The fatal stabbing of Cash App founder Bob Lee last week has reignited a crime debate in San Francisco, with some high-profile figures condemning the murder as yet another example of rampant, unbridled violence.
But when announcing the murder charges on Thursday, authorities said Lee was killed by someone who knew him, not a random street assailant.
Nima Momeni, 38, a technology consultant and businesswoman, was arrested without incident Thursday morning in Emeryville, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott announced at an afternoon news conference.
Momeni was charged with murder and a special circumstance that he used a knife to kill Lee, San Francisco Dist. Atty. said Brooke Jenkins.
Authorities said on Thursday that the case was still under investigation and did not say why.
The arrest marks a turning point in the much-watched case, which some have used to push the narrative that San Francisco has been overrun with random street crimes. However, like most homicide victims in the United States, Lee knew her attacker, authorities said.
“This is more about human nature and human behavior than it is about our city,” said Scott. “You get that out of San Francisco – they knew each other. It could have been any other city. I don’t think it would have changed the circumstances.”
After Lee’s death, tech executives and other senior figures, including Twitter Chief Executive Elon Musk, denounced the violence in the city, where the progressive Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin was recalled by voters last year after being criticized as “soft on crime” and accused of neglecting public safety and homelessness.
“I must point out that reckless and irresponsible statements like those contained in Mr. Musk, who assumed incorrect circumstances about Mr. Lee, serve to mislead the world in its perception of San Francisco and also negatively impact the pursuit of justice for victims of crime by spreading misinformation at a time when police are trying to solve a very difficult case,” Jenkins said Thursday.
Lee, 43, chief product officer at cryptocurrency startup MobileCoin, was found bleeding near the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge at around 2:35 am on April 4. He was taken to a hospital, where he died.
Momeni’s arrest was first reported by the Mission Local news agency, which said police had served a search warrant at an address in Emeryville that corresponds to a business owned by Momeni, Expand IT.
The building is a mix of residential and commercial space, according to Chris Donatiello, who lives there and said many in the building know Momeni.
Around 5 am on Thursday morning, at least six police officers showed up at the building.
“I saw the police outside all prepared. I didn’t know what was going on,” said Donatiello.
Momeni seemed friendly and welcoming, Donatiello said, adding that nothing seemed amiss when he saw Momeni after Lee’s death.
“I saw him last week. Outside, in the parking lot,” said Donatiello. “I said, ‘Hey, haven’t seen you in a while. How are you doing?’ and he said, ‘Better now that I’m seeing you.’”
Sam Singer, who works out of an office next to Momeni’s and serves on the building’s board, said they met when Singer was moving into his space a month ago.
He called Momeni a “kind, professional gentleman,” but noted a strange incident the night before Lee’s death, April 3, when a woman entered the building and shouted the name “Nima,” according to Singer, as well as posts on the building’s private Facebook group.
Singer said the episode was so unnerving for residents that a complaint was filed.
Singer said Momeni worked and lived in his unit, and had been there since 2021. When Singer moved into his own unit, Momeni left him a note welcoming him to the building.
“He was very welcoming, kind and charming. You would have no idea that he would be accused of such a heinous crime.
A neighbor, who declined to be named, said police, including a SWAT team, arrived Thursday morning to arrest Momeni and told residents on her floor to stay indoors.
“It makes me wonder how landlords and landlords rate their renters,” she said. “I’m not crazy to know that someone lives in our building who walks around with a knife.”
Momeni was charged in 2011 in Alameda County with driving with a suspended license and selling a switchblade. He pleaded no contest to the motion violation, the knife charge was dismissed, and he was sentenced to 10 days in county jail and three years probation.
He was also charged in 2004 with driving under the influence of alcohol, a misdemeanor. The charge was eventually dismissed.
Lee’s brother, Tim Lee, said after the arrest that the family was “grateful to the SFPD for bringing this person to justice so quickly.”
“I hope now our family can begin the healing process,” he wrote on Facebook. “I also want to thank the thousands of friends, family and community who have reached out in support over the past week.”
Bob Lee was chief technology officer at payments platform Square, which has since been renamed Block, when he founded the company’s mobile payment service Cash App in 2013. He lived in Mill Valley, Calif., after his mother died in 2019, so he moved to Miami in October, according to a Facebook post last week by his father, Rick Lee.
“Bobby worked harder than anyone and was the smartest person I ever met,” wrote Rick Lee. “He will be missed by all those who knew him.”
At the time he was killed, Bob Lee was in San Francisco for a few days to spend time with friends following a MobileCoin leadership summit, his official said. friend Doug Dalton, who met Lee years ago when they were both software engineers.
“Some people have tried to frame this as rampant crime,” Dalton wrote in a text message to The Times, but “San Francisco is changing.” Rather than a random assailant on the street, the man accused of killing Lee was “in a group of friends, but not a friend,” Dalton said.
San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin called Lee’s murder tragic but said the idea that it reflected a violent crime spree was inaccurate.
“The reaction from the press and many leaders in the tech community was premature and destructive,” Peskin said in an interview. “This was not a random murder. The suspect knew the victim.
After arrest, San Francisco supervisor Dean Preston tweeted that people who “tried to exploit this tragedy to stoke hatred of the poor” should publicly apologize.
That includes not just national and local politicians who made assumptions about the murder, he told The Times in an interview, but also people like Musk, who mischaracterized the crime in San Francisco.
“Within hours of that murder, there were people immediately blaming the homeless, talking about out-of-control street crime and drug use, and calling more cops even though they had no idea what happened,” Preston said. “Where does it come from? Why is one of the richest people in the world tweeting about a murder in San Francisco and tweeting the district attorney?
After Lee’s death, Musk tweeted that “violent crime in SF is horrible” and asked Jenkins if the city was taking steps “to incarcerate repeat violent offenders.”
In response to questions from The Times about Musk’s comments, Twitter responded with an automated poop emoji.
George Tita, a professor of criminology at UC Irvine, said comments like Musk’s are harmful because they alter the public’s perception of crime compared to the actual effect of it.
‘You can’t go back on those statements,’ said Tita. “The damage is done.”
That high-profile critique, he said, also tends to get a lot more attention than analysis of the city’s crime statistics, which show that crime isn’t skyrocketing as critics have portrayed.
“Some people believe that places like San Francisco and Los Angeles are a war zone, when that’s not the case,” said Tita. “It is very important not to be dismissive and say there is no crime or we should ignore it. But you have to keep perspective on that.”
Venture capitalist Matt Ocko, a friend of Lee’s, tweeted shortly after his death that the “crime-loving city councilor” and Boudin “have Bob’s literal blood on their hands,” accusing city officials of allowing “lawless SF for years.”
Ocko has repeatedly tweeted about crime in San Francisco. On Wednesday, he said residents were experiencing “boiling, grinding lawlessnessand cast doubt on the city’s official crime statistics. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Violent crime — which, according to the California Department of Justice, includes murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — peaked in 2013 in San Francisco, with 7,064 incidents. That number has dropped over the last decade, to 4,796 incidents in 2020, before a slight increase to 4,887 incidents in 2021. The state agency has yet to release crime statistics for 2022.
From 2019 to 2021, San Francisco saw a 17% drop in violent crime. Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, San Bernardino, Sacramento, Fresno and Kern counties saw increases, according to the Department of Justice.
San Francisco reported 56 homicides in 2022, less than similarly sized cities like Denver, with 88 homicides; Nashville, with 108 homicides; and Oklahoma City, with 71 homicides.
Police Commissioner Kevin Benedicto pointed out that the city’s violent crime rate is lower than that of other major cities.
“Overall, if you look at the last five years and 10 years on a long-term scale, crime is at an all-time low,” he said. “San Francisco has public safety issues like every big city, and it is unfairly portrayed as being in the midst of a crime wave that is not born out of data.”
Still, even though violent crime has dropped, San Francisco residents report feeling less safe than they did a decade ago, according to results of a city survey released Thursday.
Residents rated the city’s safety a C+, down from a B in 2019, the last time the city conducted the survey. About 63% of respondents said they felt safe walking alone in their neighborhood during the day, and only 36% said they felt safe walking alone at night. In 2019, 85% said they felt safe during the day and 53% at night.
In 2013, during the peak of violent crime in San Francisco, 44% of respondents said they felt safe alone at night.