Police probe death of gay man
by Seth Hemmelgarn
San Francisco police are investigating the death of a gay man who was apparently attacked and left to die on a Mission district sidewalk.
Richard Sprague, 47, was found dead in the 100 block of Julian Avenue, between 15th and 16th streets, Sunday, February 19. Police say that he cried out for help but nobody reported finding Sprague until about 7 a.m., hours after the incident appears to have started.
Roland Pouncy, 42, has been arrested in connection with Sprague's death, but as of Tuesday, February 28, he hadn't been charged with a homicide.
He pleaded not guilty Friday, February 24 in San Francisco Superior Court to a felony charge of receiving or possessing stolen property.
Dave Nielsen, 59, was Sprague's partner for almost 20 years. He described Sprague as "fun" and "caring." He said that Sprague had left their home near 18th and Dolores streets at about midnight Sunday to buy a pack of cigarettes.
Nielsen said that he fell asleep at about 3 a.m. It was unusual for Sprague not to return home, he said, and when he woke up at approximately 9 a.m., he called friends, several hospitals, and the San Francisco Medical Examiner's office, but he couldn't locate Sprague. Finally, he went to the San Francisco Police Department's Mission Station to file a missing person's report.
Soon afterward, police came to him and told him that they had found a body, Nielsen said. They then said that they had a person of interest, and they showed Nielsen Sprague's ATM card, he said.
Nielsen said that he'd never heard of Pouncy before Sprague's death and he was "1,000 percent sure" that Sprague had never seen Pouncy before Sunday morning.
He said that Sprague was "a wonderful person. Everybody loved him. He was fun and outgoing, and extremely caring."
In an interview Wednesday, February 22, San Francisco homicide Inspector John Cagney said that a person who lives in the area found Sprague and called police around 7 a.m. Sunday.
Cagney said that the official cause of death wasn't known, but citing an examination performed by medical examiner staff at the scene, he said "preliminary indications" were that it was strangulation.
A medical examiner staffer didn't provide information to the Bay Area Reporter on how Sprague may have died, and it will likely take months for the office to release its report in the case.
The attack occurred around 2:30 a.m. Sunday, Cagney said. Asked about witnesses, he said that people had seen and heard parts of the incident. People had heard Sprague calling for help, Cagney said, but he declined to provide many more details.
He described the area where Sprague was found as "a tough little block," and said there's "a lot of yelling and screaming at night." Many in the neighborhood have become "desensitized," Cagney said.
He added that neighbors have been "very cooperative" with police and "seemed like they were very upset" by Sprague's death.
Asked about people in the neighborhood not coming to Sprague's aid, Nielsen said somebody should have called police, but "Those people in that neighborhood are so conditioned to that, to drunks and druggies and street people and so forth," that he could understand the lack of response.
Further charges uncertain
Pouncy was arrested late Sunday morning. Cagney, who didn't share Pouncy's name with the B.A.R., said that the arrestee had stolen property from Sprague in his possession. He wouldn't say what the item was, but Nielsen said it was Sprague's ATM card.
He couldn't say whether Pouncy would be charged with a homicide.
"If the science doesn't come back the way we hope, we'll probably have some issues," Cagney said. He wouldn't say whether he was referring to DNA evidence. He said police didn't have information about any other possible suspects.
Cagney said that besides possession of stolen property, Pouncy was also arrested for violating parole. He didn't know what the previous case had involved.
Deputy Public Defender Stephen Rosen, who's representing Pouncy, declined to comment for this story.
Stephanie Ong Stillman, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco District Attorney's office, said Tuesday that there haven't been any other arrests or charges related to Sprague's death. She said that Pouncy's in custody on $55,000 bail.
Cagney, who didn't respond to a request for updates this week, wouldn't comment specifically last Wednesday on what had precipitated Sprague's death.
He said that he didn't think the attack on Sprague was "entirely random," and "I don't think he was just walking down the street."
The place where Sprague's body was found appeared to be outside of an obvious route to buy cigarettes. Nielsen said the nearest place to buy cigarettes was a gas station about halfway between their home and where Sprague's body was found.
There were no "obvious indications" that the case was a hate crime, Cagney said.
Sprague, who had psoriatic arthritis and had been struck by a truck in 2008, usually walked with a cane, Nielsen said, but he hadn't taken it with him the day he died.
The next hearing in the case is set for Wednesday, March 7 to set a date for a preliminary hearing.
Anyone with information regarding the case may call Cagney directly at (415) 734-3181, call anonymously at (415) 575-4444, or text a tip to 847411 (TIP411). Type "SFPD" and then the tip. The police report number is 120 139 612.