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Roommate of gay stylist testifies at murder trial

by Alex Madison

Defendant James Rickleffs. Photo: Courtesy SFPD
Defendant James Rickleffs. Photo: Courtesy SFPD  

When Ryan Hohn came home to his Diamond Heights apartment after work on June 12, 2012 he found his house robbed and his roommate, Steven "Eriq" Escalon, unresponsive in his bed, tied at his hands and feet and gagged.

Hohn was one of Assistant District Attorney Julia Cervantes' more robust witnesses in the murder trial of James Rickleffs, as the prosecution continued to present its case this week.

Escalon, a gay man, was found dead in his apartment that he shared with two other roommates after allegedly meeting and bringing home James Rickleffs, 52, the night before. Escalon's 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 Escalon's 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 was arrested in connection with the death September 12, 2012 and pleaded not guilty to murder and first-degree residential robbery. Before his arrest, Rickleffs was arrested for an unrelated incident the day after Escalon's death and was found with multiple items from Escalon's apartment including a laptop, TV, checkbook, and a bankcard of one of Escalon's roommates, according to police.

Rickleffs has been in custody since September 2012 and is being represented by Deputy Public Defender Niki Solis.

Hohn testified last week that he got home around 11 p.m. June 11, the night before Escalon was found dead, and Escalon was not home from his night out bar-hopping in the Castro district. Hohn then woke up around 3 a.m. and heard male voices whispering in Escalon's room, which shared a wall with Hohn's room.

"I had never heard Eriq up at 3 a.m. before," Hohn testified.

Hohn, who works at clothing store Alice + Olivia in San Francisco, left for work the next day around 6 a.m. and returned around 5:30 p.m. He found his front door open, which he said had never happened before, and his TV, Wii gaming system, box of costume jewelry, and computer were missing.

When he made his way to the second floor of his apartment where Escalon's room was located, he found Escalon tightly wrapped in a duvet cover lying in his bed. He moved the duvet cover to reveal Escalon's face. His mouth was taped shut with duct tape, Hohn testified.

"I remember his face being blue and there being duct tape around his mouth," Hohn said, referring to Escalon.

Hohn then said he ran outside of his apartment out of "fear." He immediately called 911.

"My house has been robbed and my roommate is tied up in his bed and gagged," said the recorded 911 call that was played in court. "I'm scared. I don't know if he's dead or not."

He continued in the 911 call, "My computer and TV is gone, everything is gone."

After staying at his parents' house for about a week after he discovered Escalon, Hohn testified that upon returning to the apartment he found a folding knife in his closet that he turned over to police.

During his testimony Hohn also revealed that it was not normal for Escalon to have overnight guests. As well, that both of the two doors to the multi-unit apartment, the street entrance and the apartment door, locked on their own once they were closed shut.

This was the first time the jury heard that at the time of Escalon's death there was a friend staying in the living room about two nights a week. During his testimony Hohn also said he had never seen BDSM materials or zip ties in Escalon's room, though he also said he rarely entered Escalon's room. Hohn added that he never witnessed Escalon using amyl nitrate or GHB.

An expert in DNA analysis, Taryn Aguilera, a criminalist with the San Francisco Police Department, testified that the blade of the folding knife found by Hohn tested positively for both Hohn's and Rickleffs' DNA. The knife handle was inconclusive of any DNA results. Zip ties, which Cervantes argued were used by Rickleffs to tie Escalon's hands, were found to only have DNA from Escalon on them.

Lastly, a roll of duct tape was tested and the results were inconclusive.

First arrest
Another witness was behind the 911 call that led to Rickleffs' initial arrest on June 13, 2012 when he was allegedly found with multiple belongings from Escalon's apartment. Jonathan Jackson was renting a business space at 220 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco when a man called him through the intercom system outside the building the day after Escalon was found dead.

The man told Jackson that he had left his wallet in the bathroom of the building and needed to get in to find it, Jackson testified. Jackson did not let the man in and proceeded to check the unisex bathroom on his floor to try and locate the wallet, which he did not find. He told the man on the intercom that there was no wallet, and Jackson said he began to get aggressive.

"I was concerned. I was worried I didn't want that person getting in the building," Jackson testified.

Jackson went to the first floor to get a look at the man through glass walls. In court he described him as about 5 feet 10 inches and having a strong build. He then called police.

When asked by prosecutors, Jackson said he did not remember if the man had anything with him. In response, the prosecutor reminded Jackson that he testified at the 2014 preliminary hearing that he did see the man with a suitcase.

SFPD Officer Matthew Elseth was one of the responding officers to Jackson's 911 call. He found the male subject of interest at the 1000 block of Kearney Street and transported him to the Central Station where he was identified as Rickleffs. He booked Rickleffs' property that he had on him, which included a laptop, two knives, a wallet, and a checkbook.

Another officer, Eric Capacciolo, also responded to the call. He recalled seeing Rickleffs with a suitcase. Solis emphasized that Capacciolo formerly testified at the preliminary hearing that he saw sex toys in the suitcase. Capacciolo said on the stand that Rickleffs was "mouthy and disrespectful," although Solis reminded him that during the preliminary hearing he said Rickleffs did not say anything when he was being detained.

"Some things you just don't forget," Capacciolo said in response to a written question from the jury that was read by Superior Court Judge Gerardo Sandoval that asked how he remembered so many details from the call that happened six-plus years ago.

The prosecution will continue to present evidence this week. The defense is expected to begin next week.

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