Police seek witnesses
as murder cases go cold
by Seth Hemmelgarn
Earlier this month, Brandy Martell would have turned 38.
A few days before her birthday, Betty Massey, Martell's mother, talked about how she planned to mark the day by taking flowers to her daughter's gravesite.
"I just think about the good times I had with him," said Massey, 61, using male pronouns to refer to Martell, who was transgender. "I know he loved me, and I loved him, but I just wonder what his last moments were all about."
Martell, who was born December 9, 1974, died April 29 after a gunman shot her as she and some friends sat in her car near 13th and Franklin streets in downtown Oakland.
As with the homicides of several LGBT people in the Bay Area in recent years, no one has been arrested for Martell's death. Hers is just one active case in which police and those who knew the victims are hopeful that someone will come forward with something they saw or heard and help find the killer.
Massey, of Hayward, said it's been a "mystery" to her that despite witnesses to the death of Martell, whom other transgender women regarded as a role model, nobody's been caught.
"I imagine they're probably scared, so I hold nothing against them," she said.
Officer Johnna Watson, a spokeswoman for the Oakland Police Department, couldn't say how many witnesses have come forward in the Martell case, but investigators are encouraging more people to do so.
"Witnesses are key" for identifying who's responsible for homicides and getting convictions, she said.
"If you saw something, heard something, or if you know something, no matter how small that information may be, it may be that one piece that links all the other information together," Watson, an out lesbian, said.
Asked about the biggest obstacles to solving cases, Lieutenant Hector Sainez, head of the San Francisco Police Department's homicide unit, didn't offer complaints about tight budgets, outdated equipment, or the fact that, on average, there's been at least one homicide every week this year.
"One of the biggest challenges, generally speaking, is getting witnesses to come forward," Sainez said in an email. "Many times, people have information but are reluctant to come forward."
Even when police have DNA evidence, witness accounts can be crucial to getting convictions in homicides, according to homicide Inspector Kevin Jones, an out gay man who's been with the SFPD since 1980.
"You need to talk to the police," he said. "You need to get this stuff out. There's nothing we can do unless you help."
three years ago.
(Photo: Courtesy Billie Garcia)
'Somebody knows something'
Mariah Qualls, 23, a transgender woman, was found dead of blunt force injury to the head in her residential hotel room on December 9, 2009 in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood.
"Somebody knows something," Billie Garcia, 41, Qualls's aunt, said recently. "People just aren't speaking on it." Garcia lives in San Jose, where Qualls had lived before moving to San Francisco. Christine Qualls said shortly after her daughter's death that she had "loved the gay community" and San Francisco is where "she thought she would fit."
In a November interview, SFPD homicide Inspector Daniel Cunningham said, "I'm almost positive I know" who killed Qualls, but he didn't yet have any "solid" evidence he could take to the district attorney.
"There are still some investigative leads that we plan on following through in this case," he added.
Several people had been in and out of Qualls's and a neighboring room in her Broadway Street hotel just before she died, Cunningham said, and he suspects the killer was a male acquaintance who had been partying with her.
Cunningham said some have suggested Qualls's former boyfriend killed her, but he said that man was in custody at the time Qualls was believed to have been killed.
He said there might be indirect witnesses in the case; the man who killed Qualls "might have told some people some things," Cunningham said.
Police have tested a small amount of DNA from skin, he said, but that hasn't been helpful. He's also been making his way through surveillance footage covering a 36-hour period as he balances the Qualls investigation with cases where there are people in custody.
The inspector thinks the man that killed Qualls did so "impulsively," and he indicated she wasn't killed because she was transgender. The person responsible wasn't someone who "just maliciously hurt her because she was what she was, or just wanted to kill somebody in general," Cunningham said. "I don't think it's that at all."
A $75,000 reward has been available in the Qualls case since last year.
"I'm not going to give up" on the investigation, Cunningham said. "I know it's going to happen, I just don't know when."
Garcia expressed hope that someone would provide police with information leading to an arrest.
"If you know anything, even if it's the smallest little thing, something small could lead to something big," she said.
Preparing for Christmas
In Chicago, Lisa DiMartino, 41, said she's hoping to take out some of her brother's ornaments as Christmas nears.
"He used to buy tons of stuff on QVC," DiMartino said of Philip DiMartino, laughing as she recalled his love of home shopping. "... He used to shop on there all the time."
"He just loved the holidays, and I know he'd want us to try and enjoy them the best we can, so that's what we're going to try to do," she added.
A coworker found DiMartino, 36, dead on the floor of his Hermann Street apartment in San Francisco's Hayes Valley neighborhood on August 2, 2010. The medical examiner's office said in its report that his injuries included 48 stab wounds, most of them in his back.
Hours before he's believed to have been killed, DiMartino, who was gay, had told co-workers at the Archstone apartment company that he was headed to the Castro neighborhood after work for happy hour. Lisa DiMartino has said she and others "are fairly confident" her brother was at Badlands, a club on 18th Street, at some point that night.
Police have said that the suspect may have cut himself during the assault. In August 2011, then-homicide Inspector Richard Martin said, "We believe we have the suspect's DNA that was left at the scene."
Since then, Martin has been assigned to another unit. Inspector Michael Morley, the lead investigator on the case, didn't respond to an interview request. Jones, who's assisted in the investigation, said it's "one of the most exhaustive investigations they've done in this office." The work continues, he said, and he believes there will be an arrest.
"It's science," Jones said. "It's science, and also, people who had contact with Philip that night." He expressed confidence that somebody will "remember something that turns out to be really important."
Jones pointed to the recent killing of Steven "Eriq" Escalon as an example of a homicide in which witnesses helped police make an arrest.
James Rickleffs, 46, was arrested in September in connection with the June death. He has pleaded not guilty to murder and robbery charges in the killing of Escalon, who was found bound and gagged in his home hours after he and Rickleffs were allegedly seen getting into a cab outside the bar 440 Castro.
Lisa DiMartino said she'd hoped that the arrest in the Escalon killing might lead to "some resolution in my situation, but as far as I know, there hasn't been any link drawn."
In January 2011, the mayor's office authorized a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and prosecution in DiMartino's death.
(Photo: Courtesy Anthony Harris)
On August 3, 2011, just over a year after DiMartino was killed, Clyde "Leo" Neville, 51, was found gagged and beaten in his Hayes Valley apartment.
The medical examiner's office listed the cause of his death as "multiple traumatic injuries during acute mixed drug intoxication." While the manner of death was listed as homicide, the report also said the possibility of a fatal irregular heartbeat "precipitated by an assault and potentiated by his underlying heart disease or drug use cannot be ruled out."
Anthony Harris, 45, recently emailed the Bay Area Reporter to express frustration with the investigation into the killing of his uncle, who's been described as well liked and free-spirited.
In a phone interview, Harris said it seems that as far as police are concerned, his uncle "was just another gay man out there tricking." He was also upset that nobody had told him that Martin, the homicide inspector who had investigated Neville's killing as well as DiMartino's, had been transferred to another unit.
Harris, who lives in San Pedro, California, said that after several attempts he made to talk to police, homicide Inspector John S. Miller finally called him.
In an email exchange with the B.A.R. , Miller, who was one of several inspectors assisting Martin in the investigation and is now the primary inspector, said Martin and his team did "extensive work" on the case before Martin's recent transfer.
"I can assure you that this case was and is being investigated as intensely as all other cases assigned to the SFPD homicide detail," he said. Harris now has his direct contact information, Miller said, and "I will continue to keep him updated of any major movement in this case."
He added, "Currently there are no new developments on this case but I will be reviewing more case material to see if there is any new direction possible."
Martin has said that police believe someone that Neville brought home with him killed him. Not long after Neville died, police released photos of a "person of interest." The photos were taken from surveillance video that shows Neville and another man entering Neville's building, which is on Franklin Street.
The man in the video still is "our best lead," Martin said in an interview before his transfer.
"I believe that's the one that did it," he said.
Martin said they have DNA evidence, which he indicated came from blood. The biggest challenge, he said, is "an ID. Somebody has to come forward and ID this guy."
No rewards have been offered in this case or any other homicide cases for several months, due to budgetary constraints.
this person of interest
in the Neville case.
(Photo: Courtesy SFPD)
Like Harris, Neville's nephew, homicide Inspector Jones has been frustrated, too.
In June 2010, Stephen Powell, 19, was shot to death around the end of the Pink Saturday festival, the street party that draws thousands of people to the Castro neighborhood the night before the LGBT Pride Parade each year. (Powell doesn't appear to have been gay himself.)
Despite there presumably being many people who witnessed the shooting, no one has been arrested in the case.
"We've exhausted every lead we've been given," Jones said. "We got very little help from the public, considering the size of the event."
Powell's death "could be easily solved if the people that witnessed it would just tell the truth," Jones, who said inspectors work "24/7," added. There are people who witnessed what happened, he said, but "they're not telling everything they saw, and everything they know."
He said, "What's more shocking is how many people from the [LGBT] community there were down there," people who apparently haven't taken action.
"You have a murder, and nobody's taking pictures of it, or if they are, they don't want to release it to us," he said. "... I don't know if they're afraid, or if they just don't give a shit."
Trail growing cold
People who were in the car with Martell, the transgender woman killed in Oakland, when she was shot have offered at least a partial description of the killer, and it appears others also may have offered help. But Tiffany Woods is hoping for more.
Woods is coordinator of the Fremont-based Tri-City Health Center's TransVision program, where Martell had been a peer advocate. Woods hired and trained her.
"We know people have seen things," she said. "We know there were a lot of people out that night, and somebody saw something, and nobody's coming forward."
She said it seems that "they're afraid to come forward for a variety of reasons," including fearing retaliation by the killer, or not wanting to interact with police.
"I don't think it's from lack of trying" that police haven't made an arrest, Woods said.
Betty Massey, Martell's mother, had a message for people.
"Just think about what his mom and sister and father are going through," Massey, who cried as she spoke of her daughter, said. "It's hard. It's an everyday memory. You don't know. It's just hard."
How to contact police
Anyone with information in Brandy Martell's murder can send the Oakland Police Department tips anonymously by texting TIP OAKLANDPD to 888777, calling the toll-free hotline at (855) 847-7247, or by calling (510) 535-4867. Tips can also be given anonymously to Crime Stoppers at (510) 777-8572. The case number is 12-020709.
People with information on the San Francisco cases can contact the SFPD homicide unit at (415) 553-1145. Those that wish to leave an anonymous tip may call (415) 575-4444 or text a tip to 847411 and type SFPD, then the message.
The case numbers are as follows: Philip DiMartino: 100 704 683; Tony "Delicious" Green: 040 922 646; Clyde "Leo" Neville: 110 620 063; Stephen Powell: 100 589 764; and Mariah Qualls: 091 257 989.