San Francisco House Fire that Injured Elderly Couple Probed as Hate Crime

May 22, 2024
The couple's son got word of the fire as he was meeting with city officials about the recent racist threats he's received.

Nora Mishanec, Annie Vainshtein

San Francisco Chronicle


May 21—The home of a well-known local dog walker erupted in flames Tuesday morning near San Francisco's Alamo Square, one month after he told police he began receiving racist threats by mail.

The dog walker, Terry Williams, said in an interview that his parents were badly injured in the fire but expected to survive. Firefighters rescued the pair from the burning home shortly after 11:30 a.m., when neighbors called 911 to report the fire on the 900 block of Grove Street, one block east of Alamo Square, fire officials said.

Williams in recent weeks had received in the mail a voodoo doll depicting a Black person with a noose around its neck, as well as postcards and other mail containing racist and threatening language. The San Francisco Police Department is investigating the case as a hate crime, officials said.

Supervisor Dean Preston, who represents the area, condemned the threats Williams received as "racial terror" and introduced a resolution at the Board of Supervisors last week urging city departments to prioritize the investigation into its source.

Williams, who was not home when the fire erupted, said his dogs also survived, though he was unsure how they managed to escape the flames. He was also unsure about the cause of the fire.

Williams was meeting with James Caldwell, Mayor London Breed's chief criminal justice and public safety officer, when he got a call from his cousin alerting him to the fire. "He was screaming, 'Your house is on fire!'" Williams said. Caldwell drove Williams home, where he said he has lived since 1974.

Police officers were dispatched to William's residence in late April after he reported that someone left racist and threatening items in close proximity to his building, San Francisco Police Department spokesperson Allison Maxie said. Maxie did not provide details but said police had not made any arrests in the case.

Williams said his father had been released from the hospital by Tuesday afternoon, but doctors were keeping his mother hospitalized overnight.

Welling up with tears, Williams said he had a "loss of words" to describe how he was feeling as he watched firefighters and inspectors walk in and out of the house. "I'm worried now. I'm extremely worried. I feel like I let my parents down (because) I wasn't here."

Williams said he still doesn't know the details around what caused the fire, but couldn't help making the connection to the racist packages he had received. His parents had been scared about the threats, too, he said.

"It brought my dad back to when he was a kid in Mississippi," he said, of the packages. "If I knew who (the suspect) was, I'd be in jail."

The San Francisco Fire Department was probing the cause of the fire, spokesperson Jonathan Baxter said.

Flames spread to an adjoining home whose residents were evacuated but unharmed, Baxter said. The Red Cross and city officials planned to offer assistance to the seven people and three dogs who were affected, he said.

"I'm really sad for him — for something like this to happen to him of all people is heartbreaking," said Nicole Gantner, an Alamo Square dog owner. Having known Williams for 15 years, she called him" a well-known and well-liked person. ... "I wonder if someone is going after him."

Alamo Square resident Todd Miner said he and the 30-some other members of the Alamo Dog Co. WhatsApp group were processing the news of the fire. He called the incident "mind-boggling." He said he and the other members of the group were "shocked and furious."

Around 3:30 p.m., a crowd of about a dozen people were gathered across the street from the house. An acrid stench was perceptible from down the street. An SFPD bomb squad van could be seen taking a large sack from the house.

An online fundraiser in recent weeks raised nearly $17,000 for what organizers said was surveillance cameras and other neighborhood security measures meant to protect Williams and his family following the spate of threatening mail.

Kait McKee, a neighbor and friend, said Williams was well-known in the local community. McKee said about 100 neighbors gathered in Alamo Square earlier this month to show support for Williams after he began receiving the racist threats by mail.

"We are all really freaked out and concerned for Terry and our community," McKee said.


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