Local students play chess on Telegraph Avenue.
Chess players play at the free chess club on Telegraph Avenue. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Community chess games on Telegraph Avenue are on hold due to safety concerns after the organizer, Jesse Sheehan, suffered injuries while attempting to restrain a man who brought a firearm to the tables, according to chess players, Sheehan and Berkeley police.

Cal students, residents and passersby have been playing free chess games since last summer when Sheehan organized community donations for a chess club at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street.

On Jan 31., Sheehan and Brandon Buters, another chess club regular who goes by “Soul,” were involved in an altercation with a man who was found to have a “pistol-style, muzzleloader 12-gauge shotgun” in his possession at the tables, according to Berkeley police spokesperson Officer Byron White.

All three men were arrested. Sheehan was booked on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon, and Buters was arrested on suspicion of battery with serious bodily injury. The man with the gun was arrested on suspicion of carrying a concealed firearm and battery with bodily injury.

Sheehan said he was arranging the tables that morning like he does every day of the week when a man who had formerly made threats to players at the tables arrived in the area. According to Sheehan, the man had indicated to a player and coach one week prior that he had a gun and wanted to shoot someone.

When the man arrived at the tables on Jan. 31, Sheehan said the man asked to play a game with him. Sheehan said he refused and began walking to his car to get his cellphone with the intention of calling the police. At this point, Sheehan said he and Buters observed the man talking to himself and holding his bag in a concerning manner.

Sheehan said the man then jumped at Buters, who pushed him back, and the man then lunged for his bag as Sheehan arrived back at the tables to block his access to the bag. In the ensuing altercation, Sheehan was able to grab the bag with the firearm inside and run across the street to a local dispensary, which secured the firearm inside their doors.

“My adrenaline went to overdrive, I screamed ‘Help, he’s got a gun,'” Sheehan said, adding that he then asked the dispensary to call the police.

According to police, Buters punched the man in the face multiple times, causing him “serious bodily injuries” like a bloody mouth and a missing tooth. The man hit Buters back, causing him an open wound that required stitches to his right ring finger. Police said Sheehan hit the man with a pipe, causing a visible injury to his arm.

“I said, ‘Man, I don’t want to hurt you, stay back!'” Sheehan recounted before hitting the man with the item. At this point, he said their goal was to restrain the man until police arrived at the scene. Buters and Sheehan were holding the man down when police arrived, and Sheehan said it would have appeared to officers that “at first glance, it was two white guys beating on a Black guy.”

Sheehan and Buters were handcuffed, Sheehan said, while officers spoke to the other man and eventually recovered the firearm and bag from the nearby dispensary.

Sheehan, Buters and the man found with the gun were all booked in Santa Rita Jail and released on citations or bail and offered treatment at local hospitals. Buters and Sheehan said on Tuesday that they’re still recovering and trying to stay positive about any potential consequences to come. Sheehan was the only one made to post bail, while Buters and the other man were cite-released, according to police.

The three men have not been charged yet, according to records from the Alameda County District Attorney’s office.

Sheehan hasn’t formally organized the games since Jan. 31. He has never been arrested in Berkeley and said he has PTSD preventing him from returning to the area and inviting others to play there. Chess players who had organized their own game on the street corner last week told Berkeleyside they were upset about what had happened and concerned about Sheehan’s injuries.

“With that pending threat … it’s one thing if people decide to put out a chessboard and play on the corner, it’s another thing for me to put out a chess cafe and make it look nice and safe,” Sheehan said, explaining that he can’t in good conscience organize the games if he feels patrons would be threatened.

He criticized Berkeley police for not restraining the man during his arrest, and for not responding to reports of the man making continued threats to the group of chess players. After the man was released on bail, Sheehan said he was told that he returned to the area and indicated he had additional guns and would return with them to hurt someone.

“What I witnessed from the Berkeley Police Department, they’re not interested in the safety of Telegraph Avenue,” Sheehan added. “I don’t like the connotation of [the attack] with the chess club, but if it hadn’t been our tables and chairs sitting there, he would have done it to someone on the sidewalk.”

White said Berkeley police have officers already assigned to patrol the Telegraph area, a recently reinstated bicycle patrol for Telegraph and the city’s commercial districts and a beat officer who speaks with the Telegaph Avenue Business Improvement District to stay abreast of pressing issues. 

“While we continue to provide public safety services for the City, we ask the community to continue to be an additional set of eyes and ears–reporting crimes or impending crimes when they see them,” White said.

Sheehan is planning on filing a restraining order against the man, and has filed an additional report with the University of California Police Department. He’s due back in court in April.

This story has been updated with additional comment from the Berkeley Police Department.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...