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Gay SF Man to Stand Trial in Murder Case

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Michael John Phillips
Michael John Phillips  

A gay San Francisco man accused of brutally killing an older man and stealing thousands of dollars from him has been ordered to stand trial.

Michael John Phillips, 65, faces charges that include murder and robbery in the death of James Sheahan, 75, a gay man whose body was found August 14 in his Nob Hill apartment.

The recently released report from the medical examiner's office lists the manner of death as homicide, the method as "sharp injury," and the cause of death as "multiple traumatic injuries."

Dr. Ellen Moffatt, the assistant medical examiner who performed Sheahan's autopsy, testified at Phillips' preliminary hearing December 20 that Sheahan had injuries on the back and left side of his head that included blunt force injuries, but she said she'd also wondered if some of them had come from a sharp object.

The medical examiners' report says that Sheahan had blunt force injuries to his head and neck, including abrasions and cuts on his scalp, and at least one that exposed his skull. There was "early decomposition," the report says.

Moffatt said that Sheahan also had wounds on his right palm and on "the backs of his hands" that might have been defensive wounds.

Sheahan had wounds on his wrists, but Moffatt testified that she didn't know whether they had been self-inflicted. She didn't think they'd been fatal.

Officials say Sheahan, who had Stage 4 lung cancer, was last seen alive by a hospice nurse August 11. Over the next two days, Sheahan's brother tried to call him but got no response, and police went to the apartment August 14 for a well-being check. Sheahan was "beyond resuscitative efforts" and pronounced dead at the scene, according to the medical examiner's office.

The report says that when an investigator from the office arrived, Sheahan was still "slightly warm to the touch." When he was found, he was wearing one shoe, and when his body arrived at the medical examiner's office, there was blood on the sole of the shoe.

San Francisco police Officer Scott Dumont testified at last week's hearing that Sheahan was "face down in the living room," with "dried blood in his hair," cuts on the insides of both wrists, and "a pool of blood at his feet." Dumont said he hadn't seen any signs of forced entry or outside tampering.

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. Phillips also tried unsuccessfully to use Sheahan's ATM card and forged numerous checks. A broken knife was found in Sheahan's apartment.

Assistant District Attorney Michael Swart acknowledged at last week's hearing that "this is a circumstantial evidence case," but he said, "we have the motive," since Phillips had been "desperate for money," and he'd been asking Sheahan and others for financial assistance.

Swart said that footage showed Phillips' pants were clean when he first entered Sheahan's building on August 12, but there was a bloodstain on them when he left. Prosecutors haven't been able to find the pants.

Deputy Public Defender Kwixuan Maloof said that there wasn't sufficient evidence to show that Phillips had committed any of the crimes. He noted surveillance footage only shows him entering and leaving Sheahan's building, and he said no blood has been found in Phillips' home, car, or storage units. Maloof also noted there hadn't been any testimony about Phillips' pants being bloodstained.

"There is a whole lot of speculation here," he said.

Phillips, who was arrested November 22 and remains in custody on $3 million bail, is next due to appear in court January 3.

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