Dolores Piper greets Jeff Stewart, a close friend of Mario Woods, during last summer’s 2nd Annual Mario Woods Remembrance Day. | Leah Millis, The Chronicle
Sitting in her home last summer, Dolores Piper picked up a pair of scissors and cut the red tape wrapped around a paper bag labeled “South San Francisco Police.”
She had received the package months earlier and left it untouched in a closet. Just opening it and seeing the contents, she knew, would send her flashing back to the worst night of her life. But it couldn’t wait any longer.
Piper reached inside and pulled out a pair of tattered red shorts. She placed them on her dining table. Reaching in again, she retrieved a pair of underwear stained with blood.
The two pieces of clothing were taken off the body of 15-year-old Derrick Gaines, who was shot and killed by a South San Francisco police officer on June 5, 2012.
Piper held in her pain as she looked at her great-nephew’s tattered clothes on the table. She helped raise him from when he was an infant.
“He was a joy in our lives,” she said. “He was just really engaging all his life. I think that was his most charming quality. He was a diplomat. A lot of people thought he had a lot of promise as a kid.”
For many people who have lost loved ones in police shootings, grief can be a gateway to advocacy. For Piper, 75, Derrick’s death spurred her to become a fixture at San Francisco Police Commission meetings. It’s why she’s part of a group working to address racial bias among police. And it’s why she specifically focuses on officer bias against youth.
“It propelled me to look at what’s happened, what policing is about, how our kids aren’t protected by these police, and what suffering is out there among women and men and families who lose their loved ones,” said Piper, who co-owns a food brokerage company.
“I like to be present at a lot of these (meetings). I don’t need to do anything or say anything, but be present there. I feel like that’s really, really important — to be there.”
David Salaverry, co-founder of San Franciscans for Police Accountability, an organization that counts Piper as a member and pushes for police reform, said mothers and other family members who have lost loved ones in officer-involved shootings can make a difference.
“If Dolores and people like Mario Woods’ mother and the parents of Alejandro Nieto are not present in front of the commission, in front of the politicians, in front of the district attorney, then everything is just abstract,” said Salaverry, 66, of San Francisco. “It’s much easier to ignore if there isn’t a victim speaking out. The personal aspect of it is really important.”
Woods was a 26-year-old stabbing suspect whose December 2015 shooting death in the Bayview prompted criticism of San Francisco police after footage of the incident was posted on social media. Nieto, 28, was fatally shot by San Francisco police in March 2014, after officers said he pointed a Taser at them. Nieto’s parents filed a federal civil rights claim arguing that police wrongfully killed him, but a jury cleared the officers of all charges.
In July, Piper attended the second annual Mario Woods Remembrance Day in Martin Luther King Jr. Park in San Francisco. She wore a white T-shirt with the names of at least a dozen people who had been fatally shot by police, including Derrick’s. She greeted Gwen Woods, Mario Woods’ mother, with a smile and a laugh before making the rounds to say hello to the others who had gathered at the park.
“It feels good to be with these people, to learn how to stand up to these institutions and to question them,” Piper said. “And it feels more powerful together.”
On a summer night 5½ years ago, a South San Francisco police officer initiated a stop of Derrick and his friend, who were walking through a gas station parking lot near Piper’s home. The officer noticed Derrick making “furtive gestures” near his waistband, according to a report by the San Mateo County district attorney’s office.
The officer, Joshua Cabillo, suspected Derrick might have a firearm or drugs, based on his movements, the report said. When the officer tried to question the boys, witnesses said, Derrick ran.
Cabillo told investigators that a .45-caliber revolver fell out of the boy’s pants when he tackled him to the ground. The gun was later found to be inoperable. During a scuffle, Cabillo said, he got on top of Derrick and pointed his firearm “several feet from his face” while telling him not to move.
When Derrick reached for the revolver, Cabillo said, the fourth-year officer shot him at point-blank range. Derrick died from a gunshot wound to the right side of his neck and chest, according to the autopsy report.
Steve Wagstaffe, the district attorney for San Mateo County, ruled the shooting was legally justified.
“The role of the district attorney is not to say whether this was a good way to do business,” Wagstaffe told The Chronicle. “We don’t deal with police conduct. Our focus is purely: Was this criminal conduct by the officer, or was this justifiable under the California penal code?”
The city of South San Francisco settled a civil suit filed by Derrick’s parents and agreed to pay the family $250,000, without admitting wrongdoing, said City Attorney Jason Rosenberg.
The district attorney’s report includes a summary of events from two witnesses, Jaime Gotai and Claudia Li, that says they told investigators Derrick was shot within seconds of being tackled by Cabillo.
Li said she turned her head just before the shots were fired, according to the report. Li confirmed that in an interview with The Chronicle, but said the report left out several details that she witnessed that contradicted Cabillo’s story.
Li, 31, of San Francisco, said Cabillo actually tackled Derrick twice. After the first time, she said, the boy ran from the gun, putting him out of reach of the weapon.
“By the time (Derrick) had kind of slid and stopped, the gun was pretty far away. Maybe a few feet away,” Li told investigators the night of the shooting, according to a tape of her interview.
In a second interview three weeks later, Li repeated that the gun “wasn’t near (Derrick’s) hands.”
“What (the district attorney) wrote out was completely different and not what I told them, because I clearly said he fell down and got up again,” Li told The Chronicle. “To say that someone tried to pick up a gun and tried to take down an officer, that is not what happened. That’s messed up.”
Wagstaffe said investigators had taken Li’s statement into account, but that “Officer Cabillo’s description was what we believed the evidence showed and what we believed justified the shooting.”
More than five years after Derrick’s death, Piper still refuses to accept Wagstaffe’s decision to clear Cabillo — in part because of Li’s assertion that investigators misreported her testimony.
“This is a heartache you just never get over,” Piper said. “It comes in waves.”
She says she wishes she had told Derrick, who was half black and part Puerto Rican, to be cautious around police. The thought never occurred to her, she said, as a middle-class white woman.
“I really couldn’t understand the struggles that Derrick had,” Piper said. “I was pushing for him to succeed in this white world.”
Since that night in 2012, Piper has followed Officer Cabillo’s career from South San Francisco — where he spent nearly six years — to the San Francisco Police Department, which he joined in April 2013. He is now assigned to Central Station.
Joseph Lucia, the attorney who represented Cabillo in the shooting, said Derrick’s death took a toll.
“Officer Cabillo was very affected by this,” said Lucia, whose client did not respond to requests for comment. “He was forced to make a decision that he didn’t want to have to make.”
The shooting is not the only incident in which Cabillo’s use of force has been called into question.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against him and several other San Francisco police officers in 2015 on behalf of a 23-year-old man who said police had assaulted him. According to the complaint, Cabillo and the other officers threw the man to the ground, punched him and twisted his arm while threatening to break it.
The city settled the suit in 2016 and agreed to pay the man $40,000, without admitting any wrongdoing by the officers.
“I feel like he was trying to appear as a hot shot,” Piper said of Cabillo’s actions the night Derrick died.
But Piper’s mission isn’t just to keep tabs on Cabillo, she said. She also wants to protect people like Derrick’s 10-year-old half brother, Michael Red, another biracial child she’s helping to raise.
“I had this naive feeling that Derrick would be OK out there, no matter what,” Piper said. “I almost have a repulsion to the (police) uniform and especially to the guns on their hips. I never used to feel that way, but now I really do. I’m not afraid, because I don’t think they’ll ever bother me, really, but I’m afraid for other people.”
When a family tries to pursue civil action against a police department, Piper sits in the court gallery. When family and friends of someone killed by police rally to protest, Piper marches with a raised fist. She’s present at vigils, memorials, San Francisco Police Commission meetings and other events — all with Michael beside her.
John Burris, a civil rights attorney who represented Derrick’s parents in the civil suit against Cabillo, said he’s become accustomed to seeing Piper at anti-police-brutality events.
“She really has turned into a wonderful activist,” Burris said. “I am more than happy to see her when we have these rallies. She’s there comforting the moms.”
“I’ve met some extraordinary people in this whole movement who are dedicated and have been all their lives,” Piper said. “If there is any hope, it’s the hope of people who just don’t give up.”
Binders of documents and sworn statements from the district attorney’s investigation are still scattered throughout her home. Each day, she wears a pin that includes Derrick’s photo and says, “Justice for Derrick Gaines.”
As a way of keeping him close, she finds a way to bring up his name in almost any social situation.
“I’m here fighting for Derrick,” Piper said. “And I always will.”
Sarah Ravani is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @SarRavani
(Submitted by Ruthie Sakheim.)