SAN FRANCISCO — Nine days after the fatal, late-night stabbing of Bob Lee triggered a furious outcry over public safety in San Francisco, the police said on Thursday that they had arrested an acquaintance of the tech executive on suspicion of murder.
In a news conference, the city’s police chief, Bill Scott, identified the suspect as Nima Momeni, 38, a tech consultant who knew Mr. Lee. In surveillance footage from the night of the killing, Mr. Lee can be seen staggering and clutching his side near a car on a darkened street around 2:30 a.m. on April 4, in a neighborhood of high-rise condominiums.
The owner of an enterprise tech business in the East Bay city of Emeryville, Mr. Momeni was apprehended there after an intense investigation in which the authorities had warned from the outset that Mr. Lee may have been killed by someone he knew and not in a random street crime. Mr. Momeni was booked on Thursday morning into San Francisco County Jail on a murder charge, according to jail records.
That development on Thursday undermined a growing narrative that the killing reflected a city where the professional class was being threatened by random attacks and a flawed approach to criminal justice.
Scott Wiener, a Democratic state senator who represents the city, said the rush to judgment by tech luminaries such as Elon Musk and colleagues of Mr. Lee, a well-known figure in Silicon Valley, had managed to be both inaccurate and damaging to San Francisco, which has been straining to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is the danger of making one crime into a symbol,” Mr. Wiener said. “This was a horrific, brutal murder, and I am so grateful that the police solved it so quickly. And San Francisco does have real public safety problems. But this particular crime does not appear to have anything to do with them.”
Nonetheless, the narrative persisted, even as word spread of the arrest on Thursday. Jason Calacanis, a tech investor and entrepreneur, tweeted that “*everyone* has said we don’t know the details of any individual case, at the same time anyone who walks a couple of blocks in San Francisco (outside of Pac Whites where things seem to be oddly safe) knows how dangerous the city is,” making a slang reference to the affluent Pacific Heights neighborhood.
The arrest capped days of speculation around the death of Mr. Lee, 43, a tech executive who was found bleeding by emergency medical workers at about 2:35 a.m. on April 4 on a sidewalk near the Embarcadero.
The authorities said Mr. Lee, a father of two who had recently relocated to Miami after spending most of his career in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, had been in San Francisco on business when he was assaulted.
The killing has generated waves of recriminations and heightened tensions between the city and its tech sector at a precarious moment, as San Francisco struggles to revive its downtown.
Emptied of office workers during the past three years, San Francisco has seen an increase in tent encampments and open air drug use in its public spaces, fueling complaints that the city’s compassion for homeless and mentally ill people has complicated its ability to maintain order. Property crimes have risen during the pandemic, and enough voters felt unsafe that they ousted the local prosecutor, Chesa Boudin, last year.
But rates of violent crime have dipped or held steady over the past several years in the city of about 808,000 people. Some city officials said last week that San Francisco had been unfairly maligned by conservatives and tech leaders, and that the arrest of an acquaintance on Thursday confirmed that.
“This is why you need to wait for investigations before you jump to conclusions,” said Kevin Benedicto, a police commissioner who lashed out at critics after the killing, charging that a small minority had sought “to weaponize this tragedy” for political reasons.
In the emotional aftermath of the killing, high profile figures including Mr. Musk, the chief executive of Twitter and Tesla, and Michael Arrington, the founder of the industry blog TechCrunch, blamed the city for Mr. Lee’s death. City officials agreed that parts of the city needed to be made safer but disputed the claims that San Francisco was a hotbed of violence.
San Francisco recorded 56 homicides in 2017 before some violent crimes dipped during the pandemic; in 2021 and 2022, the homicide count was back up to 56, according to data from the city’s Police Department. In the quarter before Mr. Lee’s death, the city had recorded a dozen killings, two more than the year before.
However, the high-profile crime has continued to highlight the city’s problems. Days after Mr. Lee was killed, for instance, a former fire commissioner was attacked with a metal pipe in the Marina District and left hospitalized; the victim’s family blamed an encampment of homeless people that he had sought to force out of the upscale neighborhood. In March, the San Francisco board of supervisors approved a request from Mayor London Breed to spend an additional $25 million on police overtime.
Sam Singer, a Bay Area public relations executive, is Mr. Momeni’s neighbor in a century-old steam engine factory in Emeryville, across the bay from San Francisco, that has been converted into offices.
Mr. Singer described Mr. Momeni as a good neighbor, “bright, hard-charging, charming.” Mr. Momeni’s office space was “a classic San Francisco Bay Area tech office” with a pool table, a high-end stereo system and gourmet food in the kitchen, Mr. Singer said.
According to Mr. Momeni’s name card, his business focuses on the management of computer servers, cybersecurity and general IT support.
Mr. Lee was known by his friends and relatives as a kind, brilliant man and a generous mentor, but also as a prodigiously energetic and social person, with an ability to stay out late even on weeknights. His online handle was “Crazy Bob,” a nickname he had earned while playing water polo in his youth.
He had risen to prominence first as the chief technology officer of the payment company Square — which changed its name to Block in 2021 — and then at MobileCoin, a cryptocurrency start-up based in San Francisco, where he was chief product officer at the time of his death. Colleagues said Mr. Lee also had been instrumental in creating the mobile payment service Cash App.
Like the attack in the Marina District, the stabbing of Mr. Lee occurred in an upscale part of the city. A quiet neighborhood that is popular with tech workers, the area is near downtown and not far from Google’s office and the stadium that is home to the San Francisco Giants, Oracle Park.
The neighborhood is a tech hub, and it caters by day to tech workers and other professionals with pour-over coffee shops, grab-and-go lunch counters and a specialty grocery store. But the streets tend to empty after dark as residents retreat into skyscraper condominiums.
Before moving to Miami — he told friends that he liked the energy of the city’s tech start-ups — Mr. Lee lived in Mill Valley, an affluent community about 15 miles north of San Francisco in Marin County. In social media posts, his father wrote that after the death of his wife, Mr. Lee’s mother, he had shared a home with his son.
“Life has been an adventure with two bachelors living together, and I’m so happy that we were able to become so close these last years,” the father, Rick Lee, posted on Facebook. “Bob would give you the shirt off his back. He would never look down on anyone and adhered to a strict no-judgment philosophy.”
Friends said Bob Lee had been wrapping up his trip to San Francisco when he was assaulted. Footage from nearby surveillance cameras, shared with news outlets and local authorities in the immediate aftermath of the killing, appeared to show him staggering on the nearly deserted street, pressing buttons on the security doors of a luxury condominium tower and unsuccessfully trying to flag down passing vehicles.
“He was drawn to big, transformational challenges, and through his work he changed the world of mobile payments for all of us,” said Ron Conway, a prominent venture capitalist and political donor to local Democratic candidates. “His murder is a profound loss to the tech community, and my heart breaks for Bob’s family.”
Kalley Huang, Tim Arango and Kate Conger contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.
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