For weeks this summer, protesters marched on BART, holding signs with a picture of the transient killed by BART police. But few knew who Charles Hill was.
On Monday, Hill's family spoke for the first time about the man they called Chuck. Hill's sister-in-law told The Bay Citizen that the family has retained attorney John Burris to sue the transit agency over his death. Burris won $2.8 million from BART for the shooting death of Oscar Grant.
"He walked to his own drummer, but he never went out to injure anybody,"said Jan Hill, the sister-in-law, who broke down several times during Monday's interview.
Hill, 45, was shot on July 3 after a 25-second confrontation with two BART officers who were called to deal with a “wobbly drunk” on the Civic Center Station platform. When the officers arrived, Hill threw a bottle of vodka at them.
Video from a BART security camera shows Officer James Crowell firing at Hill, who police say was winding up to throw a knife. Hill cannot be seen on the video.
A coroner's report released Monday found that Hill was killed by gunshot wounds to his upper body and left thigh. The bullet to the torso ripped through his stomach, intestines, and aorta, before lodging in his spine.
At the time of the shooting, Hill had alcohol, methamphetamine and marijuana in his system, the coroner found. His blood alcohol level was at the legal limit of .08 percent.
“I have no problem with the fact that he was drunk. I have a problem with the fact that he was not a threat and the police shot him,” Jan Hill said. “That’s not the way the police operate. Why not Taser him if he was drunk?”
Hill grew up in Connecticut and spent much of his life criss-crossing the country with only a backpack.
“Chuck loved San Francisco. That was usually his ultimate destination,” said Jan, 63, who works an overnight shift at a gas station in Connecticut.
Hill’s weather-beaten, bearded face was known to San Francisco’s homeless and to social workers, who told The Bay Citizen that he was a “loner” and a “heavy drinker.” They said that Hill was known to yell, but was never violent. Although some suspected that he suffered from mental problems, his sister-in-law said that was not true.
“He was wonderful to me. He was what I would describe as a colorful character,” said Jan. “Sometimes I’d meet him coming down the street. He’d have a big backpack on, and he’d pick me up and twirl me around.”
Jan, and her husband Chris, 48, Charles’ older brother, collected his cremated remains. Hill’s father refused to have any involvement, Jan told the medical examiner.
When he was shot, Hill had $11 in cash and $13.98 in change in the pockets of his cargo pants. In addition to the knife he threw at the officer, Hill had another knife and some pepper spray on him. He also had a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes, some rolling tobacco, a Walkman, two can openers, and several forms of identification.
And he had a BART ticket.
Hill’s death led to several protests against BART. When the transit agency tried to squelch an Aug. 11 protest by shutting off its underground cell service, it spurred weekly demonstrations that at times snarled the evening commute for thousands of BART riders.
Although she has neither a cell phone nor an email account, Jan said that she was thankful that the hacktivist group Anonymous had organized protests against BART.
"These folks have given so much of their time," she said. "These folks are going to jail for Chuck, and some of them never even knew him."
Reached by phone on Monday afternoon, Burris said that he plans to file a lawsuit "soon"
“From what I can see on the tape, at the time they shot and killed the man, they were not in danger,” said Burris. “It is true that he threw the knife, but they easily sidestepped that. They didn’t have to shoot and kill this man.”
BART spokesman Jim Allison said the transit agency had no comment on the possible lawsuit. Neither the San Francisco Police Department nor the BART police investigations are complete.
“It’s under investigation, and it’s not appropriate for us to comment,” Allison said. “Certainly anyone has the right to an attorney.”
BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey repeatedly defended his officers in the weeks following the shooting, describing Hill as a threat to police.
“We’ve taken a lot of steps to put a lot of tools in their tool kit to prevent these situations,” Rainey said at the time. “The notion that you have to be stabbed, beaten or shot before defending yourself is false.”
Crowell, who was referred to as the “newbie” on BART police recordings, had been on the force 18 months when he shot Hill. Although he had a Taser, he did not reach for it before firing.
Crowell has since moved on to a job at the FBI, Allison said.