It only took a jury two days to reach a verdict in the 2012 death of 28-year-old hairdresser Eriq Escalon. On Monday afternoon, they announced they’d found 52-year-old James Rickleffs guilty of murder, robbery, burglary and petty theft. The case’s conclusion — nearly seven years after Escalon’s murder — offers a much-needed piece of closure for his friends and family, many of whom filled the courtroom during the weeks-long trial.
The case was complicated, with time weakening some of the evidence and witness statements. But Escalon appears to have met James Rickleffs, who was more than 20 years his senior, at 440 Castro, a gay bar, one night in June 2012. The pair left together, and Escalon withdrew $100 from an ATM before they hailed a cab to his Diamond Heights apartment. Rickleffs appears to have spent the night, but left before Escalon’s roommate came home around 6 p.m. It was then that Escalon’s body was discovered in bed, his mouth gagged with a rag and his arms bound with zip ties.
Rickleffs was charged with the crime several weeks later.
During the trial, the defense argued the death was accidental, and that Rickleffs didn’t know what he was doing, panicking and fleeing the apartment when he realized Escalon had passed out. Both sides scrutinized innumerable details in the case — from the cause of death to an analysis of Escalon’s character — over the five-week trial. But one detail that may have swayed jurors was the steadfast support of Escalon’s friends and family, who appeared in court every day. Escalon’s mother, Esmeralda, commuted in each week from Fresno; a GoFundMe campaign raised more than $2,700 to help support her hotels and travel fees.
And the experience of sitting through the trial was far from easy. Within the first couple hours of opening statements, a large photo of her son’s dead body was projected on a screen for the jury. That first day, nearly everyone on Escalon’s side of the courtroom cried.
“He’s not who they say he is,” a tearful Esmeralda Escalon told SF Weekly after opening statements were done. “He wasn’t perfect, but he’s not who they’re making him look like. He had a beautiful soul.”
So when news came in Monday that a verdict had been reached, it wasn’t surprising that entire right-hand side of the room was packed, even on short notice.
Four of the friends who left work to attend the verdict reading were people who’d met Escalon 10 years before his death, when they were all members of Concord’s award-winning drum and bugle corps group The Blue Devils. Escalon joined as a teenager, quickly developing friendships that lasted the rest of his life.
“He was 100-percent confident in himself and who he was,” says Gio De Torres, who was a captain of Blue Devils. “He was openly gay, he knew it. He was proud, and I loved him for it. He was a breath of fresh air. We were friends instantaneously.”
Sarah Cartmill Odello joined the same year as Escalon.
“I met Eriq when he was 17 and I was 19, in the Blue Devil drum corps. We were both so green and so nervous,” she tells SF Weekly. “Eriq, especially, so desperately wanted to be good.”
Escalon had auditioned and won a spot in the corps, which was an achievement in itself, but he wasn’t immediately a star. Gio remembers how hard he worked to improve.
“Some people are naturals and have the talent and the skill,” he says. “For Eriq he had it, but it took a lot of work.”
Gio and his now-wife Isleen took Escalon under their wing. He was younger than they were, but they were charmed by the young guy who commuted all the way to Concord from Fresno.
“He’d come up to the Bay Area for the summers, and during our camps he’d stay with me,” Isleen says. “He was one of the most genuine, kindest people I’d ever met. He would drop whatever he was doing to help you.”
The Blue Devil friends all stayed in touch after they aged out of the corps. Escalon moved to San Francisco and began working toward his goal of being a celebrity hairdresser, sending money home to his mom and younger siblings when he was able. At the time of his death, he worked at Metamorphosis Salon, but had goals to move to L.A. to open his own salon, and to eventually expand to New York and London. He even had a name for it: LA QUA.
His dogged commitment to achieving his goals meant his sudden death shook the group, deeply. They set up a scholarship fund to the Blue Devils in his name, and rallied around his family. But in the years since, all of them have struggled to get a sense of closure, knowing that the trial was still on the horizon.
“We were like, ‘What is actually going on here?’ ” Cartmill Odello says about the more than six years it took for the trial to begin. “You move on with you life, but we’d check in with each other. I still don’t understand what the holdup was. It’s awful for the family of the person who’s been lost.”
By the time the trial finally rolled around, in February of this year, many of Escalon’s Blue Devil friends had married and had children. It wasn’t easy to make it to court every day, but one of the crew — Roberto Tiscareno — went regularly, and texted them all updates. It was harder than they anticipated, as the defense’s opening statements depicted an Escalon they didn’t recognize, which the media then ran stories about.
“Seeing your friend being painted in a light completely opposite of what he was to people was hard,” Cartmill Odello says. “He wasn’t into BDSM, and he was a very open person, it wasn’t something that he would have shied away of sharing. I also can’t imagine Eriq soliciting someone to take pictures. It’s so ridiculous. It was really hard to swallow. We just focused on the trial.”
When the verdict was reached on Monday, the De Torreses and Cartmill Odello left work to attend. It was the first time any of them had seen James Rickleffs, the defendant, in person.
“That was really tough,” Isleen says. “I couldn’t help but think he took Eriq from all of us. It made me anxious.”
Cartmill Odello had a different reaction. “It was a very visceral feeling of anger that came over me,” she says.
Rickleffs will be sentenced at a later date. And although the verdict was one they were all hoping for, it’s bittersweet.
“It’s been so long. When a friend passes it feels like they’re on a vacation after a while,” says Cartmill Odello. “We miss him all the time. We’re happy for the verdict but we’d be happier if things were completely different.”
Gio agrees. He and Isleen have photos of Eriq on display in their house and talk about him often with their children. It’s important, they both said, that they knew who he was, and how much he mattered to their parents. But the whole experience has been agonizing.
“When they announced the verdict, it was — I don’t want to say painful — but there’s an emotional pain to it,” Gio says. “The reality setting in that this is closing, but it’s not bringing him back. There’s no reward for our community.”