Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Killer to be paroled this week


James McKinnon
Print this Page
Send to a Friend
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on MySpace!

The man who killed a gay man in 2002 and left his body to rot in a bathtub for weeks before it was discovered is scheduled to be paroled this week to San Francisco.

James McKinnon, who pleaded guilty to the crime, is expected to serve his parole in the city. A former friend is angry that McKinnon is being released from prison.

"That's just disgusting," said Frank Franco, a former friend of both McKinnon and of Gary Lee Ober, the man McKinnon killed. "They should leave the sucker to rot for the rest of his life."

Franco added that he believes McKinnon would present a serious threat, particularly if he were paroled to San Francisco.

"He's very dangerous," he said. "Some other poor bastard is going to end up like [Ober]."

In a 2002 taped jailhouse interview with the Bay Area Reporter, McKinnon insisted that he is a victim who was forced to kill Ober, 56, in self-defense to fend off a sexual assault. McKinnon was 37 at the time. He said although he was nearly 20 years younger than Ober, he was more vulnerable because he was suffering from pneumonia. McKinnon also said that as a Vietnam veteran, Ober was a "trained killer" and that unlike Ober, he detested violence. He added that bruises on his body that were observed by witnesses after Ober's killing were evidence of his struggle to defend himself.

But Franco, who had introduced McKinnon to Ober, said that McKinnon's claims of self-defense are ridiculous. Witnesses said that McKinnon showed no signs of being sick before or after he killed Ober. Franco noted that Ober had difficulty walking and standing because of a back condition. Franco blames the San Francisco District Attorney's office for agreeing to a plea-bargain that resulted in a six-year sentence, making him eligible for parole this month.

"There was plenty of evidence this guy was violent and dangerous," Franco said. "I think the DA dropped the ball big time in this case."

In an e-mail statement to the B.A.R. on Tuesday, November 13, District Attorney Kamala Harris's spokeswoman Bilen Mesfin, wrote: "This case had significant proof problems. Despite these challenges, however, we secured a state prison sentence for the defendant. We sympathize with anyone who has lost a friend or a family member to violence."

In 2005, three years after McKinnon was arrested in connection with killing Ober, the DA's office agreed to a plea-bargain that had been offered by McKinnon's defense attorney. As part of the deal, the DA's office agreed not to prosecute an unrelated elder abuse charge against McKinnon and allowed him to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter for Ober�s death. He was given a six-year sentence.

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Margot Bach told the B.A.R. that McKinnon would be paroled to San Francisco some time during the middle of this week. She said that as a matter of policy, the department does not reveal the exact date of a prisoner's release. She said his disciplinary record remained clear while in custody. Misbehavior in prison could have resulted in him being held beyond his parole date. McKinnon has been in custody since his 2002 arrest; with credit for time served, he became eligible for parole.

The DA's handling of the case sparked anger by Ober's friends and the family of the alleged elder abuse victim, Luther Chattman.

"He basically got off scot-free," Stephanie Henry, Ober's friend and neighbor, said in an interview with the B.A.R. in 2005. Henry added that she was "devastated in sadness" over the plea-bargain. The B.A.R. was unable to reach Henry this week for comment on McKinnon's parole. Franco said he was concerned for Henry's safety. She had been a key witness against McKinnon.

Ober had allowed McKinnon to stay with him in his apartment in San Francisco's Glen Park neighborhood. McKinnon told the B.A.R. that he lived with Ober for three days before he killed him. Ober's body was found rotting in a bathtub in the apartment about a month after his death. Henry witnessed McKinnon coming and going from the apartment. When she asked about Ober's whereabouts, McKinnon said he was on a cruise. Witnesses say McKinnon was flush with cash and drugs in the days following Ober's killing. Police said McKinnon used Ober's checkbook to steal money from his account after he was dead.

Before Ober's death, McKinnon had been employed by Companion Homemaker Assistant Services to provide care to Chattman, then 68, who is disabled. Chattman alleged that McKinnon robbed, threatened, and tried to strangle him. Chattman's attorney, Ron Foreman, told the B.A.R. last week that there was ample evidence of elder abuse as was evidenced in a very favorable out-of-court settlement that was reached in a lawsuit that he brought against the company. Foreman declined to disclose the dollar amount of the settlement out of concern that he would be found in violation of a confidentiality clause of the agreement. Foreman added that he was reluctant to inform Chattman's family about McKinnon's parole out of concern of upsetting them.

According to Foreman, Companion Homemaker Assistant Services had been in the process of filing for bankruptcy in 2005 but he was able get a settlement from the company's insurance carrier before the firm went under.

DA: Weak cases

Despite the seemingly strong evidence, the San Francisco DA's office has maintained that both cases against McKinnon were weak and a manslaughter conviction would have been the most they could hope for if prosecutors took the case to trial.

In a 2005 interview with the B.A.R. , Harris said she supported the plea-bargain because she had complete confidence in the assistant district attorneys who worked on the case, Elliot Beckelman and Linda Allen. When asked about the case in a 2006 interview with the legal newspaper, the San Francisco Recorder , Harris said, "The evidence supported [a manslaughter] charge, and not a murder charge."

Harris's then-spokeswoman, Debbie Mesloh, reiterated to the Recorder the reasons why the case against McKinnon was weak. The DA's office listed the same reasons to the B.A.R . in interviews in 2005. Mesloh said that blood was found on a knife in Ober's apartment but it didn't belong to McKinnon or Ober. Mesloh added that despite his confession, McKinnon claimed he acted in self-defense and that "psychiatric issues" had been introduced.

The relevance of the knife is unclear since neither the police nor McKinnon himself has suggested that a third person was involved in the killing. Henry told the B.A.R. that the blood on the knife was likely from Ober's partner, who had committed suicide months earlier by cutting his wrists.

The psychiatric issues apparently stemmed from McKinnon's videotaped interview with police. Allen, the assistant DA who had most recently worked on the case, told the B.A.R. in 2005 that McKinnon "rants and raves" on the tape and he appeared mentally disturbed.

Franco said that was all an act to confuse the issue, though he is not trained in psychology or mental health issues. He noted that McKinnon did not act crazy before or after the killing with him or other witnesses.

Allen told the B.A.R. that although the plea-bargain may be difficult for a civilian to understand, it was a best choice and that if the case went to trial, there would be a serious risk that it could end in an acquittal.

Franco, who now lives out of state, said that he was disappointed that the community did not rise to protest the plea-bargain. But the muted community reaction may have been in part a result of how the plea-bargain itself was handled. Franco and other witnesses in the case were never notified that the case had settled. The witnesses heard that the case was over from the B.A.R. four months after the agreement was reached. The B.A.R. learned of the plea-bargain by reviewing the case file at the Hall of Justice. Because of McKinnon's jailhouse confession, this reporter was subpoenaed and ordered to stand by as a witness in the trial, but like the other witnesses, was never notified that the case was settled. The DA's office acknowledged that it was a mistake not to notify witnesses but that the error was inadvertent.

The B.A.R. attempted to contact McKinnon last week via a letter that was sent to Corcoran State Prison where he was being held but he did not respond by press time.

McKinnon told the B.A.R. in 2002 that although he has spent a lot of time in bars in the Castro and is attracted to men, he doesn't consider himself to be gay.

"I'm not gay. I'm not bi," he said. "I'm a people person. And I love people. I don't like peepholes. Do you know the difference between a peephole and a people? A peephole, you can see right through them."

In August 2002, after Ober was killed and before McKinnon was arrested, a backpack containing a loaded gun and Ober's checkbook was found in the Midnight Sun bar. It was turned over to San Francisco Patrol Special Police Officer Jane Warner, who filed a report and turned it over to her superiors. After reading Ober's name in a B.A.R. article, a bartender at the Midnight Sun told Warner about it and Warner, in turn, alerted a homicide inspector to it.

McKinnon said that he was married twice and each time walked out on his wife. He said he has a son from one wife and a daughter from the other. One wife lives in Canada, the other in Florida. He said he is from Canada and moved to the U.S. when he was 21 or 22 and had lived in the Bay Area for five years before his arrest for Ober's killing. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, McKinnon had at least one run-in with the law in Florida, a domestic violence misdemeanor.

Follow The Bay Area Reporter
facebook logo
facebook logo
Newsletter logo
Newsletter logo
ISSUU logo