The long-awaited preliminary hearing in the murder of Steven “Eriq” Escalon, a gay San Francisco hairstylist whose body was found bound and gagged in 2012, has been delayed for about three weeks after his public defender called in sick and the judge and prosecutor didn’t get the message.
James Rickleffs, 47, who’s been charged with murder and robbery in the case, and Escalon’s family both expressed dismay Thursday, March 26, when the hearing was supposed to have begun in San Francisco Superior Court. A preliminary hearing is when the prosecution presents key material and witnesses and a judge determines whether there’s enough evidence to proceed with a trial.
Rickleffs allegedly met Escalon, 28, at the bar 440 Castro and took a cab with him back to Escalon’s home early on the morning he died.
A roommate found Escalon in a bedroom at their Diamond Heights area apartment in June 2012. The medical examiner’s office determined that Escalon had died from GHB and nitrate intoxication. A twisted piece of cloth that “smelled strongly of apparent amyl nitrate” and had reportedly been in Escalon’s mouth was near his head.
As Judge Brendan Conroy and attorneys made their way through several other cases Thursday, Public Defender Niki Solis, who’s represented Rickleffs since shortly after his arrest in September 2012, couldn’t be found.
About an hour after court started, Conroy asked Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia, who’s prosecuting Rickleffs, about Solis’s absence. Garcia noted members of Escalon’s family, who were sitting in the gallery wearing buttons with Escalon’s photo, had driven from Fresno to be there.
“Ms. Solis did not call me or tell me” what was going on, said Garcia. Besides the family, others involved in the case, including a witness and his Russian interpreter, were present, she said. “We’re ready to go.”
After Solis was reached during a recess, Conroy said Solis was ill. He soon ordered the hearing continued to April 16.
Rickleffs, who’s been in custody since his arrest, sounded upset.
As Deputy Public Defender Greg Goldman stood by his side, Rickleffs said, “Where’s my attorney?” and “Who is this?”
Defendants rarely speak much unless they’re on the witness stand and are usually silenced by their attorneys when they do try to talk. Conroy encouraged Rickleffs to speak with Goldman, but Rickleffs went on to complain about his jail conditions.
He said he needed a court order to access the law library, and his access had been “ignored.”
“It’s made me angry,” he said.
Conroy told Rickleffs Solis could take up the matter with the judge and he would review it.
But Rickleffs continued, even after Conroy again told him to consult with Goldman before addressing the court, and said, “is there anyway to get a court order? I need to go to the law library.” Conroy repeated that he’d talk to Solis.
Finally, the judge said, “I understand people traveled a great distance to be here,” and he apologized. However, he said, if Solis couldn’t provide a “constitutionally adequate defense,” the court would “just have to do [the hearing] over again.”
Outside the courtroom, Esmeralda Escalon, 48, Escalon’s mother, said, “I’m just angry and upset.”
Escalon added, “We all have muscle spasms and go to work. It’s ridiculous. It’s too much.”
Solis’s absence was “very unprofessional,” she said.
Gloria Gaucin, 57, Escalon’s aunt, said, “Whatever happened to victims’ rights? That’s what I want to know.”
In a statement emailed to the Bay Area Reporter Thursday, Solis said, “I sympathize with the family’s frustration and offer my sincere apologies for the delay. I worked very hard to prepare for the preliminary hearing and my client and I were ready to go forward today. Unfortunately, my chronic back condition flared up this morning and the acute pain forced me to stay home. I alerted the court immediately and well before 8:30 a.m.”