Bob Lee, the well-known tech executive and investor who created Cash App, was fatally stabbed on a dark, secluded San Francisco street on April 4.
The initial news of his death elicited a furious response from a handful of Silicon Valley executives, including the billionaire Elon Musk, who blamed city leaders and suggested that uncontrolled homelessness and violence in San Francisco led to the killing. Those claims reignited a debate about public safety and public policy in the city.
But the next week, after the authorities charged another tech entrepreneur with the murder, the case further exposed tensions between the tech industry and the city. Many residents — including some within the tech sector — accused industry leaders of making snap judgments and using the tragedy to advance their political agenda.
The charges also raised questions about what exactly led to the fatal attack. Here is what we know about Mr. Lee’s death and the fissures it has revealed in San Francisco.
Who was Bob Lee?
Mr. Lee returned to San Francisco often and was the chief product officer of the cryptocurrency start-up MobileCoin when he died. He was the father of two teenage daughters, who both lived near the city with his former wife.
“Bob would give you the shirt off his back,” his father wrote in a Facebook post after his death. “He would never look down on anyone and adhered to a strict no-judgment philosophy.”
A native of St. Louis, Mr. Lee got his start building web pages for small businesses near his parents’ store, according to Oliver Lee, his brother, who described him as a brilliant software engineer, a lover of art and music festivals, and an idealist who sought throughout his career to democratize access to technology.
Before taking on the role at MobileCoin in 2021, Mr. Lee was instrumental in the creation of Cash App, a service that allows users to quickly send and receive money from their phones. He was admired among engineers for his work as a software engineer at Google, where he worked on Android, an operating system for smartphones. He was also a start-up adviser, investing in companies that include SpaceX and Clubhouse, according to an older LinkedIn page.
He befriended many in the tech world and was close with Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, who shared a screenshot of the first-ever Cash App exchange — $4 sent to him from Mr. Lee.
What happened to him?
Mr. Lee was in San Francisco for business and to visit family members after recently relocating to Miami. According to the documents released by prosecutors, who have charged the entrepreneur Nima Momeni with the murder, Mr. Lee was drinking with Mr. Momeni’s younger sister, Khazar Momeni, at an apartment in downtown San Francisco the afternoon before Mr. Lee died. A witness described by prosecutors as a longtime friend of his said that he and Mr. Lee then went to Mr. Lee’s hotel room, where Mr. Momeni questioned him over the phone about “whether his sister was doing drugs or anything inappropriate.”
The witness said that Mr. Lee reassured Mr. Momeni that “nothing inappropriate had happened,” the document states. The witness said that he and Mr. Lee continued to hang out until after midnight. Surveillance footage showed that Mr. Lee then went to Ms. Momeni’s residence at a luxury apartment building for roughly 80 minutes.
According to the charging documents, video showed Mr. Lee and Mr. Momeni leaving together in Mr. Momeni’s BMW, which he parked on a street. Later on that street, Mr. Lee was stabbed twice in the chest and once in the hip, an act that appears to have been captured in grainier images from a more distant camera.
Prosecutors accused Mr. Momeni of stabbing Mr. Lee with the four-inch blade of a kitchen knife before throwing it in the parking lot and speeding away in his car, leaving Mr. Lee to “slowly die” on the street.
Surveillance camera footage caught Mr. Lee staggering and clutching his wounds on a street outside a high rise, where he called for help.
A week later, after investigators were able to unlock Mr. Lee’s phones, they discovered a text message from Ms. Momeni that prosecutors said showed she was concerned about Mr. Lee’s interaction with her brother. “Just wanted to make sure your doing ok Cause I know nima came wayyyyyy down hard on you,” it read, according to court documents.
Mr. Momeni, the owner of a tech business in the East Bay city of Emeryville, was taken into custody and booked on Thursday into the San Francisco County Jail. He has not entered a plea. His lawyer, Paula Canny, said prosecutors were wrong to accuse him of murder because they lacked proof of premeditation or malice.
She also said that any dispute between Mr. Momeni and Mr. Lee had nothing to do with romance. “I wouldn’t describe this as a crime,” Ms. Canny said in a phone interview.
How did tech executives react after the killing?
Before Mr. Lee’s death, residents in San Francisco had already been divided in their views on crime. Last summer, the city recalled its then district attorney, Chesa Boudin, who was known for progressive policies such as eliminating cash bail and seeking to reduce prison populations, after two and a half years in office.
Recovering from the throes of the pandemic, the city’s downtown area is routinely empty of office workers and has seen an increase in people living in tent encampments and using drugs in public spaces. Those upticks, as well as an increase in property crimes, have caused some to accuse the city of being lenient with people who are mentally ill or are experiencing homelessness.
This set the stage for the initial reactions to Mr. Lee’s death. Some tech executives quickly speculated that Mr. Lee’s death was a random street crime — one venture capitalist, David Sacks, said he would “bet dollars to dimes” that the killing was the same as a death in Los Angeles where “a young woman was basically stabbed for no reason by a psychotic homeless person.”
Mr. Musk, the billionaire head of Twitter, which is based in San Francisco, replied “absolutely” to a tweet that included Mr. Sack’s reaction.
How did San Francisco react after the arrest?
Many people, both inside and outside the tech industry, were critical of those executives’ early reactions.
Brooke Jenkins, the San Francisco district attorney who had criticized her predecessor as being too lenient on criminals, denounced Mr. Musk on Thursday, calling his reaction to Mr. Lee’s death “reckless and irresponsible.”
National crime data shows that the rate of violent crime in the city of more than 800,000 people has remained at or near historic lows for more than a decade, and that the murder rate in 2020 was low compared with that of other major American cities.
Still, some have charged that the city does not feel safe, despite the statistics. On Thursday, Jason Calacanis, a tech investor who had spoken on Twitter about “rampant violence” in the city, was asked if he had changed his mind after the arrest of Mr. Momeni. “When was the last time you walked a mile in San Francisco?” he replied by email. “Do you think it is safe?”
Brett Ashton, 56, who is Black and has worked for tech companies in the Bay Area for more than 30 years, said he felt that Mr. Calacanis had crossed over into new territory by blaming the local community.
“Their comments are very much about Black people and brown people and people that don’t look like them,” he said. “They are just pushing a narrative that tech bros are being victimized by a dystopian hellscape.”
Amanda Holpuch and Kate Conger contributed reporting.