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Bloody Scene Described in Murder Case

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Defendant Michael John Phillips
Defendant Michael John Phillips  

A gay San Francisco man faced a hearing this week in which authorities alleged he brutally killed another man, leaving a bloody scene and stealing thousands of dollars from the victim, who had cancer.

Michael John Phillips, 64, has been charged in the August death of James Sheahan, 75, a gay man whose body was found in his Nob Hill studio apartment.

Prosecutors and police say surveillance footage shows Phillips repeatedly coming and going from Sheahan's building in the hours after he was last seen alive, at times carrying Sheahan's belongings with him.

Video also shows Phillips trying unsuccessfully to use Sheahan's ATM card, and authorities suggested he forged numerous checks from Sheahan to himself.

Phillips' attorney noted that with such a gruesome scene, one would expect Phillips to be covered in blood, but authorities haven't found any blood on his belongings.

The medical examiner's office hasn't determined the cause of death, but Sheahan had reportedly been hit in the head, and a broken knife was found in his apartment.

Phillips, who was arrested November 22 and is in custody on $3 million bail, has pleaded not guilty to charges including murder, first-degree robbery, inflicting injury on an elder or dependent adult, manufacture or possession of fraudulent financial documents, and receiving or buying stolen property.

At Phillips' preliminary hearing Monday, San Francisco police Sergeant Domenico Discenza said a caregiver told him that she'd last seen Sheahan alive just after 4 p.m. August 11. Sheahan's body was found August 14.

Discenza said that when he went to Sheahan's second-floor apartment at 969 Bush Street on August 15, his body had been removed, but there was blood spatter and smeared blood in several places.

A broken knife was in the kitchen, with the blade in a knife block and the handle in the sink, along with "a small drop of diluted blood," Discenza said under questioning by Assistant District Attorney Michael Swart.

A bucket and yellow gloves were by Sheahan's couch, along with tissue that had been used in an effort to clean up the blood. Discenza said medical examiner's staff initially thought Sheahan, who reportedly had superficial cuts on his wrists, had killed himself.

Discenza testified that Jacqueline Buckley, a friend of Sheahan's, told him that a man named "Mike" had asked to borrow $2,000 from him, but Sheahan declined after several people told him not to.

The police sergeant said that when he first called Phillips August 17 after seeing his business card in Sheahan's apartment, Phillips told him that he didn't know Sheahan had died.

Discenza said that a Wells Fargo bank worker told him someone had tried unsuccessfully to use Sheahan's ATM card at a branch near Sheahan's apartment at about 12:04 p.m. on August 12. Images from the bank's surveillance system show Phillips at the ATM at that time, Discenza testified.

Footage from the lobby of Sheahan's building that day shows Phillips repeatedly walking in and out over the course of several hours, said Discenza. The first time, he appeared to get buzzed into the building, but after that, he used a key. Some of the footage, which was played in court, shows Phillips wearing gloves and carrying a bag. On his last trip that day, he walked out carrying a white file box, Discenza testified.

The next day, August 13, Phillips returned to Sheahan's building and looked inside a mailbox. He left that day carrying "a white banker's box," paper towels, and what appeared to be a piece of artwork from Sheahan's apartment, said Discenza.


Checks Revealed

Phillips was arrested after police stopped his car November 22. Discenza said that when he executed a search warrant at Phillips' Richmond district home that day, there was a check from Sheahan to Phillips for $2,000, along with photocopies of checks from Sheahan that had been deposited after he was killed.

Phillips, who according to friends had been asking for money in recent months, also had notes about people he owed money to, and receipts from Western Union showing that he'd sent money to his husband in the Philippines.

As the Bay Area Reporter noted last week, Phillips and Archie Arcaya Fuscablo, who met online, married at City Hall October 30, just weeks after Fuscablo arrived in the U.S.

Discenza said that Fuscablo, who was at the residence when he searched it, told him that Phillips had given him about $20,000 "over the course of the relationship" to help him pay off loans, get a visa, and cover other costs.

Records show checks from Sheahan to Phillips for $50 and $100 that bore July dates, while several checks for thousands of dollars - the biggest one for about $7,500 - were dated in August and not deposited until after Sheahan was last seen alive.

In Phillips' 2000 Infiniti, there were gloves and a Trader Joe's bag that matched the ones Phillips was seen with in the surveillance video, Discenza testified.

He said that a storage locker belonging to Phillips held a credit card of Sheahan's, along with his wallet and journals.

He also said that Ted Solomon, Phillips' roommate, said that Phillips had been "acting strange" and "paranoid," and that he'd left hammers around the house and took a security guard card out of his room. Solomon has declined to comment to the B.A.R.


Defense

Deputy Public Defender Kwixuan Maloof on Monday described Sheahan's apartment as a "very, very bloody scene," and said, "You would think the suspect must have been covered in blood."

Discenza told Maloof that blood wasn't found in Phillips' home and it hasn't yet been found in his car. A "Jurassic Park" shirt and red hoodie that Phillips allegedly wore in the surveillance footage hasn't been found. There was no blood in Phillips' storage units, but Discenza said those are still being processed.

Maloof suggested that someone could have entered Sheahan's apartment without going through the lobby, confirming with Discenza that there was a back fire escape.

After Discenza testified that Fuscablo had returned to the Philippines soon after he interviewed him, Maloof said it was "kind of strange" that "the husband of a homicide suspect flees the country" right after his spouse is arrested and he's questioned by police.

But in a Facebook messenger exchange, Fuscablo told the B.A.R. that he left because Solomon had planned to leave the house they shared and "I don't have work there. I can't afford to stay in the cold streets of San Francisco."

Fuscablo, who said that he never met Sheahan, said that he's "still shocked" and traumatized by what's happened.

"Mike told me Jim died from cancer," he said, adding, "Mike was very good to me. Very loving, caring, and generous to me." Fuscablo confirmed that Phillips had sent him money, but he didn't know how much.

He said that Phillips had tried to cash a check from Sheahan October 4 at a Wells Fargo near the Castro district, but the teller wouldn't cash it because Sheahan had "died already." He didn't see how much the check was for.

"If you talk to Mike, tell him I miss him and I love him," said Fuscablo.

Phillips has declined the B.A.R.'s interview request.

Buckley, the friend of Sheahan's who was mentioned in court, told the B.A.R. that she'd been friends with him since 1992. They both worked for the city's Human Services Agency for years, and she said Sheahan was "a mild-mannered, nice guy," who was "very interested in art and movies."

After a hospital stay in July, Sheahan had been improving, said Buckley.

"He seemed fine," she said. "He was very upbeat. ... Within a couple of weeks of going home, he was back to his old self."

Buckley said that Phillips had helped Sheahan with small tasks like changing light fixtures or taking items to the dump, and she indicated he might have paid him a small sum, but it's not possible he would have paid Phillips thousands of dollars.

Phillips' preliminary hearing is expected to continue Wednesday, December 20, with a judge deciding whether there's sufficient evidence to hold Phillips for trial.

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