By Ryan Oh
A former San Francisco firefighter was accused of allegedly punching and chokeholding a male victim. The district attorney prosecuted the case under a grade of felony, while the defense responded by requesting relief under Penal Code section 17(b) in the preliminary hearing presided by Judge Christine Van Aken on December 2, 2019.
On November 12, 2019, at approximately 11 a.m., a former firefighter named Stephen Kloster was reportedly attacking his former psychologist at the alleged victim’s office, located on Hyde Street in San Francisco – details of the address are not shown here for the protection of the victim’s identity. According to the victim, who served as the first witness, the defendant first entered his office without caution and started accusing the victim of being unresponsive to the defendant’s attorney. Subsequently, the defendant punched the victim’s left jaw with his right fist, which forced the victim to step back and take off his glasses. The victim testified that he then took a defensive stance – his fists closed – in anticipation of future strikes by the defendant. The defendant then allegedly punched the victim’s right jaw with his left fist, then performed a chokehold, which caused the victim to experience a “blackout.” When the People asked about the de-escalation of the incident, the victim stated that his fellow professional, who also had an office in the building, came by with his patient and prevented further attacks from the defendant. Due to the “blackout,” however, the victim responded that he does not remember the specifics regarding the resolution of the situation.
Following the People’s examination, the defense asked the alleged victim about his interactions with the defendant prior to the incident. The victim mentioned that he had known Mr. Kloster since 2014 as his client. He reported that the defendant was experiencing psychological issues in 2014 and visited him four to five times for mental/psychological evaluation. As the defendant was employed as a firefighter at the time, he needed clearance from a psychologist to return to his workplace. The victim declined to provide clearance for the first three times but eventually cleared the defendant at his fourth visit, which the defendant may have believed was the cause of his job loss as a firefighter. After his sessions with the defendant, the victim stated that the defendant visited him three to four more times before the violence took place in his office. The victim mentioned that he was expecting a violent reaction from the defendant, as the defendant was verbally hostile to him during the three to four visits after the four to five sessions in 2014. The victim’s description of his history with the defendant and the description of the incident seemed mostly clear, yet there was plenty of room for speculation concerning the defendant’s motive.
As the hearing proceeded, there was an unexpected discrepancy between the victim’s testimony and that of the second witness, a police officer who initially responded to the incident. Although the testimonies mostly matched in describing the incident, Officer Tom Guerrero testified that the victim never mentioned that he had “blacked out” and directly stated that he was not unconscious during the course of the incident. The defense used this contested evidence to argue against the People’s classification of the case as a felony. Additionally, the officer also testified that the defendant threatened the victim’s fellow professional and his patient by saying, “Don’t mess with me, I will kill you,” which seemingly weakened the defense’s argument and attempt to seek relief under Penal Code section 17(b). Reviewing the testimony and presented materials, Judge Christine Van Aken found sufficient evidence against the defendant and ordered him to be held to answer for the charges. She also declined the defense’s request for relief under 17(b).