By Terry Collins
SAN FRANCISCO — The case seemed all too familiar. A young black man gunned down by police in a shootout in a neighborhood plagued by violence. Police said the man fired first. Activists called it police brutality.
But new information has turned what seemed like the tragically commonplace death of a 19-year-old Washington parolee into a perplexing mystery that may do little to quell tensions between the police and the community.
Investigators said Thursday they now believe that Kenneth Harding shot himself in the neck, a stunning twist after days of assurances from police that officers killed the victim after he opened fire.
"They're not going to believe this," said Keevin O'Brien, a minister who co-organized a Wednesday meeting between San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr and residents of the Bayview neighborhood that was cut short as the chief was booed, cursed and shouted down.
"They're so broken and hurt by what they already saw. This is going to be hard to digest."
Police Cmdr. Mike Biel, who broke the news of investigators' new version of Saturday's events, said he understands the likely cynicism in the community.
"I understand how the community feels, however, our investigation is based on total fact. That's what we have now," Biel said.
Preliminary autopsy results showed the caliber of the bullet that killed 19-year-old Kenneth Harding did not match the caliber used by police, Biel said: "We believe that the fatal wound on Mr. Harding's body was self-inflicted."
Authorities had not determined whether Harding shot himself on purpose or by accident, he said.
John Sanchez, a criminalist at the San Francisco Crime Lab, said the .380-caliber bullet found in Harding's head was not consistent with the.40-caliber guns issued to San Francisco police and could not have been fired from any department-issued firearm.
Yet police have also not recovered the weapon they believe Harding used to shoot himself, despite finding an unfired .380-caliber bullet in his right jacket pocket. A gun recovered late Saturday as part of the investigation was a .45-caliber pistol and could not have fired the fatal shot, police said.
Harding was the main person of interest in last week's South Seattle shooting death of 19-year-old Tanaya Gilbert, Seattle police said. A Seattle police spokesman said he did not have information on the caliber of the gun used in the shooting of Gilbert. No weapon was recovered in that case, Seattle police Detective Mark Jamieson said.
In April, Harding was released from a Washington state prison after he served 22 months for attempting to promote prostitution involving a 14-year-old girl in King County.
Harding had initially been stopped by police in a routine check for fare-beaters on the city's light-rail train system, police said after Saturday's shooting.
Police said Tuesday that gunshot residue on Harding's right hand backed officers' accounts that Harding had fired the first shot, as did audio of the shots captured by a gunshot-detection system used by San Francisco police.
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On Tuesday, 43 people were arrested in a raucous rush-hour march to protest Harding's death at the hands of what all believed at the time was police.
Copyright 2011 Associated Press