How Citizen Surveillance Ate San Francisco

When a homeless man attacked a former city official, footage of the onslaught became a rallying cry. Then came another video, and another—and the story turned inside out.
The security cameras at the Laundromat at Laguna Street and Magnolia Street in the Marina District in San Francisco...
A security camera at a laundromat (left) at Laguna and Magnolia streets in the Marina District in San Francisco. Magnolia Street in the Marina District in San Francisco on October 22, 2023.Photograph: Ian Bates

Just when the people of San Francisco thought they’d seen every video—the sidewalk drug runners, the Louis Vuitton mob heisters, the men selling stolen laptops, the smash-and-grabbers snatching a camera from a Prius in traffic, the porch pirates porch pirates porch pirates into infinity, all indexed in the “Lawless San Francisco” section of the great internet video store—yes, just then: Stig Strombeck took out his cell phone camera on April 5 and hit Record.

It was around 7 pm, and Strombeck was on his way to his second job. He’d parked on Lombard Street. Not the famously crooked section up over the hill, but the wide gauntlet that jets toward the Golden Gate Bridge through the Marina district: the preppy hood of woo girls and boat guys and early-career Gavin Newsom and largely law-and-order Democrats. (“Everyone likes to shit on San Francisco, and San Franciscans like to shit on the Marina,” one resident told me. “It’s a victimless crime.”) But lately, even in the Marina, there was no escaping the rest of the city’s problems. The previous November, in a manicured playground just two blocks from where Strombeck was walking, a father said his 10-month-old baby had ingested fentanyl and had to be revived by Narcan—a San Francisco nadir that, to the presumable relief of civic boosters, hasn’t surfaced on film.

On the Lombard sidewalk, Strombeck pulled headphones from his ears and trained his camera on a disturbing scene playing out in the lot of a Shell gas station. Here’s the video: A bear of a middle-aged guy, 5'11", 230 pounds, faces a rakish, apparently homeless man in his twenties who is wielding a 3-foot-long pole. The older bear of a guy holds his arms up like a boxer as the younger one jockeys with the pole, falls backward off a curb, then lithely spins back to his feet. The older guy blots his eyes and yells, “You’re going to jail, motherfucker.” The younger one, who wears a bright red stocking cap, whacks the bear of a guy across his face, sending him careening to the side. A male voice off camera says “Dude!”—the unmistakable Greek chorus of Wtf, this is insane. The younger guy looks toward the camera. The video stops.

The following videos contain graphic content, which some readers may find disturbing.

Strombeck stowed his phone, but the action kept spilling into other frames. A daycare’s security cam showed the red-capped figure maniacally chasing the now bloodied man down the Lombard sidewalk before bashing him again. A neighbor pointed his camera down from his third-floor window as the younger guy strode below with the pole in one hand and what looks like the older man’s baseball cap in the other, pumping his arm, looking amped. Another video of the attacker that appears to be shot from a passing vehicle was uploaded to the crime-alert app Citizen, which pinged a software engineer sitting on his couch a few blocks away, who ventured over and filmed the crimson drips and Rorschach splotches of blood leading down the sidewalk. (Strombeck would later testify that by the end of the attack, the big guy was covered in “the most blood I’ve ever seen.”)

The following day, a Marina local named Joan wrote on Nextdoor that she was the mother of Don Carmignani, the man who’d been bludgeoned by the pole: “I want to thank all the neighbors that videoed what was happening & got involved to stop it. If they were not there my son would be dead!” Don was in the hospital, she wrote, with a skull fracture and a broken jaw. City politicians tweeted prayers and a call for more cops. Local news identified Carmignani as a former city fire commissioner, a lifelong San Franciscan and father of two. The assailant: 24-year-old Garret Doty, a recent arrival from Louisiana.

Reports said the attack kicked off when Carmignani asked some homeless people to move away from his elderly parents’ door, which they were blocking. In one TV newscast, a reporter mentions an allegation, from one of Doty’s companions, that Carmignani used “bear spray” during the altercation. The segment then cuts to a close-up interview of Doty’s homeless friend—a striking, red-bearded man named Nate Roye, speaking from under a filthy shearling hood—saying that Doty attacked because Carmignani had been “disrespectful.”

“Is that enough to beat him up?” the journalist asks, incredulously.

“Yeah, sometimes,” Roye replies, with a decisive nod.

San Franciscans know the larger drama that this episode advances, and you probably do too: Tech’s glittering citadel, fallen, with the footage to show it. Within some 40 hours of the Marina attack, in another swank part of the city, a widely admired tech executive named Bob Lee, the former CTO of Square and a founder of Cash App, had staggered past surveillance cameras while bleeding from several stab wounds and later died at the hospital. The two maulings—a beaten fire commissioner, a slain tech executive—upcycled to the national news, putting San Francisco under the national surveillance to which it’s become accustomed, with particularly lip-licking schadenfreude on the right. Here again was Newsom’s and Nancy Pelosi’s doom-looping dystopia, where remote-working techies and fleeing billionaires have ceded the city to IRL Grand Theft Auto.

Carmignani, his family, his attorney, and some witnesses provided images that flickered through the reports and social media: Strombeck’s video from the gas station. A laundromat’s street cam view of Doty grabbing the metal bar out of a trash bin and taking a practice swing. The daycare cam. In the neighborhood itself, the vigorous uptake of these images inspired a kind of hope. Marina residents—forever wary of being pegged as pearl-clutching Karens—thought they finally had their irrefutable proof of how clearly things had gotten out of hand. “Somebody got beat up. It was on camera multiple, multiple places,” one told me. “Like, the best evidence!”

But within days, the clarity crumbled. In the case of tech executive Bob Lee, police arrested not a person off the street but a tech entrepreneur whose sister had been hanging out with Lee. And in private, within the police department, the Carmignani attack was veering off narrative too. A police sergeant, sorting through the symphony of surveillance clips that captured the face-off, played the bodycam footage from a cop who had been interviewing Carmignani’s girlfriend after the attack. The officer asks whether she’d been inside when Carmignani went out to “confront” the guy. She says yes. Then from the ambulance, Carmignani interrupts her, barking a command through his broken jaw, seeming to thicken the plot:

“Don’t say nothing to nobody. Don’t say nothing to any cop, no one.”

In San Francisco there’s always another video. New York and London are known for being blanketed with government-run CCTV coverage, but surveillance here is different: It is as privatized as it is pervasive, a culture of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, at scale.

In the city where Nextdoor’s offices sit right in the gritty Tenderloin, sharing Ring cam footage of porch thieves is a bonding exercise between neighbors who’ve never met. All over town, local nonprofits oversee neighborhood-wide networks of cameras funded in part by donations from crypto entrepreneur Chris Larsen. (“That’s the winning formula,” Larsen told The New York Times in 2020. “Pure coverage.”) Platoons of Waymo self-driving cars circulate the streets like Pac-Man ghosts, gathering up videofeeds that cops snag for evidence. You can watch a resident’s live cam to see who’s on the corner of Hyde and Ellis, right now.

True-crime video has become San Francisco’s civic language, the common vocabulary of local TV news broadcasts, the acid punch line to a million social media posts. The feeds intensified during the pandemic, when commuterless streets erupted with synthetic opioid use and property crime. Since then, the city has found itself hobbled through successive breakdowns—a police shortage, a 34 percent office vacancy rate, a federal injunction severely limiting the city from clearing homeless camps. No one seems to be solving San Francisco’s problems, the feeling goes, so by God, people are going to film the dysfunction and post the footage.

A guy who goes by the handle JJ Smith is probably the most vivid personification of this drive. A longtime resident of the Tenderloin whose brother died of a fentanyl overdose in 2022, Smith—not his real name—films unhoused people as he tries to cajole them into considering treatment. Then he posts the footage on X, where he has about 19,000 followers.

In happier cases, he’ll document when people check into a program and come out clean on the other side. But much of Smith’s footage is far grimmer: coroners rolling sheet-draped corpses out of residential hotels; a cold open on a woman’s face as she OD’s on a sidewalk. Smith explains that he’s just given the woman Narcan, pulling you into morbid suspense combined with an awful feeling of Are we really supposed to be seeing this? Other times, Smith dispenses a tough love that edges into trolling, like the time he snatched away a coat draped over a woman’s head so he could scold her for smoking drugs next to a park where his kids play.

People shrug off statistics, Smith says, but “when you’re actually seeing it, it really gets to you.” Supporters credit him with recording a humanitarian crisis. Critics tweet at him, even chide him on camera: He’s exploiting people who have no privacy with footage they haven’t consented to. (Hey, he says, it’s a public sidewalk.)

An encampment on a beach near the Marina District in San Francisco.

Photograph: Ian Bates

Some of the discomfort with Smith, who says he knows many of the people he films, stems from the simple fact that, by now, he’s part of a social media bandwagon. Even presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis once stopped by the Tenderloin to shoot a video. Today, Smith is joined by other accounts like FriscoLive415 and Tenderloin Tube—a cadre that lives somewhere on the border between citizen journalists and dystopic paparazzi. Consider the live birth video. Last spring, a Twitter account that typically posts store-looting vids showed something else: an infant, just born and naked, on a Tenderloin sidewalk, its dazed mother trying to pick the baby up. The event is morally excruciating, but so is its existence here, on X, overlaid with the account’s watermark as the video travels the internet to 1.5 million views, churned into headlines like “Caught on Video: Homeless Woman Gives Birth in Broad Daylight on Tenderloin District Sidewalk.”

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Which is to say: Anything “caught” on camera is actually, on some level, set loose—often into realms scarcely envisioned by whoever filmed it. In Carmignani’s neighborhood, several hills and a couple of miles away from the Tenderloin, a distinct culture of surveillance holds sway: more genteel and hyper-local, less engineered for maximal algorithmic consumption, but just as aggressive. It is herded by a ubiquitous seventy-something retiree named Patricia Vaughey, a woman who has little presence on social media outside of Nextdoor. But even in the Marina, the rule holds: Video may seem like a means of control, but it can just as easily unleash chaos.

Officially, Patricia Vaughey is the long-running president of a Marina merchants and neighbors association. Unofficially, she is the Marina’s self-appointed minder. Vaughey doesn’t like the term “Karen”; she prefers an older title: “the curmudgeon.” A transplant from Mississippi who arrived in 1969, she radiates mirth and deep worry from her blue eyes and speaks with the heft of a steamroller.

For decades, Vaughey says, she felt compassionate toward the few homeless people shuffling by the chic stores and restaurants on Chestnut Street, where she once kept a gift shop. She’d ask if they wanted social services or a job; if they didn’t cause trouble, she didn’t call the cops. “You’ve gotta be fair,” she says.

Then came Covid. Like others in the Marina, Vaughey started counting many more people living on the streets, seemingly using harder drugs. The Marina had theories: They were drifting over from the Lombard Street motels where the city moved unhoused people during the pandemic. They were escaping from the Tenderloin, which had descended into such tent-and-fentanyl anarchy that the mayor declared a state of emergency. Maybe they were even being dropped off from other cities. (Several people I spoke with are convinced this is happening; Vaughey muses about setting up her own camera sting.)

Emails pummeled the inbox of Catherine Stefani, the Marina’s supervisor in City Hall. Messages about drug dealers, a guy with a knife, instances of public indecency. Carmignani wrote requesting a call about “a homeless person and a sexual act.” Naturally, the Marina started taking pictures: tents pitched in a row behind Safeway. A person smoking drugs on the baseball bleachers at Moscone Park. Campers parked illegally on Marina Boulevard. Men passed out in outdoor dining areas, burnt drug foils in one’s lap.

Vaughey emailed the police: “WE NEED A STRATEGY!!!!!!!” She spun up an ad hoc network of neighbors who walked different areas of the Marina, some during their daily dog walks or exercise routines, doing recon on the unhoused. And the network persists to this day. If a member spots someone breaking a specific law (blocking sidewalks in violation of disability codes is a big one), they call the cops. If a homeless person looks “mental,” as Vaughey puts it, a volunteer can call the police nonemergency line for someone to check on them—or Vaughey makes the call herself. Some volunteers make a practice of asking homeless people if they’re open to moving into a shelter or accepting medical help, then try to make it happen if they say yes.

Always, above all: Vaughey wants photos and videos. “You have to show that you have a problem,” she says. (Plus the group tries to keep track of who’s been approached.) If a neighbor texts her but fails to send pics, or someone mentions bad behavior on Nextdoor without evidence, Vaughey pads down the 48 steps from her fourth-floor apartment to collect the visuals herself from the driver’s seat of her Chevy Spark.

Where do all the images go? Not far, generally. Vaughey says she often sends them to a security patrolman who many neighbors pay to watch their houses. Sometimes to the cops. (Vaughey to the district police in 2020: “30 of our group have spent more than a month taking pictures documenting the activities of the drug dealers and their suppliers and their paths of moving. Our group has documented most of the homeless.”) At the very least, she keeps them on file for future reference and writes occasional updates on her favorite social network. “I am a public figure,” one man living in a tent off Lombard told me. “I’m pretty well known over the Nextdoor app.”

But the indisputable stars of the Marina’s surveillance archive are a couple named Nate Roye—the guy with the shearling hood—and Ashley Buck. Or as Vaughey calls them: “the worst we’ve ever had.”

Roye and Buck arrived in the neighborhood around 2019, after Roye took a Greyhound in from North Carolina and hooked up with Buck somewhere along the way. They set up camp outside the Walgreens on Lombard, where, according to an employee, in court filings, they smoked meth, antagonized customers, and yelled at each other. Buck would allegedly go into the store and steal things—ice cream, Red Bull, cookies—sometimes every 30 minutes, and once made off with $205 worth of makeup, hurling vitriol. (She was never formally charged with shoplifting from the store.)

More complaints about the couple’s alleged misdeeds piled into Supervisor Stefani’s inbox: that Roye had swung a metal object at pedestrians; that he had “exposed himself” around kids on Halloween; that he had smacked with a tree branch a guy who threatened to call the cops on him. The duo had each been involved in local criminal cases—Buck was charged with shoplifting from a boutique, but the case was dropped; Roye pleaded no contest to vandalism charges, did quick stints in jail, was put on probation. But they always ended up back on the street.

I walked up to talk with Roye on a couple of occasions. He downplayed his disputes with neighbors. “They just don’t like company. That’s just some people, sometimes.” When he messes with people, he said, “It’s just for fun, really,” and he said he smokes crystal meth “all day, every day.” Buck, for her part, didn’t want to talk: The first time I approached her for an interview, she asked me to wait “around the corner” for a chat that never came; later she told me, “I think you’re looking for the other one … She’s around somewhere; we can schedule something soon.”

While most of the Marina’s Covid-era surge of homeless people had dissipated by about 2022, Vaughey’s network kept tracking the holdouts. Specifically, Vaughey patrolled at least once a day in her Spark to shoot photos of Buck and Roye’s whereabouts. (Sitting in a Marina pizzeria this summer, I asked Vaughey where the duo was. On the spot, she texted a woman in her network, who called with the answer.) Beyond surveillance, Vaughey also worked other angles: In late 2022, at her urging, a Walgreens employee filed for a restraining order against Buck and Roye. When Vaughey posted the news on Nextdoor, Marina people were exuberant: “Thank you for everything you do.” “Finally!”

As the restraining order made its way through the court, Buck and Roye simply drifted to the area around Magnolia Street near Carmignani’s house, where a new set of Marina residents had to contend with their ever-expanding gyre of scavenged items and their operatic scenes.

A neighbor whom I’ll call Dana—a manager at a tech company who works from her rent-controlled apartment of 13 years—was particularly bothered by Roye’s tendency to berate Buck gratuitously. One day, after Dana watched the cops arrest Roye, she walked up to Buck on the sidewalk: “If there’s any time for you to get out,” Dana told her—to escape this cycle—“it’s now.” It was the rare olive branch: One day, the couple’s yelling sent Dana into such tears of frustration that she felt like a hostage in her own house. The couple was stuck in some sort of dead-end loop that, from a distance, might inspire pathos, but the lived reality of it, just outside her window, turned Dana’s empathy sideways. “Fuck Nate and Ashley! They are pure chaos, with complete impunity and disregard,” she says. Dana hates that she’s gotten jaded: “I hate them for making me hate them.”

The duo wasn’t without companions, though. Earlier this year, some neighbors around Carmignani’s block noted a new guy with long hair who started hanging around the couple—quieter, often on a bike: Garret Doty.

Doty declined to speak with me (through his lawyer), but his odyssey to Magnolia Street can be partially reconstructed with video. On November 9, 2022, he drove a stolen utilities truck with Texas plates up to a border patrol checkpoint in New Mexico and was detained for questioning. In a taped interview with a state trooper, an upbeat Doty says he’s headed to Route 66, to Tucson, eventually to San Francisco. “That’s home,” he says, though he doesn’t have an address there. “You ever heard that song by that woman: She ain’t never looking back with her rearview mirror torn out, and her left foot on the gas?” he says. “That’s about how I feel.”

The agents pulled up his arrest history in Acadia Parish, Louisiana. He had been charged with domestic violence and strangulation when he was 20 and with obstructing a public passage and resisting arrest when he was 22, though all the charges had been dismissed.

An agent noticed that Doty had lesions on his face and suspected him of being high, though Doty said he wasn’t on any drugs. Doty gave vague answers as to how he got the truck—his mood zigzagging from jolly to agitated. The state trooper eventually told his coworkers, bodycam running, that Doty might need a mental health check at a hospital before they booked him into jail. (Doty pleaded not guilty to a charge of attempting to possess a stolen vehicle, which was later dismissed.)

Police bodycam footage of a New Mexico state trooper interviewing Doty while he was detained in November 2022. (Note: The audio delay was present in the video released to WIRED in a records request.)

The video trail goes cold soon after that; somehow Doty made it to the Marina. Last winter, he approached a man named Richard who lives in a tent off Lombard. Richard says Doty asked questions about his camping setup—“I thought he was just some lost kid. He referred to home, home, home, home, home.” It was chilly, and Richard offered Doty one of the caps that he crochets to sell. Doty popped on a bright red one. “He brightened up and did a dance in the rain.”

Soon, Richard saw that Doty had befriended Roye and Buck—almost becoming “the third partner.” Doty and Roye seemed to urge each other on to be “more macho, more daring,” once dancing around in a sword fight with PVC pipes for kicks. It also meant that Doty had walked right into the frame of the ongoing drama that so many Marina residents were surveilling.

On the afternoon of April 5, Vaughey was driving down Carmignani’s street, out on her daily photo-snapping patrol to track Roye and Buck. She saw the duo sitting on the sidewalk with Doty, clogging the public right-of-way with their possessions. Vaughey says she called the disability violation in to the cops. Later, when she got news of the Carmignani attack, her first thought was: “Shouldn’t have happened.” The cops ought to have cleared the sidewalk, she felt, before Carmignani ever got to the scene. A nearby surveillance cam filmed what happened instead: The police came, talked to the unhoused, then left.

When a San Francisco deputy public defender named Kleigh Hathaway started watching the bodycam footage from the Doty case—and got to the part where Carmignani barks, “Don’t say nothing to nobody” to his girlfriend—she didn’t initially understand what was going on. She thought it was just his personality coming through.

Through his lawyer, Carmignani declined to speak with me. But the way he paints himself in a 2022 radio interview, he’s a back-slapping city kid, the third-generation son of an Italian family that settled into the Marina in the early 1900s, a guy whose home is next door to the house his grandpa built in the ’40s, where his parents still live. He cofounded a startup in the dotcom boom, then invested money from the company’s 2010 acquisition in a cannabis emporium in the financial district. He also had a business selling jukeboxes and pool tables. He’s well known in his part of San Francisco: His family owns the building that houses the iconic Balboa Cafe, run by a hospitality company founded by now California governor Gavin Newsom. Over the years, Carmignani joined community boards and the Elks Club, got a purple belt in jiu jitsu, donated to city campaigns. That daycare whose security cam picked up a few moments of Doty’s onslaught? Carmignani owns the building. “The city is crashing and burning right now, with all the people with fentanyl and all the people OD’ing. I wish we could stop that, and I know we can,” he said on the radio last year, sounding every bit the concerned pillar of the community.

This laundromat’s security cam caught part of the altercation between Doty and Carmignani.

Photograph: IAN BATES

But when Hathaway took on Doty’s case, she quickly learned some other things about Carmignani. A decade ago, he had been arrested for domestic violence involving his then wife, forcing him to resign from the fire commission after just a few months. (He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor assault.) So when Hathaway saw Carmignani demand silence from his girlfriend, she thought, “Yeah, this guy maybe has something to hide.”

Doty pleaded not guilty to felony battery and assault charges. Then, in late April, on the eve of his preliminary hearing, prosecutors sent Hathaway a new batch of evidence, including a continuous stretch of footage from the laundromat cam. For the first time, Hathaway watched Carmignani’s initial approach to Doty, which occurred nine minutes before the start time of the clip Carmignani’s attorney had released.

That old clip had begun with Doty plucking a pole from a trash bin. In the new footage, Carmignani, wearing a Covid face mask, walks past a jumble of items on the sidewalk and pulls a tall black canister from his pocket, thumb trigger on top. Seconds later, Doty, with his red hat, scrambles into the frame with a jacket pulled over his head. As they face each other, Carmignani steps toward Doty, who quickly turns his back and moves away. Carmignani walks after him. There’s no audio, but the body language is telling: Doty’s on the defensive.

Courtesy of San Francisco Public Defender’s Office

The next surprise Hathaway came upon in the new batch of evidence was a bundle of police reports, detailing eight crimes from the prior year and a half. On all occasions, a male suspect had approached homeless people on Marina sidewalks and pepper-sprayed them. In the first case, in November 2021, there was even video evidence—from a Ring camera, right on Magnolia Street. When Hathaway played the clip, she saw a bulky guy stride up to a man lying on the sidewalk and spray him for a full five seconds, studiously aiming the chemical agent—designed to cause pain, burning, and temporary blindness—into the victim’s face and head as he rolls over and stands up. “I was like what? What?!” Hathaway recalls. “He focuses on the victim’s face. It’s just so gross.”

Courtesy of San Francisco Public Defender’s Office

Hathaway looked at the 2021 sprayer—sure-footed, bulky, Covid face mask, baseball cap. Then she looked at Carmignani as he approached Doty on April 5—sure-footed, bulky, face mask, baseball cap. “I was like, Jesus, that’s Carmignani. Like that’s exactly how he walks.” (In the press, Carmignani’s attorney denied it was him.)

In some of the other sprayings, witness statements bent toward a roughly similar script. A goateed white guy in his fifties, riding a bike, asked if an unhoused guy needed help before pepper-spraying, kicking, and punching him. A white guy, 6'1" and some 220 pounds, with short, light brown hair, wearing a gray beanie, unzipped a man’s tent and maced him with a 10-inch canister, warning, “Get out of my town.” A white male, 40 to 50 years old, grayish hair, sprayed Ashley Buck and an unhoused man. In other spray attacks, suspect descriptions skewed younger: One involved a white or Hispanic male in his thirties riding a gray bicycle. Another was a white thirtysomething male on a skateboard.

(Still other incidents didn’t make it into those police reports. In my reporting, a Marina man told me he’d seen someone—not Carmignani, he said—spray a homeless person in the face in August 2021, but he told the 911 dispatcher he didn’t want to get further involved by talking to the cops. Roye told me he’s been sprayed on three different occasions by different people: “It just makes you very mad, but you can still see. It just burns.”)

The same day that Hathaway saw the new evidence, the district attorney’s office told Carmignani’s lawyer that they intended to drop the charges against Doty and might prosecute Carmignani instead, for pepper-spraying.

That night, Carmignani appeared on the local news. Sitting in a kitchen, his words rolled out slowly. He described his night terrors and his wounds, sometimes closing his eyes, seeming overwhelmed with pain. At times, his voice flecked with anger. “My city—my city—is in chaos.” He called the prospect of his own prosecution “sad,” explaining, “When you have animals in the street saying they’re going to rape your daughter and kill your mother, and you have nothing to do or help. When you call for help, 911”—Carmignani narrowed his eyes—“and they don’t show up,” he weighted each word, “What do you do?

The next day, the public defender’s office demanded that the charges against Doty be dropped, detailing the prior spray attacks and publicly releasing the 2021 Ring cam footage alongside the new videoclip of Carmignani’s advance on Doty. Carmignani’s attorney denied that his client had been involved in any prior spray attacks and blasted the accusations as “victim blaming.”

The district attorney ended up going through with the charges against Doty after all, and didn’t charge Carmignani in any spray attacks. But the fresh chaos of facts churned through the culture war, needling its obsession with who, on San Francisco’s symbolic turf in 2023, was the real victim. In Carmignani, some now saw a vigilante, a bully who got a brutal comeuppance for picking on the city’s underclass. Others focused on the violent transient who’d horrendously beaten a former official—and said if there was any fault on Carmignani’s side, it was that San Francisco’s failings had pushed him over the edge.

As much as citizen surveillance culture has put an eye on unhoused people, it has also captured a steady, years-long ticker of those harming them, all across the city. In 2018 a Tenderloin camera filmed a man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase as he kicked a person lying on the sidewalk in the head; the police identified and arrested the man, who later pleaded guilty to felony assault. In January, a septuagenarian named Collier Gwin trained a water hose on the face of a woman on the sidewalk in front of his art gallery. A chef waiting at a stoplight filmed the attack and posted it on TikTok. (Gwin avoided battery charges by doing community service.) And police are still offering a reward for information about an attack that wasn’t filmed: In 2021 someone set fire to a Guatemalan immigrant’s sleeping bag, leading to the man’s death from burn injuries.

None of the spray attacks in the Marina had made the news until they were linked to the sensational Doty case.

Carmignani’s nearby neighbor, Dana, had actually been a witness to one of the sprayings. One afternoon in January 2023, as she was working from home, she heard screaming from Magnolia Street. Having dealt with Roye and Buck for months, she hesitated—“Once you engage, it becomes this whole thing”—but when she popped her head outside, she saw that it was a different homeless duo. The two told her that they and their Chihuahua had been pepper-sprayed. They asked Dana to call the cops and help their dog. Dana brought them a wet washcloth and lugged the salivating Chihuahua up to her bathtub while she dialed 911.

Then she heard the couple scream again, and she rushed to the window: They were being sprayed a second time. Not, apparently, by the same guy. Unbeknownst to Dana, another neighbor had witnessed the initial attack and caught a short cell phone video of the first purported sprayer: middle-aged, gray goatee, gray beanie, gray jacket. But the guy Dana now saw was a lanky white guy, twenties or thirties, “tweaker-ish,” basic gray sweat suit, who slowly bicycled past the couple as he sprayed them in the eyes. She’s since seen the photo of the first suspect, and this wasn’t him, Dana says.

With the dog in one arm, Dana fumbled with her iPhone to record the second sprayer as he biked down the block, but she couldn’t get it cued in time. As the police and ambulance descended, Dana handed the two victims some swag T-shirts from her tech company to change into.

That day, Dana was one of four witnesses who gave a statement to the cops. The event marked the eighth spray attack on unhoused people in the Marina area within 14 months. Now, police were treating all the suspected vigilante incidents as related. They sent out a department-wide email with the middle-aged January suspect’s photo. Vaughey told me some officers texted the photo of the suspect to her, but she didn’t recognize the guy.

Now, after the Doty ordeal, the Marina was as infamous for its pepper-spray vigilantes as it was for the attack on Carmignani. Meanwhile, Roye and Buck and Doty were blowing up on Nextdoor and Twitter—hashtag #TransientTrio—and still getting photographed in the blocks around Carmignani’s house. During a spell when he wasn’t in jail, Doty was filmed smoking on a mattress nearby, flashing a mellow peace sign at the camera. Then, over the summer, JJ Smith, San Francisco’s preeminent chronicler of street desperation, noticed all the Twitter hubbub and drove his beat-up Chevy van out from the Tenderloin for his first on-camera intervention in the Marina.

“I’ve come out here to see if I can help y’all or offer y’all any services,” Smith starts up in a warm voice. Roye stands amid a stew of objects—a papasan chair, blankets, bags—that expands over most of the sidewalk, a block and a half from Carmignani’s house. Smith urges Roye to move some things to the curb so they can be hauled away. Blasé and unfazed, Roye says he’d rather sell the stuff. Buck ignores him. After some small talk, Smith gently asks Roye if he’d like to try detox or a shelter rather than sleeping out on the street. “I’d rather stick with it,” Roye replies. “I like the freedom out here.”

garret doty strode into a Hall of Justice courtroom one Monday in June wearing an orange jumpsuit and walking with a light step, his stringy locks wafting behind him. Carmignani pushed a walker up the aisle with a lumbering limp. At a prior hearing, Carmignani had said that the painkillers he was taking were strong and his brain processing had slowed and had gaps. He stuttered a few times.

The hearing stretched on for several sessions over three months. The prosecution and the defense both entered videos as evidence. Much of it had already played on the news. But the hearing also filled in a crucial hole: No audio existed to reveal the early minutes of Carmignani and Doty’s interaction—key to determining whether Doty had acted in legal self-defense. In its place, there was old-fashioned eyewitness testimony.

From the stand, Carmignani said that on the morning of April 5, his mom told him that she couldn’t leave her house because three people—Doty among them—were posted up against her front gate, “smoking crack” and screaming. Carmignani said that he went to the window and asked them to leave and they just yelled back at him. He snapped a photo, called 911, and left for work. When he returned that evening, the group had moved across the street to the laundromat, but his parents were still too nervous to go out; they’d stayed inside all day. Hearing this, Carmignani testified, he walked out and asked, “Can you please get your stuff and move.” Doty started yelling and screaming, Carmignani said, and was holding some kind of weapon—a kitchen knife, a metal object, maybe a screwdriver—in his right hand. “I brought my hands up, and then he jumped up, and he circled me.” At some point, Carmignani said, his spray “went off accidentally, I guess, and went in my eyes, and then I was blinded.”

All the commotion had drawn a neighbor to her window, who saw and heard the interaction differently. Taking the stand, Kristin Onorato, an executive assistant who has worked for a string of tech companies, said Carmignani’s request did not sound like “Can you please get your stuff and move.” Instead, she testified, Carmignani was “aggressively yelling” at the homeless trio: “‘Get the fuck out of my neighborhood. I own this block. I don’t want to see you here tonight. If you come back, I will stab you.’” Onorato said that Carmignani told the group “he would kill them. He said, ‘You have two hours to get out of here. I don’t want to see you tonight.’”

After that, Onorato said, Carmignani left, Buck wandered off, and Doty, now holding the metal pole, started pacing the street. Within about 15 minutes, Carmignani was back, yelling at Doty and Roye. Carmignani was standing with his back against a wall, Onorato said, “almost as if he’s baiting them to come closer to him.” At some point, she said, Carmignani called Doty a “white [N-word].” When Doty came within 10 feet, Carmignani sprayed at him—“willfully,” she said—but the wind blew the spray into Carmignani’s own face, causing him to wipe his eyes and continue to spray “haphazardly.” That’s when Doty struck Carmignani with the pole two or three times. Carmignani continued to spray as he backed down the sidewalk toward the gas station, out of her view, at which point Stig Strombeck, the guy who’d gotten out of his car on Lombard, filmed the encounter. Strombeck testified that Doty continued to follow and hit Carmignani for a full block down Lombard, repeatedly yelling, “Don’t fuck with my family. No one fucks with my family.”

The Shell station where Stig Strombeck filmed Doty and Carmignani's encounter.

Photograph: IAN BATES

When it came time to cross-examine Carmignani, Kleigh Hathaway, the public defender, suggested that he knew the block and its surveillance well. “You hid yourself in this area where there weren’t any videos, and you baited Mr. Doty to get close enough so you could then spray him, correct?” (Carmignani: “I do not recall that at all.”)

And the prior sprayings? Carmignani’s attorney, who sat feet away in the otherwise empty jury box, instructed him not to answer most of the questions. An exception was when Hathaway brought up a November 2022 spraying. Carmignani checked his phone, then told the court he was flying to a wedding in New Jersey that day. Hathaway pointed out the inconsistency: He’d answered questions about that one day while pleading the Fifth on others: “And that is because, sir, you believe you have an alibi, is that right?” And the January 2023 suspect—the middle-aged guy in a gray beanie who sprayed the couple with the Chihuahua on Magnolia? Carmignani denied “100 percent” that it was him. The lead police investigator on the Doty case testified that he hadn’t done much to look into the prior reports of pepper-spray attacks.

At the end of the hearing in July, Judge Linda Colfax spoke from the bench. She said she was “troubled, and that’s a somewhat generous word,” that the police hadn’t followed up on any of the previous sprayings. She also didn’t find Carmignani to be credible: He easily recalled details during direct testimony, she said, but then got fuzzy during cross-examination. The video belied what Carmignani claimed happened when he first approached, she said—the purported weapon in Doty’s hand, the circling face-off—and she didn’t believe Carmignani set off the pepper spray accidentally.

Then Colfax turned her attention to Doty: She was troubled that once Carmignani began to run, Doty pursued and kept hitting him on the head. The felony assault and battery charges against Doty would go on to trial, though Colfax called Carmignani “the initial aggressor.”

In the Marina, neighbors around Magnolia were used to keeping a close eye on Roye and Buck. At least one neighbor now considered Carmignani someone to keep an eye on too. In early June, within a few days of Carmignani pushing his walker into the courthouse, the neighbor held up a cell phone and filmed him limping out his door with a cane to a waiting black pickup.

One Friday evening at quitting time, I followed Dana from her Magnolia Street house across a field of golden retrievers and poodles at Moscone Park to a weekly event at the dog run called Yappy Hour. Dana’s typical crew sipped rosé from plastic cups and Yeti thermoses. One mutt wore a hot-dog costume. An owner ran to scoop an errant poop from the artificial turf with the intensity of a US Open ball boy. (“You’re going to get shamed on Nextdoor if you don’t,” Dana said.) One exasperated 70-year-old who described herself as third-generation Italian San Franciscan emphasized to me, with hearty smacks to my shoulder, that San Francisco can’t become the next Detroit. She said she wasn’t sure whether Carmignani had committed any of the prior sprayings: “He could have maybe, who knows? But they can’t prove it, so fuck them. He’s protecting his family, he’s protecting his mother, and we are not going to stand for this anarchy in our city!”

In Vaughey’s circle, many people seemed less worried about the harm pepper-sprayers might do to their victims than about the damage they might do to the reputation of people like the Marina photo squad. Vaughey herself disavows vigilantism, but has, on at least one occasion, inadvertently invited associations with it. Last year, she convened a neighborhood meeting about public safety and set off some worry at City Hall when she said—in front of a police captain, someone from the supervisor’s office, and about 100 attendees—that the community needed to “militarize against the homeless.” She chalks the misunderstanding up to semantics: “You say ‘militarize’ and this generation thinks pull out guns. It’s join together, speak up, and be strong.” Their only weapons are phone calls and images.

I asked Dana (who is not part of Vaughey’s group): Did she think the first sprayer caught on the Ring cam on Magnolia looked like Carmignani? Her answer was a verbal shrug. “I mean, sure.” Her frustrations lay elsewhere. With the Doty attack, the neighborhood had gotten what seemed like unimpeachable proof that its problems were real. “A lot of us were like, ‘finally, we have something on camera of these assholes!’” But Carmignani’s actions ruined it, nullified their case. It was now just the story of a sprayer.

One day in July, I spotted a camera on the front of a tidy house on Magnolia—the place whose driveway had been the site of the 2021 attack where a man was sprayed in the face for five seconds. I walked up to the open garage and asked the man inside if I could talk to him about the Ring cam footage that had emerged of the incident. He said he’d rather not, that he was thinking he would be subpoenaed. Doty’s trial was coming up—it’s now set for mid-November—and the man said he had to get an attorney himself. He hadn’t authorized the release of his footage to the media, he explained, and he wasn’t happy that it wound up on national TV.

The next day, I drove into the Chevron lot across from the Shell where Doty and Carmignani had fought. Then I looked up, and as surprising as any celebrity sighting, there was Nate Roye. Right on Carmignani’s corner, under those laundromat cameras, he was balancing a bulky Whirlpool appliance atop a narrow scooter. It was a feat so on-brand that I pulled out my cell phone, hit Record, and kept filming as Roye, in a set of Care Bears–print pajama pants, glided his humongous cargo across six lanes of Lombard crosswalk to the pile where Buck was waiting.

As I became yet another Marina surveillant, I thought of what one regular chronicler of the homeless in the neighborhood had told me—that he doubted all the careful surveillance had added up to much other than “On my phone I have a bunch of stupid photos now.” San Francisco’s police chief has called the city’s bonanza of surveillance footage a “golden” tool for solving crimes, but it can just as easily set people free: The public defender’s office is one of the main requesters of footage from the Tenderloin’s camera network. One defense attorney in the city, Elizabeth Hilton, told me that in many of her cases the trove of San Francisco video evidence ends up helping the accused, contradicting victims’ and witnesses’ accounts of what went down.

Vaughey, for her part, is convinced the Marina’s surveillance and activism have made a difference. “I’m proud of my neighbors,” she told me, again and again. In late summer, Walgreens was granted another restraining order against Roye and Buck, this one good for three years. The couple have since moved to the periphery of the neighborhood where, Roye told me, it’s “calmer.” But problems in the Marina persist. In September, Dana texted me from Moscone Park, where firefighters were attending to a guy who had apparently just been pepper-sprayed. I arrived in time to find a shirt and an Oakland A’s cap soaked in orangish liquid, lying in the grass. Then, in October, another unhoused regular on Vaughey’s radar, Zavein Wright, was charged with assaulting an 80-year-old man. Vaughey told me she was trying to figure out whether anyone had seen or filmed it.

As I kept my eye on the Marina, I couldn’t stop thinking about the guy I’d met in his garage that day in July, bewildered that his Ring footage had ended up on the national news, that this little piece of hardware had unleashed something bigger than he’d ever intended. His reaction struck me as genuine and understandable—what most people would feel in his position. Yet it also seemed quaintly naive, a reminder that those engaged in citizen surveillance in 2023 still don’t totally get what it means to have a camera watching the street.

Photograph: Ian Bates

A camera offers the illusion of a private sentry, serving you and your castle. Control your tiny corner of a flailing city. Yet once you capture something you didn’t expect, say, a neighborhood vigilante mystery unfurling on your doorstep, the control is breached. Your cam blasts up and away into the stratosphere of attention. The cops get it, the footage gets passed to the prosecutor, who hands it to the defense attorney, who tosses it like chum to the ravenous media, and before you know it, your house cam is on CNN, it’s playing on All In with Chris Hayes, it’s making rhetorical points against Tucker Carlson, it’s basically a live birth on a San Francisco sidewalk, boomeranging the eyes right back on you, threatening to put you on the witness stand, sending a WIRED reporter marching up to your garage on a Friday afternoon, hoping to talk.

You wanted to surveil. You end up surveilled.

And right there, under the little security camera that kicked it off, our garage meeting completed the surveillance media ouroboros. You and I are variations on a theme, our distinctions flattened, our outputs—your footage, my story on all the footage—sucked into the same grasping, greedy, ever-expanding gyre of internet, the “Lawless San Francisco” section, competing for eyes and for clicks. Watching and watched, all true-crime-casting now.

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