Gregory Ignacio Jr.’s last words likely helped catch his killer.
Read more about Gregory Ignacio Jr. in past Berkeleyside coverage
“Who are you?” the 19-year-old asked the stranger who angrily confronted him moments before fatally shooting him in the South Berkeley neighborhood where he grew up.
The defense argued that police got the wrong guy, that the killer was actually Ignacio’s childhood friend with whom he’d had a falling out. But, on Friday, an Alameda County Superior Court jury sided with the prosecution, finding 29-year-old Will Watson guilty of murder.
“It doesn’t really feel like a relief yet, but it does feel like a huge weight is off my shoulders,” Stephanie Jamison, Ignacio’s mother, told Berkeleyside late Friday afternoon when the verdict came in. “This has just dragged on so long.”
Jamison, a Bay Area native, moved to Nevada after her son’s murder. But she has returned to California each year for graveside birthday celebrations for Greg, her only son. And she came back in early November for the trial, which lasted more than a month due to COVID-related delays and other logistical challenges. Hotel and travel costs mounted as the hearing went on.
Jamison said she could have watched the proceedings remotely, but never saw that as an option.
“I just feel like, I’m representing my son. I wanted his presence to be felt,” Jamison said. “I wanted these people to know how much love and respect my son had. I needed to be present. I needed to feel the courtroom.”
Throughout the proceedings, over which Judge Mark McCannon presided, Jamison was accompanied by one of her two daughters and her son-in-law. Greg’s friends often joined them as well, offering hugs and support. COVID protocols limited attendance, so many of Greg’s friends could only listen to the trial online. And dozens of them did, Jamison said.
In stark contrast, defendant Watson — who had just turned 24 at the time of the murder — had little visible support. His mother was the only person to show up on his behalf.
During the final week of the murder trial, which Berkeleyside also attended, Watson’s mother, a small figure, sat alone quietly in the back row of the room.
Visibly emotional, she left during a recess only partway through the closing arguments her son’s attorney was making on his behalf. She declined to comment for this story.
“The neighborhood kid”
It was Jamison’s 9-year-old daughter who gave her the news. Jamison had gone out with friends after work to play bingo — for the first time in her life — when she saw an incoming call from her youngest child. It was dinner time and her first thought was, “Oh, I forgot to order them a pizza!” When she picked up the call, she immediately apologized and said she would order it right away.
“Mom, Greg got shot,” her daughter told her.
“Why would you say that?” Jamison asked her. “Where’s your grandmother?”
Jamison’s mother, who lived near Fairview and Harper streets where the shooting happened, had gone outside to see what was going on. She instructed her granddaughter to stay inside. Eventually, Jamison was able to reach a neighbor who told her Greg had been taken to Highland Hospital.
Jamison rushed to Highland and began looking for her son. The wait to find out what happened “felt like forever.” She remembers a room with doctors, social workers, a panel of people. Her mother was there, too.
“Where is my son?” Jamison asked them.
A doctor began to ask her confusing questions about tattoos, and whether her son carried a wallet. It didn’t make sense.
The doctor continued: “The young man that we have is deceased.”
Jamison’s head was spinning.
“Did someone try to rob him? He didn’t have anything,” she remembers thinking. “I was just trying to figure out what the hell could have happened that someone would have killed my son. He was just, like, the neighborhood kid.”
Ignacio was well-known in the South Berkeley neighborhood where his grandmother lived. He and his siblings spent a lot of time there growing up — Jamison was a single mother — and he attended Berkeley Technology Academy until 2015. He had no driver’s license, so it was common to see him walking outside.
Even as a teenager, Greg made time to toss around the football with kids on the block. He would chat with the homeless folks outside the liquor store.
“He didn’t treat anybody differently,” his mother said.
On Sept. 22, 2016, around 7:30 p.m., Ignacio and three female friends met up on Fairview to hang out and buy some marijuana, according to court testimony. The girls made the purchase from Jacob Felipe, a small-time neighborhood dealer who went by the name “J.” Afterward, Felipe and Ignacio spoke briefly.
The girls, who observed the pair from a close distance, said the conversation was just a “normal talk.” Ignacio and Felipe had known each other all their lives, but they’d had a falling out over a marijuana deal and were no longer close. After the chat, Felipe walked into his nearby apartment. Ignacio and the girls began to walk up Fairview toward Adeline Street.
Once home, according to testimony, Felipe complained about Ignacio to an acquaintance, Will Watson, saying Ignacio had “gotten in his face.” Watson, over Felipe’s objections, according to testimony, decided to take matters into his own hands. Watson took his Glock model 21, which was registered to him, and went out into the street.
Watson shot Ignacio twice, according to testimony, striking him in the legs and lower back. The latter shot killed him, piercing his right lung and kidney, as well as his aorta. A police officer who rode in the ambulance with Ignacio as they sped toward Highland Hospital testified about seeing that bullet still lodged in his chest. The 19-year-old was pronounced dead at the hospital.
A “poser” with something to prove
Before the shooting, according to testimony, Watson had walked up to Ignacio and the girls, yelling, “Do you have a problem with J? You don’t mess with Jake!” and “This is Fairview!” — claiming the neighborhood as his own.
But, unlike Ignacio, Watson was not from South Berkeley. He grew up in San Francisco, in Nob Hill and Polk Gulch on Post Street, and in wealthy coastal beach towns like Monterey, said Deputy District Attorney Adam McConney during closing arguments last week. It was a long way from the streets.
“He’s not from that world,” McConney told the jury. Watson bought a gun and started hanging out with the local drug dealer in an effort to “be tough” and look cool, “to prove he belongs,” McConney said. “That’s what this is over and it’s tragic. The defendant was being a poser and he was trying to prove something to Jacob Felipe.”
Longtime Oakland defense attorney Ernesto Castillo, who has had charges dropped or reduced in numerous high-profile Bay Area murder cases, argued that it was Felipe who pulled the trigger.
But McConney said that made no sense in light of Ignacio’s final exchange with his killer. Why would Ignacio ask someone he had known all his life, “Who are you?” Why would Felipe refer to himself in the third person (“You got a problem with J?”). And why would Felipe, being from the same neighborhood as Ignacio, tell him, “This is Fairview!”
People from the same neighborhood “don’t talk to each other like that,” McConney told the jury, like something out of a “bad rap music video.” But Watson, an outsider, would: “The reason he said that is because he had no clue the victim was from Fairview.”
Evidence in the prosecution’s case also included Watson’s DNA on two bullet casings found near Ignacio’s body, although police never found the murder weapon. Cellphone records placed Watson in the area at the time of the shooting. Witnesses described the killer as white, with curly hair and a very pointy nose “that stuck out.”
At one point in the trial, a witness describing the killer held her thumb and index finger up to her face, making a triangle, to illustrate the shooter’s most distinctive facial feature.
“This matches Mr. Watson,” McConney told jurors, adding that the girls who were with Ignacio when he was killed picked Watson out of a live line-up at Santa Rita Jail after his arrest. The men in the line-up were instructed to say the words that had been spoken just before the murder; the familiar sound of Watson’s voice brought one of the girls to tears.
“These three girls didn’t just pick this guy by chance,” McConney said. “They picked him because he’s a murderer. He is the murderer that they saw gun down their friend.”
Defense: “Everything points to somebody else”
Castillo reminded jurors that two of the girls had not picked Watson out of an earlier photo line-up and that the later ID at the jail could have been tainted because they had seen his photograph before. He said Watson’s DNA could have gotten onto the bullets through “secondary transfer” from Felipe’s hands, if Watson and Felipe had smoked together before the shooting.
“Why would Will Watson want to go do that over some insignificant interaction?” Castillo asked jurors. “It makes absolutely no sense.”
Castillo said it was Felipe, not Watson, who had a beef with Ignacio, and that the jury should find Watson not guilty if they had any doubts at all about the case.
“The most frustrating thing is you don’t have the person to hold responsible in this case,” he said. “Everything points to somebody else.”
Castillo said cellphone data showed Watson had left the area before the shooting — a fact that had been disputed on the stand by his own expert witness — and asked jurors to recall a statement one of the girls had made to police at one point identifying Felipe as the shooter.
“They didn’t force her to blame Jacob Felipe,” Castillo said.
Prosecutor: “My job is to do justice”
McConney said that statement, which came after a lengthy interview at the Berkeley Police Department, was, in fact, coerced. The teenager had repeatedly told police Felipe was not the shooter. After spending more than 12 hours at BPD, she changed course, he said, out of frustration and exhaustion and because she thought it was the only way she would get to go home.
McConney said all three girls who had seen the killing consistently told police Felipe was not the guy. They said the same in court. He called Castillo’s closing arguments “a lot of smoke and mirrors, pretty words, slick talk: You’ll find that it doesn’t add up.”
“They are trying to walk a murderer out those doors and make it harder for you to see the truth,” McConney told jurors, urging them to look at “all the evidence” rather than the “complete cherry-picking” done by the defense. “There was so much said that is not based in any of the evidence.”
“My job is to do justice. It is not to get a conviction,” he said.
After 1.5 days of deliberation, the jury came back with a guilty verdict for second-degree murder. Watson now faces 40 years to life in prison and is scheduled to be sentenced March 25, 2022, at the René C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland, where the trial took place.
“He’s saddened about the verdict, as is his mother,” Castillo said of his client, adding that Watson is considered a “youth offender” as per California law, which could potentially make him eligible for parole after 25 years.
Castillo said there were other witnesses, who were not part of the evidence, who had identified Felipe, and that Felipe also had access to a Glock firearm.
“It’s disappointing we got a verdict like this without a complete picture,” he said.
“They loved him right away”
Ignacio’s mother told Berkeleyside she had talked to him an hour before he was killed when she called him an Uber to help him get home from a new job registering voters.
When he got to South Berkeley, he texted her, “Thanks Mom, I really appreciate you.”
“When you get your first check, you can take me out to dinner,” she teased him.
“The dollar menu?” he teased back.
Greg was “such a sweetheart,” she told Berkeleyside last week. Like his mother, he was a Capricorn. He had a “huge heart” and was super friendly; he was well-liked by the ladies and had a lot of girlfriends. When friends were down, he worked to lift their spirits. People, especially children, were always drawn to him.
“They loved him right away,” she said. “He was a magnet.”
Jamison told Berkeleyside she still feels her son’s presence and sees him in dreams. Every time she hears a particular reggae song, which comes on at key moments, she knows he’s with her. It popped up randomly when she took a cruise in the Bahamas that they were supposed to take together, and again when she was decorating for her youngest daughter’s birthday party.
Late Friday afternoon, shortly before 5 p.m., Jamison was in the courtroom when the jury announced its verdict.
“I was crying before they even started talking,” she said. “I’m just happy that we did get a guilty verdict. Because it could have gone the other direction.”