2023 Breaking News, Small/Medium Newsroom finalist

Former Square CTO Bob Lee Stabbed to Death in Downtown San Francisco

About the Project

When tech executive Bob Lee was killed in Downtown San Francisco on April 4, 2023, it sent shockwaves through the city. Many people pointed to the grisly homicide as proof that violent crime was out of control. What reporting bore out, though, was much more complex.

The Standard was among the very first outlets to report it was Lee, a former Square executive and creator of the Cash App, who had been killed. We immediately recognized that this homicide was unusual for many reasons—not just because of the victim’s identity, but also the location and murder weapon. We set to work trying to find out what happened—while also chronicling the roiling political storm that thrust San Francisco into the national spotlight.

Reporter Jonah Lamb retraced Lee’s steps and viewed surveillance footage that showed the tech executive clutching his stomach and approaching a car to ask for help. The Standard was the first news outlet to report on video depicting the aftermath of the stabbing. Reporter Michael Barba also exclusively reviewed nonpublic records that detailed Lee’s final moments and offered new insights into the crime.

The Standard strived to help answer the question worrying many San Franciscans: Was this killing part of a larger trend? Garrett Leahy, Josh Koehn, Annie Gaus and Mike Ege charted the public reaction to the killing. Noah Baustin dove into crime data to show that violent crime had not, in fact, been spiking in the city. Our coverage was cited by news outlets around the globe, and our reporters were interviewed on national TV about their findings.

After Lee’s killing, his background as a tech executive and his employer, MobileCoin, received significant attention. Matthew Kupfer and Matt Smith delved into the little-known, controversial cryptocurrency company to explain what it is, what the regulatory concerns around it are and how it helped bring down crypto trading platform FTX.

The Standard’s coverage reflected our reporters’ deep sourcing in city government, familiarity with city data and records, and willingness to hustle. After reporting the initial crime, we put nine reporters on the story and gave them the freedom to pursue multiple avenues of inquiry. This put us in a strong position not only to get multiple related scoops, but also to continue pursuing the story after the first 72 hours.

This approach can lead to dead ends. After receiving a tip that police had “run the name” of a local man—which implied he could be a suspect—we compiled an entire dossier on him from open sources and social media in case he was named the suspect. That never happened. We also pulled court records that sometimes proved irrelevant.

But casting a wide net put us in a strong position nine days after the killing, when police announced the arrest of Nima Momeni, an acquaintance of Lee’s, on murder charges. Those same strategies—interviewing neighbors, cold-calling hundreds of local residents and trawling records for information—helped us outrun our competition and break news about Momeni and the likely motive behind the crime.