Trial starts in gay stylist's death
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Six and a half years ago, 28-year-old Steven "Eriq" Escalon, a gay San Francisco hair stylist, was hanging out in the Castro district on a Monday evening with a friend and ended the night at the bar, 440 Castro. The next day Escalon was found dead, bound and gagged in his Diamond Heights apartment.
This week, opening statements began in the trial of James Rickleffs, who is charged with murder and robbery in Escalon's death.
Prosecutors described a brutal murder while the defense said it was a sexual encounter gone wrong.
On June 11, 2012, Escalon allegedly met, for the first time, Rickleffs at 440 Castro's Underwear Night, and the two went back to Escalon's apartment. The next day, Escalon's roommate found him "unresponsive on his bed," the medical examiner's file says. His hands and feet had been bound, a cloth gag was in his mouth, and he'd been wrapped in a blanket. A responding police officer tried to resuscitate Escalon shortly after 6 p.m., but he was soon declared dead.
The twisted piece of cloth wrapped tightly around Escalon's mouth "smelled strongly of apparent amyl nitrate," according to the medical examiner's report. It stated that his cause of death was an overdose of a mixture of amyl nitrates, commonly known as poppers, and gamma-hydroxybutyric acid, commonly known as GHB.
Rickleffs, 52, was arrested September 12, 2012 and pleaded not guilty to murder and first-degree residential robbery. At the time of the arrest, Rickleffs was found with multiple items from Escalon's apartment including a laptop, TV, checkbook, and a bank card of one of Escalon's roommates, according to police.
Rickleffs has been in custody since his arrest.
During the January 28 opening statements, Assistant District Attorney Julia Cervantes began by showing the jury a picture of a smiling Escalon. She told the jury how the night before Escalon's death unraveled.
"Eriq had the misfortune of meeting James Rickleffs that night," Cervantes said. "[Rickleffs] went out that night looking for a mark, that mark was Eriq Escalon."
She continued, saying the two had come to an agreement that night, that Escalon would take naked pictures of Rickleffs in exchange for giving him $100. They took a cab from 440 Castro and Cervantes mentioned that the cab driver, in statements to police, said Rickleffs was requesting to get drugs and Escalon said he didn't want to.
She then described the extent Rickleffs went to tie up Escalon.
"You'll see photos that show the length the defendant James Rickleffs went, the extreme lengths he went, to tie up Eriq Escalon. This was not consensual," Cervantes said.
She continued, "[Rickleffs] tied him up and stole from him whatever he could. He wanted to rip him off and get whatever he could, money, electronics, anything of value to make money."
She said zip ties and duct tape were used to tie Escalon's wrists behind his back, then duct tape was wrapped around his arms and torso and Rickleffs tied his feet with a shirt and duct tape, along with the cloth and duct tape wrapped around his head and in his mouth.
"This was no BDSM, there was no safe word to utter to say that it's gone too far," Cervantes said.
When Deputy Public Defender Niki Solis began, she said, "This is not a case of murder. What the D.A. didn't highlight is that Eriq Escalon died of an overdose, a mix of GHB, amyl nitrate, that's how Eriq Escalon died."
She continued, "This isn't about murder, this is about the tragedy of a young man's death."
Solis said evidence will show that it was Escalon's request that Rickleffs come back to the apartment so he could take naked pictures of him and that Escalon wanted to be tied up and Rickleffs was uncomfortable with it. She claims that, on June 12, Rickleffs took a shower and came out to discover Escalon in the state he was found by police.
"James had no intent to harm Eriq whatsoever. When he came out of the shower he panicked when he saw Eriq in that state. The last thing he wanted was for people to know he was there," Solis said, explaining that Rickleffs took items that he felt would have exposed his erotic sexual experience he had with Escalon that night like Escalon's laptop, which contained naked pictures of Rickleffs.
"There was absolutely no murder in this case," Solis said. "When James entered the apartment he did not have intent to take anything. His intent was to do what he did, hang out with Eriq and take pictures for $100."
Escalon's mother, Esmeralda Escalon, was upset about the way her son was portrayed by the defense.
Fighting back tears, she told reporters outside court, "He was a good person. He wasn't perfect, but he's not what they are making him out to be like. He had a good heart, a beautiful soul. No matter what they say it won't change how I feel about Eriq."
She said she is relieved the trial has finally started after six years.
"I will be here, we will get justice for Eriq," she said.
Witnesses began testifying Tuesday. Glen Cole, a hairdresser at Society Salon in Los Angeles, who was former work friends with Escalon, who was also a hairdresser, went out with Escalon the night he met Rickleffs. Cole flew up from the Los Angeles area to visit Escalon.
Cole and Escalon went to a few bars in the Castro before they ended up at 440 Castro. Cole was so intoxicated that he does not remember saying goodbye to Escalon at 440 Castro and does not recall how the two separated, he testified. Cole said the only memory he has after 440 Castro is waking up in his hotel. The next day, the day Escalon died, Cole tried to call and text message Escalon multiple times. The last text Escalon sent to Cole was around 9:30 a.m.
Solis emphasized that Cole had said he did not know much about Escalon's personal life, and that Escalon had begun smoking marijuana when he moved to San Francisco, which was a few months prior to his death.
San Francisco Police Lieutenant Christopher Del Gannio was next to take the stand. He was one of the first responding officers to a 911 call placed by Escalon's roommate on the day of his death. When Del Gannio arrived, he said the apartment was in "disarray and had been ransacked." When beginning to further search the apartment he discovered Escalon in his bedroom upstairs, and he was wrapped tightly in a blanket lying on his bed. Del Gannio then unwrapped Escalon to discover all the binding around Escalon's hands, feet, and body. When Escalon did not respond to being touched, Del Gannio placed him on the floor to perform CPR.
He explained that the cloth around Escalon's mouth was wrapped so tightly he could not remove it. His partner, who had arrived on the scene with him, also could not remove the cloth.
"It was too tightly wound around his face and mouth [my partner] couldn't get a knife to cut it without further injuring [Escalon]," Del Gannio testified.
Del Gannio began to perform chest compressions on Escalon without breathing air into his mouth. Escalon was not responsive to CPR. Del Gannio also did not report any body odor and said Escalon's skin was warm to the touch.
When Solis began to question Del Gannio in cross examination, it was revealed that Del Gannio did not remember seeing any zip ties at the scene and that he did not check how deep the scarf wrapped around Escalon's face was in his mouth.
The trial is expected to continue next week.
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