UPDATED: SF DA announces charges in stylist's murder
by Seth Hemmelgarn
San Francisco police announced they have made an arrest in the killing of a popular Castro hair stylist.
As the Bay Area Reporter wrote in a blog post Tuesday, James Rickleffs, 45, was arrested on suspicion of killing Steven "Eriq" Escalon, 28. The body of Escalon, who was gay, was found bound and gagged in his apartment in the 5000 block of Diamond Heights Boulevard at 6 p.m. June 12.UPDATE: Thursday, September 6
District Attorney George Gascón announced today (Thursday, September 6) that Rickleffs would be charged with one count of premeditated murder and one count of first-degree residential robbery. He's being held in San Francisco County jail on no bail.
Asked how Escalon had been killed, Gascón said, "We at this point do not know. The medical examiner is still doing their work." He said there hadn’t been any obvious stab or gunshot wounds. Escalon had been gagged with duct tape, Gascón said at a news conference in his offices.
Gascón asked anyone who may have seen Rickleffs and Escalon together, as well as anyone who may have been "victimized or approached" in similar incidents to contact police.
"We know other victims" of such incidents are out there, he said, and law enforcement officials "want to make sure we bring justice to every one of our victims."
Rickleffs appeared in court Thursday for his arraignment, which was continued until Monday, September 10. He was wide-eyed and appeared slightly dazed when he walked into the courtroom. He conferred with a defense attorney for several moments in a gruff voice, with his hands cuffed behind his back.
Assistant District Attorney Harry Dorfman will arraign the case.
Gascón said Rickleffs has a "history of low-level offenses." Court records indicate in the last four years, Rickleffs has been charged in numerous cases, including for petty theft, commercial burglary, and drug-related offenses. It appears that most if not all of the charges were eventually dismissed.
However, he was already on probation for a grand theft charge when he was arrested in connection with Escalon's murder. Court records indicate that in 2010 he pleaded guilty to a charge of felony grand theft of personal property. It wasn’t clear whether that's the same charge for which he was still on probation.
Gascón confirmed that Escalon and Rickleffs had met at the bar 440 Castro, but he declined to say whether there was any video surveillance footage of the two men together.
He also sought to promote personal safety, and mentioned other incidents in which people have gone home with people they've just met and gotten robbed or burglarized.
There's been a "pattern of conduct," specifically around Castro neighborhood bars, where people are "coming out of nightclubs with people they’ve befriended at the club," he said. He asked people to be "very mindful of people you meet for the first time" and learn more about them before taking them home. As apparently shown in the Escalon case, "the consequences can be very dire," he said.
Gascón couldn’t immediately provide examples of other incidents, but there have been some similar cases reported to police across the city in recent months resulting in people having property stolen.
Such cases have been happening "primarily in the gay community" and mostly involve men, Gascón said. However, he said, "I don’t want to generalize."
Escalon had worked as a stylist at Metamorphosis Salon on Market Street.
Police and Escalon's mother are asking others who have had contact with Rickleffs to come forward.
At a Hall of Justice news conference Tuesday, September 4, Lieutenant Hector Sainez, head of the San Francisco Police Department's homicide unit, said Rickleffs was arrested Sunday night, September 2 on a murder charge.
Sainez said the arrest was based on "strong" witness and forensic evidence. He declined to say how Escalon had been killed or what the specific evidence was. However, he said Rickleffs had been found with some property that had allegedly been stolen from Escalon's home. Items missing from the apartment had included a laptop, jewelry, and financial documents.
A bulletin released earlier said police were seeking a man who had been seen getting into a cab with Escalon in front of the bar 440 Castro at about 1:30 a.m. the day he was killed.
Sainez said Tuesday that Escalon had met Rickleffs at a bar. Police believe Rickleffs is the man featured in the "person of interest" sketch that was featured in the bulletin.
Escalon had also withdrawn money from an ATM machine, Sainez said, but he didn't believe he'd been forced to take money out. He said he didn't know whether Rickleffs is gay.
Police Chief Greg Suhr encouraged people who recognize Rickleffs, whether they "met him in casual conversation" or had a date with him, to contact police.
"Please let homicide detectives decide whether it's important or not," he said.
Asked if police suspect Rickleffs in other incidents, Suhr said, "We won't know until somebody tells us."
A police source said Rickleffs made "some incriminating statements," and DNA was found at the scene "that links the suspect to the crime." The source declined to elaborate on what type of DNA evidence had been found.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Esmeralda Escalon, Escalon's mother, said, "I'm happy he's caught," so that he's "off the streets, and so he won't hurt another family," but "I'm sad, because it's not going to bring me back my son."
She said she'd told her son, who was "a sweet guy" with "no ugly in him," that she'd make sure there's justice in the case.
"Going to court is going to be a hard thing," Escalon said, but "we've got to go, and we've got to do it" and see that "this man will serve life in prison."
Escalon urged others who may have had encounters with Rickleffs to "come forward."
"The more charges on him, the better," she said.
Susan Fahey, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's department, said records show that Rickleffs was initially arrested at about 7:30 p.m. Friday, August 31, at 855 Harrison Street on a felony charge of second-degree commercial burglary and a misdemeanor charge of possession of burglary tools. A T.J. Maxx clothing store is at the address where Rickleffs was arrested Friday.
In response to emailed questions Wednesday, September 5, Sergeant Michael Andraychak, an SFPD spokesman, cited the homicide unit and said Rickleffs "is in custody for the Friday burglary and the probation violation arrest. He was interviewed Sunday and then arrested for the Escalon homicide."
Andraychak said "it is possible" that the district attorney's office "will add charges related to the Escalon investigation," but that was to be determined.
A date for the district attorney's office to formally charge Rickleffs hadn't been set as of Wednesday afternoon. The public defender's office didn't have an attorney listed for Rickleffs Wednesday morning.
Police praised Greg Carey and his group Castro Community on Patrol for their assistance in the case. The volunteer patrol group distributed fliers after Escalon's death asking people to provide information.
Anyone who recognizes Rickleffs or has information regarding the case is asked to contact Sergeant Scott Warnke, or Inspectors Daniel Dedet, Kevin Jones, or Robert Valverde in the homicide unit at (415) 553-1145 or after hours at (415) 553-1071. People that wish to leave an anonymous tip may call the SFPD tip line at (415) 575-4444 or text a tip to 847411 and type SFPD, then the message. The police incident number for Escalon's death is 120 463 273.