Castro Theatre vandalism shows what’s wrong with S.F. justice system, treatment programs

The iconic Castro Theatre has shown movies of all sorts over its 100 years in business — comedies, melodramas, mysteries and more. But the real-life story playing out in the building and just outside it can only be described as a tragedy.

The neighborhood’s crown jewel has been vandalized numerous times in recent months by people who appear to be suffering from extreme mental illness or who are high on drugs — and the city keeps cycling the same people between jails, psychiatric hospital holds and the sidewalks with no required long-term care.

In September, a man known to city officials and police scaled the building, hurled heavy objects from the roof and damaged the theater’s famous neon sign. After he skipped out on his court-ordered treatment program, police arrested him again last month. On Wednesday, a judge released him without even requiring him to wear an ankle monitor.

Police in March arrested three people, at least one of whom was also known to the department, after they allegedly broke into the theater, damaged historic leaded glass and decorative wooden details, spilled oil for popping popcorn all over the carpet, took a hammer to the projector, cranked the heater to full blast, threw marquee letters around and left drug paraphernalia behind. One of them, out of jail already, broke in again three days later.

A chair at the entrance to the Castro Theatre.

Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

Those major incidents bookended smaller ones. Staff with Another Planet Entertainment, which took over the theater in January, have already had to repair the historic box office windows three times. Some of the windows remain broken. They’ve covered the front doors in plywood and erected metal barriers across the facade. Staff might install a metal security gate over the whole entrance.

It means the theater isn’t as charming and lovely as it used to be, but then, neither is San Francisco.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro, has pushed for years for the city and state to mandate more people to accept care under conservatorships even if they’re too sick to know they need it. It’s better than cycling endlessly between jails, hospitals and the streets, as the Castro Theatre incidents show remains our so-called progressive bastion’s current approach.

In 2019, the city identified 4,000 unsheltered people who struggled with addictions or mental illness and were rapidly deteriorating. At the same time, the Board of Supervisors approved legislation making it a little easier to compel some of those people into care. The changes were expected to require up to 100 people to accept treatment, but three years later, they’ve led to just three people receiving care. The average wait times for beds in the city’s locked treatment facilities have more than doubled in recent years, Mandelman said.

“It makes me very, very sad,” Mandelman said. “This neighborhood has meaning to people across the country and across the world. The Castro represents hope, but in a lot of ways, it also represents despair.

“I think Harvey Milk would be heartbroken,” he said of the 1970s gay rights leader known as the “mayor of Castro Street.”

Mandelman in 2019 created a list on which he tracks the neighborhood’s most troubled and distressed people so he can push city departments to help them. Back then, his list had 17 people on it. Now, it’s swelled to about 40 — including the Castro Theatre roof-scaler and the three who allegedly broke in last month.

It’s obvious the approach by San Francisco and California isn’t working, but there are two worthwhile proposals making their way through the Legislature that could help — and which Mandelman avidly supports.

One is Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed Care Court, which would require counties to provide comprehensive treatment to those suffering from severe psychosis, and face sanctions if they don’t. Those in the program would be mandated to accept the care. The proposal heads to hearings in the Senate and Assembly this week.

A vandalized intercom at the entrance to the Castro Theatre.

A vandalized intercom at the entrance to the Castro Theatre.

Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

The supervisor also backs a package of bills introduced by state Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, and co-sponsored by a group called California Big City Mayors, of which London Breed is a member. It would expand who can qualify for conservatorship, allow judges to consider a person’s behavioral health history when deciding whether to mandate care, and create a dashboard to show real-time treatment bed availability.

William Quezali, the man who allegedly scaled the theater roof, has a decade-long history of causing disturbances including climbing tall buildings and throwing things at people below — and a history of 72-hour psychiatric detentions at San Francisco General Hospital. Quezali was referred to the Superior Court’s mental health diversion program but didn’t stick with his mandated treatment program, and police picked him up on a warrant last month.

On Wednesday, a judge released him and placed him on assertive case management, a supervision and treatment program run by the San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project. The district attorney asked that he be placed in a stricter program and be ordered to wear an ankle monitor, but the judge declined both requests. Spokespeople with the District Attorney’s Office and Superior Court did not respond to queries asking for the name of the judge.

Quezali’s public defender, Phoenix Streets, said, “It’s a shame that treatment on demand and mental health care aren’t rapidly available for people who need it, when they need it, to help abate harm.”

Gary Marx, one of the three alleged theater burglars last month, was released from custody within hours of the first break-in and placed on assertive case management as he awaited his court date, according to David Burke, a public safety liaison in Mandelman’s office. Marx returned to the theater the next day to ask for his burglary tools back and broke in again two days later, Burke said. Marx was again released quickly and placed back on assertive case management.

Marx’s private attorney, Garry Preneta, said Mandelman should direct his frustration at the district attorney, judges or the police and declined to say anything about his client.

Nicholas DeGrego, another alleged burglar, was also quickly released from custody on assertive case management, Burke said. He blew off court appearances, prompting the issuance of a bench warrant, and was arrested by police Wednesday morning. He’s being held on $25,000 bail.

DeGrego’s private attorney did not return a call for comment.

An Art Deco chandelier on the ceiling at the Castro Theatre.

An Art Deco chandelier on the ceiling at the Castro Theatre.

Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

Jason Kilbourne, the third alleged burglar, is homeless and has felony vandalism arrests in the Castro and three stay-away orders from various parts of the neighborhood. Last year, he was placed in a three-day psychiatric hold after allegedly smashing tables, heat lamps and planters and screaming at customers at a local restaurant, Burke said. Kilbourne has allegedly smashed windows at numerous businesses in the neighborhood.

Kilbourne has been in and out of jail, hospitals and treatment programs and, after the Castro burglary, is behind bars on $30,000 bail.

Kilbourne’s public defender, Olivia Taylor, said he was merely seeking shelter at the Castro Theatre on a cold night and that he’s is on a waiting list for a residential treatment program that could lead to a supportive housing unit.

His “senseless incarceration is a direct result of city leadership continuing to make jail beds more readily available than treatment beds,” Taylor said.

Mandelman agreed that these stories show people in distress are not receiving real, long-term care, and he’s disappointed in the responses — or lack thereof — by the criminal justice system and the Department of Public Health, both of which he said keep trying the same failed responses.

Alison Hawkes, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Health, said the department is working to fulfill the requirements of Mental Health SF, legislation passed by the Board of Supervisors in 2019 to improve the city’s mental health care system, and provides frequent updates to the supervisors about its progress. Mandelman countered that the city’s health officials have made small, incremental changes over the years and aren’t acting with any kind of urgency.

He also blamed the city’s criminal justice system, including the district attorney and judges, for taking part in “some kind of ideological crusade” rather than seeking real, effective, long-term treatment solutions for people who need them. He said he knows how he will vote in the June 7 recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin, but isn’t saying publicly.

Rachel Marshall, a spokesperson for Boudin, said the office takes the theater burglary seriously and has charged the three alleged assailants with felony burglary and felony vandalism. She said the office wants to keep Kilbourne in custody, and a judge is due to decide the matter Monday. She added that judges released Marx and DeGrego before prosecutors had a chance to appear.

“We sympathize with the supervisor’s frustration,” she said, noting that Boudin has spoken directly with staff at Another Planet Entertainment about the burglary.

The Castro Theatre, which is preparing a revitalization as Another Planet Entertainment takes over its programming, has been repeatedly vandalized by people who appear to be suffering from mental illness.

The Castro Theatre, which is preparing a revitalization as Another Planet Entertainment takes over its programming, has been repeatedly vandalized by people who appear to be suffering from mental illness.

Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

Mary Conde, the senior vice president of Another Planet Entertainment, said Boudin’s office and Mandelman’s office have been supportive and helpful, and that she’s glad nobody was hurt in any of the incidents.

Still, it’s frustrating to try to maintain a historic landmark that’s become a target for vandals. All told, fixing the damage in just the past three months has cost $45,000, she said.

The repairs are made doubly difficult because the theater is so old. The popcorn oil caused so much damage to the theater’s carpets that steam-cleaning them three times hasn’t eliminated the stickiness, and they might need to be ripped out. Each small window pane in the historic box office costs $1,200 to replace because it requires a specially trained artisan.

“It’s a landmark, and we want to make sure things are preserved in a way that’s appropriate for the age and significance of the building,” she said.

If only those running San Francisco took as much pride in taking care of it.