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Friends remember CashApp founder’s zest for life, while mourning his death


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Nate Wills was on a road trip with his college fraternity buddy, Bob Lee, when Lee told him he knew how to solve a Code Red, a computer virus that had consumed large parts of the internet in 2001.

“I said, ‘Bob, there’s people all across the world that are working on this problem,’” Wills recalled. “’There’s no way you have it solved.’”

But his friend insisted that he did, and two months later he was on the now-defunct TechTV discussing the patch he’d created to keep the infection from worming its way into computer systems. “I’ve gotten a few hundred ‘thank you’ emails,” Lee said during that interview more than two decades ago.

He gave the patch away free, Wills noted, to help as many people possible.

The 43-year-old tech entrepreneur, father of two and founder of CashApp was fatally stabbed early Tuesday in what San Francisco police are calling a homicide. Officers said they found Lee around 2:35 a.m. in a residential neighborhood near downtown. According to the San Francisco Standard, citing surveillance footage and records it reviewed, Lee walked down Main Street holding his side and trailing blood before collapsing on the sidewalk. He’d also been calling for help, the local news outlet reported.

Cash App founder Bob Lee killed in San Francisco

But few other details have emerged since the killing shocked the city and close-knit tech community. Three current and former San Francisco Police Department officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter and are not directly involved in the case, said that at this stage of the investigation, detectives are generally focused on trying to establish where and how victims spent their final hours. They also want to know who might have crossed their paths.

As of Friday afternoon, police had not named a suspect, nor had they commented on whether the attack was random or targeted. In a statement Thursday, the department asked that anyone with information come forward, adding that investigators are working “tirelessly” to solve the crime.

In the absence of details, Lee’s death sparked political jousting familiar to San Francisco, where debate has raged over whether it is overrun by crime and whether officials are doing enough to combat it. Data show violent crime in San Francisco is relatively low, and some city officials say the politicization of Lee’s death has served only as a distraction.

“What gets lost is the focus on the victim and bringing the perpetrators to justice,” said Kevin Benedicto, a member of city’s police commission, a civilian panel that oversees the police department.

Those close to Lee prefer to remember their vibrant buddy, who proudly carried the nickname “Crazy Bob,” as a generous and upbeat friend who stayed humble despite his success and used his talents to help people.

The pictures that news media have published, showing Lee with a bright, winning smile, are the perfect way to think about him, Wills said.

“It probably showcases his personality more than any description,” he said.

Wills and Lee met in the Sigma Chi fraternity at Southeast Missouri State University, not far from where Lee had grown up in St. Louis. He had already adopted the “Crazy Bob” moniker by the time they met, Wills said, a name he earned during his days playing high school water polo and continued to use on social media and his website for decades after.

The nickname was a testament to his seemingly unending energy levels, friends say. Tommy Sowers, now president of an air charter company in North Carolina, said he usually goes to bed around 9 p.m. and wakes up early to work out. Except, that is, when staying with Lee in San Francisco.

“It’d be a Tuesday night and he’d say, ‘Let’s go out,’” Sowers remembered. They’d go out, then go to an after-party to another event. And Lee wasn’t trying to get drunk or party hard, his friend said. “It was just everywhere he went, he knew folks and they were really happy to see him, and he was happy to see him as well.”

Sowers met Lee in 2010 when he was running for Congress in Missouri and Lee was working on the early days of payment company Square. Lee attended a fundraising event for Sowers at Local 16 bar in Washington, trying out an early version of the Square payment device that can help track campaign donation for necessary reporting.

The pair stayed friends, and Sowers would often visit Lee in San Francisco. A couple of months ago, Sowers visited him in Miami, where the entrepreneur had recently moved with his father, Rick Lee.

Sowers fondly recalled their many outings, including a live-action play of the Sci-Fi movie Fifth Element, and then later happily accompanying Sowers to the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, an upscale theater for opera.

“He was just a whole hell of a lot of fun,” Sowers said. “He sucked the marrow out of life.”

He also wanted to make life better for others, said Mark R. Hatch, a fellow Silicon Valley CEO who met Lee when he ran a TechShop for makers. Lee was serious about using technology to help people and democratize access and financials, Hatch said.

Lee worked on Android at Google before working to help small businesses with Square and launching CashApp, a payment service that makes it easy for people to send money directly to each other. Most recently, he served as chief product officer at MobileCoin, a cryptocurrency company.

“That’s a hardcore, purpose-driven person,” Hatch said. “The underlying thread, I believe, is this incredible passion for humanity and the desire to change it to the good.”

Lee had a habit of hyping up his friends and their achievements, said Hatch and another friend, Wesley Chan, who worked with Lee at Google.

When Chan was starting out as a tech investor and worried to Lee that he might not be any good at it, Lee encouraged him by saying, “We don’t know that yet, just keep going.”

At the same time, friends say, Lee didn’t want pomp around his own successes. Wills tried to nominate him for an award in Missouri, and Lee kept putting him off.

“He never bragged about his accomplishments,” Hatch said. “You had to drag it out of him or his friends, basically.”

At Google, Lee was one of the people who was always pushing technical boundaries to see what was possible, Chan said.

“He had this amazing ability to find a way to be at the right place at the right time,” Chan said, pointing to Lee’s stints at Google and Square. “It’s just incredibly cruel and ironic that this happened because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

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