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DA rejects arrest warrant in Qualls case

by Alex Madison

Mariah Qualls. Photo: Courtesy SFPD
Mariah Qualls. Photo: Courtesy SFPD  

After nine years, the first arrest warrant for a suspect connected to the death of transgender woman Mariah Qualls was issued by the San Francisco Police Department in March, but was rejected last week by the San Francisco District Attorney's office due to lack of corroborative evidence.

"At this point, the investigation lacks sufficient corroborative evidence, and we are unable to ethically charge the case at this time," said Alex Bastian, deputy chief of staff for the DA's office.

To Dan Cunningham, an SFPD homicide inspector who has worked on the case since the beginning, the suspect in question is guilty.

"I think he did it," he said in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "When everything is said and done about that day and place, there wasn't enough evidence to connect him to the incident and charge him."

The police did not provide the suspect's name because he has not been arrested in the case.

Qualls, 23, was found dead in her North Beach residential hotel room at the Golden Eagle Hotel, 402 Broadway Street, in December 2009. The medical examiner's office determined the cause of death was blunt force injury to the head.

Cunningham said that the male suspect is currently in custody on separate murder charges for an incident in which he allegedly punched and killed someone at Market Street and Van Ness Avenue this year.

Cunningham said there was a lot of circumstantial evidence on the suspect, but no corroborative evidence, including sufficient amounts of DNA or eyewitnesses, to charge him. He did confirm, however, that the suspect was staying in the room with Qualls during the time of her death. There were many inconsistencies in the suspect's statements to police, as well, like saying he was not at the hotel during a certain time although there are eyewitnesses who said he was.

Cunningham spoke with Christine Qualls, Mariah Qualls' mother, over the phone last week to let her know his arrest warrant was rejected.

"I felt that she understood," Cunningham said. "She seemed OK with it. It's hard for a mom to wait this whole time and not get the result you want."

The B.A.R attempted to contact Mariah Qualls' family members, but were unable to reach them. In a previous B.A.R. article in 2014, Christine Qualls had said that she couldn't believe "nobody knows anything" and was incredulous that there was still no resolution.

Judy Garcia, Mariah Qualls' grandmother, had previously said, "It infuriates me that this hasn't been resolved." She was disappointed that information from other residents of Qualls' building hasn't led to an arrest.

Christine Qualls also spoke about her daughter's love for the LGBT community in San Francisco, as she was originally from San Jose.

"She loved the gay community," Christine Qualls said in a 2009 interview. "She loved the gay Pride parades. It just fit. That's where she thought she would fit. She just wanted to start a new life."

An arrest in the case has eluded investigators for years despite an offer of a $75,000 reward by former mayor Gavin Newsom's office for information leading to the identification, arrest, and conviction of the suspect(s) responsible. The reward has been available since 2011, and SFPD reiterated the offer in a bulletin issued December 2014.

As previously reported by the B.A.R., the report on Qualls' death from the medical examiner's office indicates her final days were extremely troubled.

"I think she was kind of having a harder time than what she let on. She moved around a lot. She stayed in a lot of different hotels," Christine Qualls said in a 2009 interview.

According to the report, which cited police and the manager of Qualls's building, at about 1:30 a.m. December 8, the day before her body was found, "the neighbor across the hall heard an altercation in the subject's room, describing the incident as 'yelling and someone getting slapped around.'" There's no indication the neighbor called police.

At about 11 a.m. December 9, the report says, "pest control and the building manager responded to the subject's room for monthly pest extermination and found the door unlocked." They found Qualls "lying in bed, apparently unresponsive." Within minutes, emergency responders pronounced her dead.

The documents say methamphetamine was present at the scene and "blisters and ulcers" on Qualls' upper lip were "suggestive of thermal injuries" from a "glass or metallic pipe." She had methamphetamine in her blood, according to the toxicology report.

"Drug paraphernalia consisting of multiple small plastic bags (bindles) and previously cut straws" were in a drawer, the documents say.

Contact the reporter at a.madison@ebar.com.

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