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‘Hanako loved San Francisco’

On the one-year anniversary of her daughter’s tragic death, Hiroko Abe waits for justice — and hopes for change
OpinioThe Abe family at their home in Japan. Photo: Courtesy of Hiroko Abe

When Hiroko Abe got a Zoom call from San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, she found herself in a virtual room full of strangers speaking a language she didn’t understand. From her home in Japan, Abe struggled to comprehend the conversation about what had happened on New Year’s Eve 2020, when her 27-year-old daughter Hanako was killed in a crosswalk, along with another woman, 60-year-old Elizabeth Platt, at Second and Mission Streets. The district attorney’s office had provided a translator incapable of translating from English to Japanese. “I had a break in the middle of the Zoom. I couldn’t understand what was happening,” Abe said. “Meanwhile, after receiving an explanation from Hanako’s friend in San Francisco, I finally understood the situation. I learned that many mistakes led to Hanako’s death.”

Those mistakes made national news not only because the story was tragic, but also because it was completely avoidable. The suspect, 45-year-old Troy McAlister, was on parole for robbery and was fleeing a burglary in a stolen car just prior to the fatal hit-and-run. Since being paroled in March 2020, he had been arrested five times for crimes, including burglary, possession of burglary tools, vehicle theft, possession of stolen property, possession of narcotics for sale, possession of suspected methamphetamine, possession of drug paraphernalia, and, of course, parole violations.

On Nov. 6, 2020, San Francisco State University Police arrested McAlister for breaking into a vehicle and, when they checked his record, were so alarmed they included a note in their report for the district attorney: “This suspect is dangerous. He has 73 felonies and 34 misdemeanors in S.F. alone.” 

On Dec. 20, 2020, just 10 days before the hit-and-run that killed Hanako and Elizabeth, police once again arrested McAlister. As with the previous incidents, no new charges were filed. For the five arrests, McAlister served a combined 11 days in jail.

BOUDIN BROKERS A DEAL

As a candidate, Chesa Boudin, a former public defender who campaigned on reforming the justice system and holding police officers accountable, promised not to use sentencing enhancements such as gang affiliation or prior strikes. 

In March 2020, just three months into his term as district attorney, Boudin brokered a plea deal for McAlister, sentencing him to time served — just five years in County Jail spent awaiting trial on a 2015 robbery case. During that 2015 case, the public defender’s office wanted McAlister released to the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center. The district attorney’s office (then helmed by the very progressive George Gascón) refused, noting McAlister was in possession of methamphetamine and committed a robbery as well as battery on a police officer, all while on parole; had “a history of violent felony convictions dating back to 1995,” and, with six prison priors, was already on his third strike, “making his exposure to State Prison 35 years to life.”

In September, I wrote a column for my newsletter, Gotham by the Bay, about McAlister’s troubled history, and the case against him resulting from the deaths of Hanako and Elizabeth, and Hanako’s mother, Hiroko, reached out to thank me, asking if we could speak over Zoom through Tasha Yorozu, an attorney who doesn’t represent her but who graciously volunteered to translate. 

During a nearly two-hour Zoom call, Hiroko struggled to hold back tears, occasionally sobbing as she tried to catch her breath. “I’m sorry for crying so much,” she said. “Since Hanako’s death I’m crying less, but the heartache is still the same. And when I feel connected to somebody the tears just start flowing. I thank you for this opportunity, but I apologize for continuing to cry.” I told her there was no need to apologize. “When you love someone so deeply, I don’t think you ever stop crying,” I said. 

PEAS IN A POD

Hanako grew up in Fukushima, Japan, where she and her family survived the 2011 Great Sendai earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. Her father Tsuneo worked for a local newspaper company and her mother Hiroko is a professional vocalist who teaches the singing of classic songs in the local community. Since Hiroko is a lung cancer survivor and is prone to illnesses, Hanako took on many responsibilities. Despite adversity, Hanako was accepted to the University of Central Arkansas, where she studied computer science. Upon graduation in 2018, she moved to San Francisco, where she got a job as a data engineer for a real estate company. She regularly sent money home to help her family. In January 2019, her father almost died from aortic dissection, a rare tear in the inner layer of the aorta. Hanako went back to Japan to visit her father in the hospital. It was the last time he saw his daughter alive. 

When I asked Hiroko what she wanted people to know about her daughter, she said, “Hanako loved San Francisco; she wanted to be there, she chose to be there, many odds were stacked against her, but she made it work. But the longer she was there, she noticed a lot of safety issues, especially toward the end of her life, and all she wanted to do was make San Francisco better and safer.” 

Hiroko and Hanako spoke nearly every day. “We were just peas in a pod,” Hiroko said. “Hanako was always passionate about ‘What is my part to make this a safer, beautiful place?’ When I learned of her sudden death, all I could think of was what can I do to keep Hanako’s love of San Francisco alive; not just her legacy, but her pure love, alive. And it’s within that context of ‘what can I do to be a part of that process,’ as a mother, I feel I can carry out Hanako’s legacy, so that her death might bring good, is an impetus for change, and means something.” 

She dabbed her eyes with a tissue, her voice breaking. “Hanako was very kind and thoughtful and was a self-starter. She thought of things, put them into action, and took ownership and agency of her life, even if the odds were stacked against her. We are a very financially modest family, so there are no opportunities that come our way, but Hanako went after those opportunities against many odds and found a way.” 

One of Hanako’s passions was running. Shortly after her death, SF Runs founder Leonard Adler held a virtual “Run for Hanako Abe” event and has a tribute to her on the website until this day. “Hana loved running and had run with SF Runs previously … Hana embodied resilience, bravery, and hope …” it says in part.

Hiroko said she would like to find a nonprofit to partner with and sponsor an annual “Run for Hanako” where people can raise awareness and raise funds to make San Francisco “a safer, cleaner, better place.” In addition, she would like to start a scholarship for young people like Hanako, who persevere even though the odds are stacked against them. “The Hanako Abe GoFundMe is everyone’s money — so many people put money into that account. And I would like to use some of that money to do these things,” Hiroko said. 

SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY

When Hiroko was finally able to ask Boudin why he made the decision to free McAlister, ultimately leading to her daughter’s death, she was shocked by his answer. “He said, ‘Because he worked hard and got his GED in jail.’ I told him a GED has nothing to do with whether this person is rehabilitated and ready to be put back into society, and he didn’t respond. I also told him it appears that McAlister is a habitual drug user. In Japan, even after you serve your sentence there is mandatory rehabilitation you must go through before you are released into society. Boudin said in America it is the same; that once you are released you are put into a rehab system, and it looks like the people in charge of rehabilitation should have known the level of addiction that McAlister had and the rehab people erred in their judgment. But I asked him, ‘Didn’t you know how the system as a whole works? And knowing how the system works, why would you release him?’ Boudin just did a nonresponse response and apologized.”

Hiroko also knows, because of sovereign immunity, prosecutors can “pretty much admit to anything and apologize and know they’re safe.” Judges are at the top for immunity, then prosecutors, while the police have qualified immunity. It is rare even for police to be held accountable, though that’s happening more often in egregious cases. 

This past June, Hiroko hired an attorney to file a claim against the City and County of San Francisco. “If that claim is accepted, you usually negotiate either for damages or changes in policies and procedures, but they rejected the claim, so now the only option available is to sue the public body,” Hiroko said. She is aware that sovereign immunity is almost impossible to overcome, but she hopes there is an attorney willing to represent the family. Even if they lose the lawsuit, she believes it could be a catalyst for change in the justice system, “so it can be the type of San Francisco Hanako envisioned and often discussed.”

THREE STRIKES, BUT YOU’RE NOT OUT

Because Hiroko hasn’t heard from the district attorney’s office since shortly after Hanako’s death, I reached out to Boudin’s media spokesperson, Rachel Marshall, to ask whether McAlister was being charged with his previous three strikes. In typical fashion, Marshall didn’t respond, so Hiroko reached out to Sai Douangsawang in victim services. Douangsawang responded that, according to Assistant District Attorney Ryan Kao, who is handling the case, only one of McAlister’s prior convictions is charged as a strike.

In other words, even after McAlister killed two innocent women while fleeing a crime in a stolen car, Boudin doesn’t want to charge the three previous strikes. This opens the door for a much more lenient sentence where McAlister could spend little, if any, time in prison. 

Hiroko wants to be certain it goes above and beyond whatever sentence McAlister gets. “If McAlister isn’t showing remorse or trying to turn his life around, if he does get out, that isn’t good for him or for San Francisco. It is our responsibility as a society to make sure McAlister is rehabilitated before he is released.”

E-mail: [email protected]. Follow Susan and the Marina Times on Twitter: @SusanDReynolds and @TheMarinaTimes.

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