contraband resulting from “stop-and-frisk style pretextual searches” or make use of status-based sentencing enhancements such as prior strikes or alleged gang affiliation status, except in “extraordinary circumstances where a defendant presented grave risks to public safety or crime victims.” In those cases, he said, either he or a designee could override the policy.
“Pretextual stops and sentencing enhancements based on who you know rather than what you did are relics of the tough-on-crime era that failed to make us safer,” Boudin told the press. “Instead, they led to mass incarceration, targeted innocent black and brown drivers, and increased recidivism. They stand in the way of fairness and justice.”
None of this came as a surprise to San Francisco voters. Boudin ran on a platform of buzzy terms that end with justice (“racial justice,” “social justice,” “restorative justice,” “reformative justice”). It certainly sounds good. The problem is, when Boudin came into office, there were no programs or policies in place to execute the buzzwords — in fact, over the nearly two years he has been in office, there still aren’t. And that brings us back to Zion Young, and Boudin’s fateful decision.
The son of a working class Chinese immigrant family, 19-year-old Kelvin Chew was enrolled at City College of San Francisco after graduating from Balboa High School, and planned to study computer science and engineering at U.C. Santa Cruz in the fall. On May 7, 2020, Chew had just finished a class on Zoom and wanted to get some fresh air. He left his family’s Portola neighborhood home to take a brief walk, but when he didn’t return, his mother Monica Chew became worried. Using the GPS on Kelvin’s cell phone, she went searching for him. At 8 p.m. near Felton and Colby streets, Mrs. Chew saw police surrounding a young man lying on the sidewalk. His eyes were still open and the street was covered in blood. It was Kelvin, dead from a gunshot wound.
Members of the community and evidence at the scene led police to the suspects, Fagamalama Pasene and Zion Young, who they believed killed Kelvin in a botched robbery attempt. Pasene was charged with murder, second degree robbery, and a misdemeanor en-route warrant. Young was charged with murder, second degree robbery, person prohibited from possessing firearms under the age of 30, and carrying a loaded firearm. Charging documents indicate Young was the shooter. If the name Fagamalama Pasene sounds familiar, that’s because he was in the driver’s seat when Young was arrested on those 11 felony firearms charges, just over two months prior to Chew’s murder.
‘WE NEED JUSTICE’
On March 27, 2021, in an exclusive interview with Dion Lim of ABC 7 News, Mrs. Chew shared that the past year without Kelvin had been unbearable. She revealed that she had a heart condition, showing Lim the small device on her chest just below the neckline of her sweater. That condition, she said, had been exacerbated by the overwhelming grief over her son’s death. “It’s getting worse. Our family got destroyed. I don’t know how we can go forward. We need justice.”
Young pleaded not guilty and denied all charges. “This is a truly tragic situation for the families and communities of these young men, one of whom lost his life and two of whom now stand accused of taking it,” his public defender Sylvia Cediel said at the time. Chew was killed in a neighborhood represented by Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who told the San Francisco Examiner that she had not been able to reach the family, but would “love to offer support and assistance.”
Nearly two years later, the Chew family is still waiting.
The next court date for Young and Pasene is April 12 in Department S22, but the case will likely be continued again because Boudin is facing a recall election on June 7 and it is too high profile. Like everything leading up to the murder of Kelvin Chew, the long wait for justice comes down to politics and empty words.