101 California: The high-rise shooting that changed San Francisco
After the mass shooting on July 1, 1993, with the help of SWAT teams, SFPD changed how it approached skyscraper shootings — clear the tower room by room
By Katie Dowd
SAN FRANCISCO — On July 1, 1993, at 2:57 p.m., downtown San Francisco changed forever.
Dressed in a suit and suspenders, Gian Luigi Ferri looked like any other lawyer walking into 101 California Street. He went straight to the elevators and hit the button for the 34th floor. When he stepped out, the attack began.
Thirty years later, mass shooter events have tragically become commonplace in the United States. But in 1993, no one had seen anything like what Ferri did at 101 California. It’s still the deadliest mass shooting in the city’s history.
The law offices of Pettit & Martin were on the 34th floor. Ferri, armed with two TEC-9 handguns, a .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun and a bag full of ammunition, started shooting indiscriminately into glass-walled conference rooms and offices. It was so shocking, so surreal that people froze in terror.
“By the time I realized this was for real, I just crawled under a desk and waited and watched while his feet went by,” one attorney told the San Francisco Examiner.
Others ran for the elevator, trying to press themselves inside while panicked co-workers smashed the button to close the doors. Some had nowhere to run. John Scully, a 28-year-old Pettit & Martin attorney who had just married in Hawaii, was chatting with his wife when the shooting started. He covered his wife with his own body. Both were shot. Only Michelle Scully survived.
In a conference room, a deposition was taking place with Jody Sposato, 30, a woman who was suing her employer for discrimination. Bullets shattered the glass wall. Sposato and her lawyer, Jack Berman, 36, were killed.
People in the 48 floors of 101 California didn’t immediately realize something terrible was happening. At least one person, a Pettit & Martin partner named Brian Berger, called the firm’s upstairs offices to warn them. “I’ve been shot,” he told a co-worker. “Please call 911. There’s a madman down here.” Berger was wounded but survived.
On the 24th floor, a Merrill Lynch analyst told the Examiner that, incredibly, they kept going with a presentation while the shooting occurred. It wasn’t until police came that they were escorted out.
Calls to 911 flooded San Francisco dispatch centers, and officers all over the city rushed into the building. Some of the armed officers were in street clothes, leading people to report there were multiple shooters. Police raced through the building, not sure what the shooter, or shooters, looked like amid the crowd of men in suits. It took hours before they were sure that their only shooter, Gian Luigi Ferri, had killed himself in a stairwell 15 minutes into the attack.
Although his guns kept jamming, he had killed eight people in a matter of minutes. Along with Berman, Sposato and Scully, Shirley Mooser, 64, Allen Berk, 52, Mike Merrill, 48, Deborah Fogel, 33, and David Sutcliffe, 30, died in the attack.
Although Ferri’s true motives for targeting Pettit & Martin died with him, detectives soon had a portrait of an attention-seeking chronic failure. The 55-year-old was born in Ethiopia to Italian parents and immigrated to the United States on the Fourth of July 1964. He moved to the Bay Area, where he began the first of many collapsed get-rich-quick real estate schemes. He left Marin County in the 1980s after accusations he was misappropriating funds. He worked once with Pettit & Martin, but no one could remember the contact as anything but ordinary: Ferri reached out in 1981 to ask for help with a real estate deal, and the attorneys at the firm helpfully directed him to counsel in the Midwest, as the deal was based there.
Acquaintances told the Examiner that Ferri’s Woodland Hills mortgage office always seemed to be empty; some called him “obnoxious.” When he died, he had an eviction notice on his apartment and $9 in his bank account.
Ferri left behind a number of rambling, self-aggrandizing notes, including some that detailed his plan to go on TV talk shows like “Oprah” and “Jerry Springer” after he had committed his act of mass murder. Detectives realized Ferri hadn’t intended to die that day. A security guard told them that moments before the shooting started, he noticed an elevator car stopped on the 34th floor. This happened often, as messengers hit the emergency stop button to run in and out of offices more quickly. Thinking a messenger had done just that, the guard released the car from the emergency stop. Detectives surmised Ferri went back to the elevator, found it gone and tried to escape down the stairs.
“This guy planned to get away with it,” one detective told the Examiner.
The attack changed the lives of everyone whose world was touched by the people inside 101 California. It also precipitated sweeping changes in downtown San Francisco. Before Ferri walked into the building that July day, almost no high-rises in the city had security measures. While many had a front desk, only a handful checked badges. The building at 101 California had two side entrances that were completely unguarded. The Examiner reported that at the time, the Chevron building and Charles Schwab’s SF headquarters had the toughest security in town; electronic badges were required at Chevron, an anomaly in 1993.
Today, security checks are standard at offices large and small, a fundamental shift that happened because of 101 California.
In the aftermath of the attack, San Francisco police and first responders came under heavy criticism for their slow reaction to a situation where every second counted. Some paramedics who rushed into the building were terrified of being shot themselves as armed plainclothes officers roamed the floors. The skyscraper’s concrete core interfered with police radio, making communication even more chaotic.
When police debriefed afterward, they realized they needed a better strategy for high-rise attacks. But 1993 was a different world: No other city had a plan either, because skyscraper attacks were practically unheard of. The San Francisco Police Department began running drills, including a miserable failure of an exercise inside the Schwab building. Officers fired so many shots that they ran out of ammo, and the person playing the part of Ferri was able to “kill” the sitting-duck cops. With the help of SWAT teams, SFPD changed the way it approached skyscraper shootings — clear the tower room by room instead of running in circles looking for a shooter. That, too, is standard protocol today.
Victims and their loved ones also pushed for legal change. In 1995, a judge ruled that victims’ family members were allowed to sue the gun manufacturer responsible for making the weapon used by Ferri. It was the first decision of its kind — the judge wrote in his ruling that he had no legal precedent to even consult.
Michelle Scully celebrated the ruling, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that gun manufacturers were “going to have to think about ... the shattered lives they leave behind.”
“They are going to have to answer to those victims,” she added.
The death toll at 101 California was not surpassed in the Bay Area until 2021, when a workplace shooter killed nine Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority employees in San Jose.
As for Pettit & Martin, the firm shuttered two years later. At its peak in the 1980s, the firm employed well over 200 lawyers, but a recession was denting business even before the shooting. The murders, particularly of partner Allen Berk, broke them. “He was a real energetic factor in the firm,” one lawyer told the Examiner in 1995. “Things were already in trouble when he was shot and he was the last good hope.”
Burdened with trauma and now associated with San Francisco’s worst mass shooting, the only option was closure.
“The whole story,” an attorney said, “is like a Greek tragedy.”
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