A falling out between childhood friends from South Berkeley prompted the 2016 shooting that took the life of 19-year-old Gregory Ignacio Jr., according to court testimony this week, although the alleged shooter had only a glancing connection to the dispute.
Former friend Jacob Felipe said he and Ignacio grew up in the same South Berkeley neighborhood, near Fairview Street, and later attended Berkeley Technology Academy together. At some point, their friendship soured, however, leading to a series of uncomfortable exchanges. On Sept. 22, 2016, the two happened to cross paths near Fairview and Harper streets. They had a brief conversation, then parted ways.
Felipe testified Tuesday — only after being granted immunity — that he then complained to an acquaintance about the ongoing problems. According to the prosecution, that acquaintance, 25-year-old Will Watson of Mill Valley, decided to take matters into his own hands.
“He just looked at me funny and walked off,” Felipe said. He asked Watson what he was doing, but got no reply. He said he was confused, and knew Watson owned a chrome handgun. “I was just like, what the fuck?…. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Within 5-10 minutes, though Felipe said he heard no gunfire, first-responders had flooded the neighborhood. Ignacio was rushed to the hospital, where he later was pronounced dead.
“The court has heard the evidence,” prosecutor Chris Cavagnaro, deputy district attorney with the Alameda County DA’s office, told the judge at the end of the hearing. “The violence that was involved in this case was utterly senseless.”
Defense attorney Geoffrey Rotwein said authorities arrested the wrong person for the crime, and called the evidence identifying Watson as the shooter “thin at best.”
“My client is innocent,” said Rotwein, after the hearing concluded. “If the case is pursued to trial, he’ll be acquitted.”
Watson’s preliminary hearing began Tuesday morning before Judge C. Don Clay, and finished just before noon Wednesday. Several witnesses to the shooting took the stand, as did Berkeley Police Officer Jesse Grant, who oversaw the case when he was a homicide detective. Rotwein presented no evidence, which is a common decision during the preliminary hearing.
Judge Clay ultimately ruled that sufficient evidence had been presented for the case to proceed to trial. He said Felipe’s testimony put Watson in the area at the time of the shooting, and had him walking toward the shooting scene just before the crime. In addition to other pertinent evidence, Clay said one witness gave “very strong” testimony about Watson’s “distinct facial features” — which included his “pointy” nose — and was shaken by the familiar sound of Watson’s voice, during a jailhouse line-up, when Watson was directed to speak the words that preceded the shooting.
Witnesses Tiffanie Jones and Tabreya Love testified that they met up with another female friend and Ignacio on Sept. 22, 2016, to buy a small amount of marijuana from Felipe. They met Felipe on Fairview in the early evening; it was still light out. During the exchange, Ignacio and Felipe spoke briefly on their own. Jones and her friends couldn’t hear the conversation, but said it appeared from a short distance away to be a “normal talk.”
Then Felipe — known to the group as “J” — left, and the group began walking back on Fairview toward Adeline Street.
They had only made it about half a block when a man approached them from behind, Jones said.
“Hey, you got a problem with J? You got a problem with J?” he yelled. “This is Fairview,” he then said, which Love took to mean he was “claiming” the turf or neighborhood as his own. (Felipe said Watson lived at the time at Harper and Fairview.)
Jones said Ignacio might have asked the man, “Who are you?”
The man reached into his waistband and grabbed a silver semi-automatic handgun. He fired two shots. The women scattered, to escape, then quickly turned back and saw Ignacio on the ground gasping for air. They ran to him, called 911 and stayed with their friend until paramedics arrived.
“He was struggling,” Love recalled, wiping tears away.
The women later identified Watson in a line-up at Santa Rita Jail as the person who most resembled the shooter in several ways. None said there was anything about him that didn’t match, but they said they could not be 100% sure because they only saw the side of the shooter’s face: his shoulder-length brown hair with a curl at the end, a narrow, pointed nose, and very pale white skin. During the jail line-up, each inmate wore a black ball cap, like the one the shooter wore, and each said the phrases, “Do you have a problem with J? This is Fairview.”
“When I heard his voice, I started to tear up,” Jones testified. “It was like reliving the moment.… Because I know a voice when I hear one.”
Rotwein, in his questions, focused on the lack of a definitive identification, and also asked why Jones initially told police Felipe was the shooter. She said she was under duress and meant only that he was involved. Rotwein also focused on how quickly the shooting took place, how the women’s attention was focused on the gun, and how emotions and fear ran high during the exchange.
He asked Jones about the dispute between Felipe and Ignacio. She said some people, including Ignacio, had once beat up Felipe, and that Ignacio had told her the two young men “had history.”
Felipe himself declined to share specifics, though he said Ignacio once took marijuana from him, and that the fight, perhaps a year prior, had followed a disagreement about respect. But Felipe also said there were “a whole lotta people” he was trying to avoid, and that he had no issue specifically with Ignacio.
Prosecutor Cavagnaro played brief video footage from Felipe’s statements to police, where he described telling Watson, “Man, this kid is always bothering me.” Of the day of the shooting, he said he told Watson, “this kid got in my face,” but then went on to ask Watson to “leave it alone.” Watson told him, “I wanna get on somebody,” Felipe told police.
“I kept telling him, brah, this is nothing. He says shit all the time, he never does shit to me,” Felipe said in the video footage.
“I’m about to go check him,” Felipe said Watson told him. “I told him, ‘Be cool.'”
But Felipe said Watson wouldn’t listen.
“He just wanted a reason,” Felipe said. “There really is no reason. He just did it.”
Felipe said he never asked Watson to threaten or hurt Ignacio, and that he and Watson weren’t even good friends. Felipe said he had sold marijuana to Watson maybe a half-dozen times. Beyond that, they had no relationship, he said.
A dozen or so of Ignacio’s family and friends appeared in court throughout the hearing, listening quietly to the testimony. At times, when witnesses spoke of the shooting itself, many in the gallery sniffled and cried. Only Watson’s father and one other supporter appeared in court on his behalf. (Rottwein said Watson’s mother lives in Indiana.)
Watson had been released from custody shortly after his arrest on a bond for nearly $90,000 in connection with the $1 million bail in the case. He wore a dark suit to the hearing. His left hand and wrist were in a sling or cast that held two of his fingers in place. After court let out for the day Tuesday, Watson exchanged tense words with some of Ignacio’s supporters while both sides waited for the elevator. Watson’s attorney and father quickly drew him aside and sternly instructed him to be quiet.
Wednesday, Judge Clay ordered Watson to stay away from Fairview and Harper streets, and to stay 100 yards away from all witnesses in the case. He said he’ll allow Watson to remain out of custody on bail as long as he is fitted with an electronic ankle monitor in time for his next hearing, Nov. 8.
Rotwein said he thought it might not be possible to take care of the monitoring arrangements in time. The judge assured him it could be done.
“If it’s not set up that day, I can guarantee you: He will be remanded into custody,” Clay told Rotwein.