Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Police: Woman tried to set man’s face on fire in Castro

A woman who allegedly tried to set someone’s face on fire in San Francisco’s Castro district Sunday is in custody after she was arrested on suspicion of arson and assault with a deadly weapon. [Update Thursday, April 16:] The woman, Victor Ricks, was released this morning, according to the sheriff’s department [End update].

Ricks, 36, of Los Angeles, was in the 400 block of Castro Street at 12:52 p.m. April 12 when a man asked her for a lighter, according to Officer Albie Esparza, a police spokesman.

Ricks allegedly pulled out an aerosol can and a lighter and tried to burn the victim’s face with them, Esparza said. The man, 21, wasn’t injured.

Before the incident, Ricks had been in an argument with the man’s friend, according to Esparza.

Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said today (Wednesday, April 15), that the incident is “under investigation,” and there’s “Insufficient evidence to charge the case at this time.”

— Seth Hemmelgarn, April 15, 2015 @ 3:54 pm PST
Filed under: Uncategorized

Man says Stop AIDS worker told him ‘You are about to die…’

Stop AIDS logoA San Francisco man living with AIDS is claiming an employee of the Stop AIDS Project recently sent him emails saying “You are about to die of AIDS I feel bad for you,” among other things.

Ryan Bentham, 32, said he and Mario Royal, the Stop AIDS worker, went out from 2011 to 2013. Bentham said the relationship ended because of his long work hours.

He reached out to Royal in June 2014 after he was diagnosed and became ill. Royal’s reaction wasn’t good. Bentham said that at one point Royal sent him a text that said something to the effect of “I hope you die a horrible death.” Bentham didn’t save the message.

Then, he says, he got three emails from Royal February 18, which he shared with the Bay Area Reporter and other media outlets today (Wednesday, April 15). The emails, which bear Royal’s name, all came from a Gmail account, rather than a Stop AIDS account.

The first message says, “Good luck on your journey to death.” Several hours later, another email came that reads, “Why do you care you fat ugly sick bitch … I don’t want your punk bitch ugly ass … I’m too sexy for you!!!!!!!!!!” The third message says, “You are about to die of AIDS I feel bad for you.”

In a Facebook exchange with the B.A.R., Royal said of Bentham, “Dude he is fucking crazy,” and he’s “a tweaker who hacks into [people’s] shit. … Fuck Ryan!!!!!!” He said he plans to get a restraining order against Bentham.

Royal also told a reporter, “Who are u and why do u need a story about that crazy guy. I don’t email him I text that bitch!!!! He hacked into my phone. I have witnessed him hacking into [people’s] computers before so I’m sure he hacked into my phone and stole my contact, text, [etc.]”

Bentham said he doesn’t know what he could’ve done to provoke Royal’s emails.

“He was really bitter, for some reason,” Bentham said, and the messages were “very outside of his personality.”

He said he was “shocked” that Royal “had that kind of hatred toward HIV/AIDS patients” and he was also surprised that Stop AIDS hired Royal in the first place.

“This is not a person that should be working with HIV patients,” he said.

Bentham, who works for the San Mateo County Office of Emergency Services, said he’s never been a client of Royal’s. Stop AIDS is a program of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Bentham said he contacted the nonprofit last year after Royal’s first message and emailed the organization again Wednesday morning, but he hasn’t received a response.

“I’m deeply disappointed to know that your organization employs Mr. Royal with such hatred toward humanity and lack of understanding in regards to AIDS/HIV positive people,” Bentham told the AIDS foundation in his email Wednesday.

He said he texted Royal last year that he was going to go to Royal’s supervisor, to which Royal responded, “LOL. They love me. They’ll never fire me. I’m the one that makes it all work.” (Bentham said he doesn’t have the texts between him and Royal anymore.)

Bentham’s just now talking about Royal’s messages because “It got under my skin” when he was reading through old emails.

He said he thought, “If all these other people are going to this person for support … Good God, maybe I should let somebody else know that cares.”

Bentham doesn’t want Royal to get fired, but “I just think that they should have him in a different position than assisting people with HIV or AIDS,” he said.

Andrew Hattori, a spokesman for the AIDS foundation, said, “We are looking into” Bentham’s allegations, “but we’re not talking publicly about personnel issues.”

Hattori said he couldn’t comment on whether Royal’s still working for the organization or what may happen to him if the emails are shown to have come from him.

In an email, James Loduca, the AIDS foundation’s vice president for philanthropy and public affairs, said, “This morning is the first we’ve learned of Mr. Bentham’s allegations. We take them seriously, and are looking into them immediately.”

Loduca said he’s reached out to Bentham “to let him know that we take matters like this very seriously, and that his email has triggered an internal investigation into the matter.”

The nonprofit “has a long tradition of promoting respect and dignity for all people living with HIV/AIDS,” Loduca said, and “I can assure you that once the investigation is complete, the appropriate action will be taken based on its findings.”

However, as Hattori had mentioned,  he said, “personnel issues are confidential and cannot otherwise be discussed.”

It appears Royal is still working for Stop AIDS. A woman who answered the phone at the AIDS foundation this morning immediately transferred a call to his direct line, where the outgoing recording includes his name.

In his message to the B.A.R. and others, Bentham included San Francisco Superior Court documents related to a small claims case a man filed against Royal in December 2014. The man said Royal had thrown away several items of his, including pictures of his partner, who’d died of AIDS. A judge eventually ordered Royal to pay the man more than $5,000.

Bentham has had his own court problems, records show. In 2012, two men who lived in a single-room occupancy hotel Bentham was managing requested restraining orders against him.

One of the men claimed that Bentham had made “unwanted sexual advances” toward him and called him “Sweet cheek tight ass,” among other problems. Bentham denied the claims.

The cases were ultimately dismissed with prejudice after none of the parties showed up for one hearing, and the plaintiff didn’t appear for the other.

— Seth Hemmelgarn, @ 12:04 pm PST
Filed under: Uncategorized

Obama calls for end to conversion therapy for minors

Responding to a White House petition, President Barack Obama this week called for an end to the widely discredited practice of conversion therapy for minors.

Writing on the White House blog Wednesday, April 8, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said, “As part of our dedication to protecting America’s youth, this administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors.”

(President Barack Obama)

(President Barack Obama)

Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It is opposed by most major medical and mental health organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association.

“Tonight, somewhere in America, a young person, let’s say a young man, will struggle to fall to sleep, wrestling alone with a secret he’s held as long as he can remember,” Obama wrote on the blog. “Soon, perhaps, he will decide it’s time to let that secret out. What happens next depends on him, his family, as well as his friends and his teachers and his community. But it also depends on us – on the kind of society we engender, the kind of future we build.”

In her comments, Jarrett said it’s important for people to get advice from qualified health professionals.

“When assessing the validity of conversion therapy, or other practices that seek to change an individual’s gender identity or sexual orientation, it is as imperative to seek guidance from certified medical experts,” Jarrett wrote. “The overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that conversion therapy, especially when it is practiced on young people, is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm.”

Local LGBT organizations praised the president’s announcement.

“Equality California applauds and commends President Obama for his statement calling for an end to ‘conversion therapy,’ the damaging psychological abuse practiced by some mental health professionals who falsely claim that they can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender expression,” EQCA Executive Director Rick Zbur said in a statement.

Zbur pointed to a California law signed by Governor Jerry Brown that bans licensed therapists in the state from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender expression of patients under the age of 18. The Golden State became the first in the nation to enact such a law, which was used as a model in New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Several other states are considering similar action this year, EQCA noted.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights also applauded the White House announcement.

“There are few things more powerful to our children’s self-worth than having the president of the United States say you matter,” NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell said in a statement. “These powerful statements from President Obama and Valerie Jarrett not only affirm the lives of our transgender brothers and sisters, but the lives of all LGBT people.

“Today, our president made clear that we can and must do better,” Kendell continued. “Every LGBT child deserves to live with full dignity, free from shame, embraced for who they are. Today brings us one step closer to that moment.”

The petition seeking to ban conversion therapy was started after the December 2014 suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender youth. In a note she left behind, Alcorn explained how her parents had forced her to attend conversion therapy, pulled her out of school, and isolated her in an attempt to change her gender identity.

The petition received 120,958 signatures, enough to have the White House respond.

— Cynthia Laird, April 9, 2015 @ 11:04 am PST
Filed under: News,Politics

Suhr recommends firing for more officers involved in racist, anti-gay texts

Police Chief Greg Suhr. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Police Chief Greg Suhr. Photo: Rick Gerharter

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr announced today (Friday, April 3) that he’s recommending to the city’s police commission that eight officers should be fired for allegedly exchanging racist and homophobic text messages. One of the officers already quit, and Suhr anticipated another would resign today.

Fourteen officers were the target of a police investigation spawned by the federal case against former Sergeant Ian Furminger. A motion filed in that case in March revealed that Furminger and other officers had sent texts in 2011 and 2012 using the n-word, “fag,” and other derogatory terms.

At a news conference today to announce the investigation’s completion, Suhr said it “makes me sick to even talk about” the text messages, and he’s “disgusted.”

The eight officers’ exchanges showed “such extreme bias” that Suhr “believes their conduct is incompatible with the duties of a police officer. These officers’ text messages are of such despicable thinking that those responsible clearly fall below the minimum standards required to be a police officer,” police said in a news release today. The officers have already been suspended.

Furminger, who was convicted in December of stealing and other crimes, left the department not long after his conviction, and he’s not one of the eight officers.

Officer Michael Robison, the officer allegedly involved in the text exchanges who’s already resigned, is gay. Robison hasn’t responded to the Bay Area Reporter’s interview requests.

Two other officers were involved in “single texting that included inflammatory texts which did not rise to the level of the other eight officers,” police said. The two officers’ explanations “should be heard by the police commission.”

“If you read the text messages” of the two officers, “it’s not even close,” Suhr said.

The two have been reassigned to positions where they don’t have contact with the public. Their cases have been forwarded to the commission, which may decide to terminate them.

Four other officers took part in single texting events with Furminger that violated department policy, but not in a way that involved hate speech.

“Their conduct was also inappropriate, but it was not determined to be racist or homophobic,” Suhr said.

Their actions included failing to tell anyone about Furminger’s messages and responding to the former sergeant “in a manner unbecoming an officer,” police said.

Suhr will discipline these remaining officers. He can suspend them without pay for up to 10 days.

“There is no place in the San Francisco Police Department – and shouldn’t be in any police department – for a dishonest cop,” Suhr stated. “There is also no place in the SFPD for any officer capable of the thinking expressed in these hateful text messages. The officers responsible for the reprehensible texts should be separated from the SFPD as soon as practical. The fine, right-minded men and women of the SFPD that are of the impeccable character required of a Guardian (police officer) expect no less.”

The 14 officers included a captain and “at least one sergeant,” Suhr told reporters today. The captain isn’t in charge of any of the city’s district stations, he said.

Police said that in late January, “the FBI provided volumes of documents, including the text messages,” to the police department and the Office of Citizen Complaints.

“We poured over some 30,000 pages,” Suhr said. “… We canvassed every single piece of paper for text messages.” Still, he said, the investigation revealed involvement by only the 14 officers.

Suhr added that his agency would examine the 14 officers’ personal background questionnaires to see if there’s a common thread that could have indicated problems, and his staff will then do a random sampling of other current officers’ questionnaires.

“We cannot have this in San Francsico,” he said, adding, “We have to do everything” possible “to root out” such problems.

The community’s trust is “critical” for police to do their job, he said.

Suhr said he wouldn’t rule out more training to guard against bias.

In a press release following Suhr’s news conference, Public Defender Jeff Adachi said “Chief Greg Suhr’s recommendation to terminate officers accused of sending racist and homophobic text messages is a step in the right direction, and I strongly encourage the Police Commission follow suit.”

Adachi called references to the “hateful” texts “as innocent banter is dead wrong. This casual dehumanization leads to real life suffering and injustice. It foments a toxic environment in which citizens fear and distrust the police, brutality reigns, and good officers are less effective.”

The public defender said Suhr and the police commission should make all officers undergo “at least 25 hours in racial bias training.”

He said police officials should also “institute a policy requiring officers who witness a colleague engaging in racial bias to report it to their superior officers or face discipline. Training and reinforcement is the only way to ensure that racial bias by police does not harm our citizenry.”

In a follow-up email, Tamara Aparton, Adachi’s spokeswoman, said the training the public defender is suggesting “would be training on recognizing and combatting both conscious and unconscious bias – that includes race and LGBT.”

Suhr said his agency is looking at cases in which the officers were involved, and Adachi and District Attorney George Gascon have said they’re doing the same.

“We look forward to reviewing all the cases and reports made by the officers involved in sending or responding to the racist texts,” Adachi said. “We expect that this will significantly widen our investigation beyond the 1,000 estimated cases that must be reviewed.”

— Seth Hemmelgarn, April 3, 2015 @ 4:32 pm PST
Filed under: Uncategorized

Gay man in line to head Marin health agency

Dr. Grant Colfax (Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland)

Dr. Grant Colfax (Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland)

A gay doctor and longtime HIV prevention leader is set to become the next head of Marin County’s main health agency.

At its Tuesday, April 7 meeting the Marin County Board of Supervisors is expected to confirm Sausalito resident Dr. Grant Colfax, 50, as the leader of the county’s sprawling Health and Human Services Department.

Colfax will succeed Marin health chief Larry Meredith in the $215,342-a-year position starting Monday, May 4. The Marin Independent Journal reported on the expected hiring of Colfax, who had served as head of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, this morning (Thursday, April 2).

“Dr. Colfax joins our county after 18 years of public health service at the local and federal level,” County Administrator Matthew Hymel told the paper.

Prior to being tapped by President Barack Obama for the federal AIDS czar position, Colfax had been the director of San Francisco’s HIV Prevention Section from 2007 through 2012. He championed moving the city’s efforts to stop the spread of HIV toward a “test and treat” approach, considered controversial at the time, where funding would be directed to testing for HIV and encouraging those who were positive to immediately seek treatment.

After leaving his White House job, Colfax was hired in 2014 by the nonprofit PATH, short for Programs for Appropriate Technology in Health, to lead its HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis efforts in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia.

According to the Marin paper, Colfax said working for Obama “was a privilege” but he wanted to return to his roots in the Bay Area. He grew up and was homeschooled at a Mendocino County goat farm.

“Working at the local level has always been my passion,” Colfax, whose partner is a San Francisco urologist, was quoted as saying. “It’s very exciting to be able to work for the county,” he added. “I see it as a great opportunity to work with a fantastic team.”

— Matthew S. Bajko, April 2, 2015 @ 4:15 pm PST
Filed under: Uncategorized

Castro groups vote to oppose Umpqua bank

A rendering of the proposed Umpqua Bank on 18th Street in the Castro

A rendering of the proposed Umpqua Bank on 18th Street in the Castro shows a new mural on the building’s side.

Most financial institutions looking to open in San Francisco’s gay Castro district can usually bank on facing opposition. Many residents and merchants say the neighborhood is already saturated with enough banks that create dead zones throughout the commercial corridor.

Umpqua Bank officials are finding this maxim to be true as they seek approval to open a Castro branch in the 18th Street storefront that now houses Magnet, the gay men’s health clinic, which is slated to relocate this summer to a new location around the corner on the 400 block of Castro Street.

As the Bay Area Reporter noted on its blog last November, the bank intends to reskin the 18th Street building, which is adjacent to a city parking lot, and upgrade the facade and entrance way. It also is proposing to work with the community to install a mural on the side of the structure fronting the parking lot entrance and possibly install a new structure for local organizations to post their posters.

To help activate the space during daytime hours, the bank has said it will welcome anyone who wants to use its lobby – with free coffee and Wi-Fi – as an office space to hold one-on-one meetings. It will feature works by local artists, highlight local merchants, and be available for community groups to use for events.

The bank is also looking to lease the second floor, which is not wheelchair accessible, to a Castro group in need of office space.

“This space is designed to welcome after hours community use of our space,” Lindsey Strange, Umpqua’s senior vice president – retail regional director for the Bay Area, told members of the Castro Merchants association at its meeting this morning (Thursday, April 2). “We will do that free of charge.”

Strange had hoped to win the business group’s support as the Portland, Oregon-based company seeks the required permits from the city’s planning commission. Yet the merchants overwhelmingly voted to oppose Umpqua’s conditional use permit request.

“We would be making a terrible mistake allowing a bank there,” said Terry Asten Bennett, whose family owns Cliff’s Variety.

Steve Adams, a regional senior vice president with Sterling Bank and Trust, said he would have no problem seeing Umpqua open on upper Market Street where his bank has a branch. Unlike with the 400 and 500 blocks of Castro Street, where there are a number of banks, the upper Market Street corridor has only a few banks.

“I am not against Umpqua coming into this neighborhood. It is the location,” said Adams, who serves on the San Francisco Small Business Commission. “There is all this empty space on upper Market. They need another bank up there.”

Andrea Aiello, executive director of the Castro / Upper Market Community Benefits District, announced at the meeting that the CBD’s board also voted to oppose Umpqua’s planned expansion in the Castro.

“We are doing this Castro retail strategy study and we are not finding anything that suggests we need another bank,” she said. “Banks are not driving foot traffic anymore because many people bank at home.”

One group that has voted to support Umpqua is the Castro / Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association, though its vote was not without “a lot of internal conflict,” remarked board member Mark McHale.

Strange said Umpqua looks at “where are people meeting” in a particular neighborhood when it determines branch locations. The company ruled out seeking a space on Castro Street but felt the soon-to-be-vacant storefront at 4122 18th Street would be a suitable fit.

“We feel our model does well in the heart of a neighborhood,” she said.

The bank’s hearing date before the planning commission has yet to be noticed.

— Matthew S. Bajko, @ 3:38 pm PST
Filed under: Uncategorized

Violent robberies reported in Castro, Tenderloin

San Francisco police are investigating recent violent robberies in the Castro and Tenderloin neighborhoods.

The most recent incident occurred in the Castro district, near 15th and Noe streets. At about 10:30 p.m. Monday, March 30, two men approached the two victims. One of the suspects pointed a gun at them and demanded their property, according to Officer Albie Esparza, a police spokesman. The suspects stole the men’s cellphones and fled on foot.

No description of the suspects was available. The victims, who are 26 and 22, weren’t injured.

Another robbery occurred in the Tenderloin neighborhood, which is well known for crime and poverty.

At 5 p.m. last Friday, March 27 near Turk and Taylor streets and the longtime gay bar Aunt Charlie’s, a woman brandished a handgun at another woman and demanded her property, Officer Grace Gatpandan, a police spokeswoman, said.

The victim, 32, “refused and attempted to walk away,” but the suspect grabbed her purse and dumped its contents onto the sidewalk, Gatpandan said.

As the woman tried to pick up her possessions, the suspect pepper-sprayed her, took her wallet, and fled the scene with the victim’s cash, wallet, driver’s license, and Social Security card.

The suspect was described only as a black female, age 19 to 20. The victim, who suffered irritation to her eyes and face, was taken to San Francisco General Hospital.

Another Castro robbery happened at about 2:30 a.m. last Monday, March 23.

In the incident, which occurred near 19th and Collingwood streets, a man was walking toward his car when two men came up behind him, grabbed him, and threw him against a wall, according to Esparza.

The suspects, who both appeared to be 25, demanded the 21-year-old victim’s property, took his belongings out of his pockets, and fled, Esparza said.

The victim’s cellphone, car key, driver’s license, and credit cards were taken, but he wasn’t injured.

No arrests have been reported in any of the incidents.

Anyone with information in the cases may contact police anonymously at (415) 575-4444 or text a tip to TIP411. Type SFPD in the subject line.

The case numbers are: 150281443 (15th and Noe), 150271121 (Turk and Taylor), and 150277141 (19th and Collingwood).


— Seth Hemmelgarn, @ 12:19 pm PST
Filed under: Uncategorized

Breaking: Man acquitted in ’11 Nob Hill murder case

Waheed Kesmatyer, acquitted in murder case.

Waheed Kesmatyer, acquitted in murder case.

A man was acquitted today (Wednesday, April 1) of murdering his older gay roommate in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood in 2011.

With their verdict, jurors indicated they believed that Waheed Kesmatyer, 28, who stabbed, beat, and strangled to death Jack Baker, 67, did so in self-defense after Baker raped and stabbed him, as the defense team claimed.

Outside the courtroom, one juror told the Bay Area Reporter that the prosecutor in the case didn’t show evidence to prove otherwise.

In his testimony last month, Kesmatyer said of Baker’s death, “It was a struggle. I was trying to get away. … I was just scared he might kill me.”

A paring knife had been broken off in Baker’s head, he’d been stabbed dozens of times, and there was an electrical cord tied around his neck.

Kesmatyer was charged with first-degree murder. Jurors also had the option of convicting him of second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, but they opted against all charges.

He’s been in custody since his arrest in February 2011 and is likely to be released within the next couple of days.

The trial started in late February. Closing arguments were last week. Jurors deliberated for about two days before announcing their decision.

The B.A.R. will have more on this story in the Thursday, April 9 edition.

— Seth Hemmelgarn, April 1, 2015 @ 11:42 am PST
Filed under: Uncategorized

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