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San Francisco prosecutors will seek a retrial in bondage and poppers killing of gay man

Steven Eriq Escalon Gay stylist murdered by James Rickleffs mugshot
facebook @inmemoryoferiqescalon; SFPD

An appeals court overturned the convictions last year.

Prosecutors in San Francisco said they will proceed with a new trial for James Rickleffs after his convictions for the 2012 bondage and poppers murder and robbery of gay hairstylist Steven “Eriq” Escalon were overturned by an appellate court last year, according to the Bay Area Reporter.

Rickleffs, 57, was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison in 2019 after a jury found him guilty of killing and robbing Escalon in his Diamond Heights apartment in the early morning of June 12, 2012, hours after the pair met at a bar in The Castro. He was found dead later that morning bound and gagged, with a drug-laced scarf stuffed into his mouth.

Toxicological reports showed he died from an overdose of amyl nitrates and gamma-hydroxybutyric acid, better known as poppers and GBH respectively. Other than abrasions where he was bound, he reportedly suffered no noticeable injuries.

California’s fifth division of the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned those convictions last October, citing a lack of established intent to commit murder as well as questions about the laboratory’s toxicological results and lack of raw supporting data in its report.

In the decision written by Justice Mark B. Simons, the court reduced the first-degree murder conviction to manslaughter and gave prosecutors the choice of accepting the conviction on the lesser charge or retrying Rickleffs again for first-degree murder. The robbery conviction was reduced to petty theft, with the option for prosecutors to retry on the original charge and conviction.

Randy Quezada, San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkin’s communications director said they were “ready to proceed” with a retrial in an email to BAR earlier this week.

Rickleffs, who reportedly identified as straight, claimed Escalon was a willing participant and that he was paid to take photos of a bound Escalon. He said the death of Escalon was an accident, and that he only stole the laptop because he panicked and wanted to hide evidence of their activities together.

According to evidence presented at the trial, the two men met at an underwear night at the 440 Catro bar in The Castro. The pair returned to Escalon’s home early in the morning of June 12. At some point that morning, prosecutors said Rickleffs used zip ties and duct tape to secure a clothed Escalon to a chair, and stuffed a scarf soaked with poppers into his mouth and over his face, with duct tape over his mouth as well. Escalon was also wrapped about the head and body in a blanket.

Rickleffs stole a laptop and checkbook belonging to Escalon and a bank card from Escalon’s roommate before fleeing the scene. He was arrested by police later that day on an unrelated incident. Police found the stolen items in his possession at the time of his arrest.

Escalon was discovered later that morning by his roommates who called authorities. First responders found Escalon non-responsive when they arrived at the scene. They performed CPR but declared Escalon dead a short time later.

Luke Rodda, the chief forensic toxicologist for the medical office, testified at the trial that the levels of drugs in Escalon’s system would likely have left him “feeling lightheaded” with “decreased motor functioning” but still awake. But he also said that the scarf laced with poppers stuffed into and covering his mouth for a prolonged period could lead to a fatal overdose.

The jurors later said they did not believe Rickleffs intended to kill Escalon, but that the totality of his actions led to the young man’s death.

“He walked out the door and left him to die,” one juror said after the conviction in 2019. “That was a substantial factor in his death.”

Quezada told BAR he expects the request to be addressed in court on March 15.

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