John McLaren Park has long been considered a good place to dump a body. The 312-acre open space was, for decades, left largely wild and untouched, with rolling, overgrown hills covered in dense blackberry bushes and tall fennel plants. In 2006, the remains of five-month-old Camille Ferguson were found hidden in dense brush in the park. Gardeners discovered body parts belonging to 32-year-old Omar Sharif Allah in 2009, two years after he was reported missing. And Jonathan Caballero, 18, was shot and killed in the park in early 2015.
So when the city dedicated nearly $12 million to McLaren Park improvements a few months after Caballero’s death, neighbors breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, the long-neglected park would get some attention. Local politicians — Districts 9, 10, and 11 border McLaren — boasted it would be a destination to rival Golden Gate Park.
Construction crews spent months repaving pathways with the first $200,000 the city dished out. It was off one of these newly renovated paths — which led from Woolsey Street in the Portola to Louis Sutter Playground — that a gardener, working the early shift on the morning of April 8, 2016, came across a large piece of wood resting in the dirt behind a clump of ivy-covered bushes. It had an odd, silver character painted on it, and it looked like construction scrap. But when they lifted it up, they found the small body of a woman underneath, curled up in a shallow grave.
The discovery closed the door on a week-old missing person case. Nicole “Nikki” Fitts hadn’t been seen or heard from since April 1, after she left her house in the Bayview to meet someone and never returned home.
But the gruesome discovery of Nikki’s body raised another terrible question: Where was her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Arianna?
It’s been more than two years since the story of a missing single mom turned into a brutal homicide and kidnapping case. It remains unsolved. In the beginning, the San Francisco Police Department’s homicide, special victims, and missing persons divisions rallied together for a widely publicized hunt for the killer and kidnapper — who it seemed obvious to anyone who learned details of the story — were probably one and the same.
But as the investigation extended for weeks, and then months, the city’s interest began to cool. As the Fitts family frantically searched for Arianna, deep cracks were splitting the SFPD apart. After a number of fatal officer-involved shootings, and a weeks-long protest by the Frisco Five, Police Chief Greg Suhr was under immense pressure to resign. The media shifted their attention elsewhere, and the story of Nikki’s death and Arianna’s disappearance faded from the headlines.
Arianna turns five in September, the age when most kids start going to school. Her bright face and apple-cheeked expression may not have changed all that much, yet. If there were ever a time to push for a fresh commitment to the case, it’s now, before all we have left of the little girl everyone fell in love with as soon as they met her is an FBI-issued age progression sketch.
Nikki Fitts was the middle child, but everyone thought of her as the youngest. Petite and naive, her younger sister Contessa — who goes by Tess — often teased her.
“A lot of times, I felt like Nikki was my little sister,” she says. “I picked on her. She was always shy.”
There were three Fitts sisters growing up; Kathryn was the oldest, then came Nikki, and Tess last. Raised by a single mom, they hopped around Southern California, finally settling in Culver City, near Marina Del Rey.
From an early age, Nikki developed a deep desire to help people around her.
“She loved school and wanted to be a teacher. She was quite the teacher’s pet,” Tess says. “I’m sure I made fun of her for that.”
From the get-go, Nikki seemed to be setting herself up for success. When she was a teenager, Nikki volunteered at the Culver Slauson Recreation Center. She spent so much time there that in 1999, when she was 15, she received an award for her work from the City of Los Angeles. In photos, she’s shown beaming shyly, wearing a black dress and a child-like white headband.
“With anything that Nikki did, she always found a way to do more,” Tess says. “She looked out for the people around and did her best to make sure no one went without. She was very sensitive.”
The Fitts sisters’ mom died when all three girls were teenagers. Despite being split up among various caretakers, they remained close.
“We always managed to find each other,” Tess says.
The bond continued into adulthood, and in 2012, Tess, her girlfriend Clare Bonnar, and Nikki settled in a small place in Pacifica — the closest they could afford to get to San Francisco. By this time, Nikki had a daughter, Sendy. Everyone was excited about the future; Bonnar managed to find bunk beds for free on Craigslist, which they crammed into her Prius for Nikki and Sendy.
But the reality of living in the Bay Area was rougher than they’d expected. Nikki became pregnant with Arianna and fell behind on rent. The trio lived paycheck-to-paycheck, and after a couple months of barely making ends meet, they decided it was too hard to keep the apartment. Tess and Bonnar moved south to the Santa Cruz area, and Nikki, who wanted to stay near S.F., ended up in a homeless shelter for women. Sendy went back to Southern California to live with her dad.
It was at the shelter that Nikki got involved with a self-described evangelical “street pastor,” Lemasani Briggs, who invited Nikki to live with her. In the beginning, it seemed like a good situation; Nikki got a job at Best Buy, and she was grateful to be out of the shelter. She paid Briggs rent, on top of money for watching Arianna while she was at work.
But after a couple months the prices began to fluctuate.
“I assume she switched babysitters because she started to realize that she was being taken advantage of,” Tess says.
Nikki shifted childcare responsibilities to Briggs’ nieces, sisters Siolo and Helena Hearne. Siolo, an Uber driver, lived with a roommate in Emeryville. Helena, whose married name was Martin, lived with her husband Devin and their children in a small house in Oakland.
Bonnar was skeptical of the new arrangement.
“She told me, ‘Yeah, these are Lemasani’s nieces, but they’re not really on good terms, so I’m not afraid. I know they don’t really talk to each other, so I feel like I can trust them,’ ” Bonnar says.
She pleaded with Nikki to find someone outside of Briggs’s family, but affordable childcare was hard to come by. As Nikki deviated Arianna’s care away from Lemasani, the living situation only got more toxic. Her rent, which she had been paying Briggs along with babysitting fees, suddenly skyrocketed. Soon, all of Nikki’s income from working part-time at Best Buy was going to Briggs. And there were other red flags: Nikki had never been given a key to the apartment, and could only get in if someone was home.
After a few months, Tess and Bonnar caught on to what was rapidly becoming an abusive relationship.
“Nikki started sending me text messages that Lemasani was sending to her, calling her names and being disgusting,” Tess says. “She mentioned something about Nikki seeing some guy, and Nikki said the only way she would have known that is if she went through her stuff. She had some sort of journal on her computer.”
In the end, it was Tess and Bonnar who stepped in. On a cold November morning in 2015, they drove the 60 miles up to San Francisco, called SFPD for backup in case things got ugly, picked up Nikki and Arianna from Briggs’ house, and drove them back down to Santa Cruz.
Nikki had escaped, but the harassing text messages didn’t stop.
Lemasani “started sending Nikki these texts, saying, ‘Bring my baby back here,’ ” Tess says.
At this point, Nikki was commuting more than two hours each way from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, trying to hold onto her job at Best Buy. She crashed on friends’ sofas during the week, and left Arianna with Helena or Siolo when she was at work — often working overtime, and taking overnight shifts. At the same time, she was fighting for custody of Sendy, who Child Protective Services had taken away from her dad in Southern California. Nikki would spend her days off traveling to L.A. for court cases.
“She was definitely determined to take care of her kid,” Tess says.
It was a difficult period, but Nikki kept much of the struggle to herself. Her friend Michael Jacobo, who she met at work, only found out she was homeless when he noticed her hanging around in the break room at work for hours after her shift was over.
“She would go about her business like nothing was happening,” he said. “But after work she started staying around longer and longer, sometimes until closing time. She was going through so much, but she would hide things. I wish she would have opened up a little more.”
He asked if she wanted to split a Lyft ride home one evening, and it was only once they arrived at his house that Nikki broke down, confessing that she didn’t have anywhere to go.
“Think of her strength, not having a place to live, handing your daughter over to a caregiver, barely seeing her, and still going down to L.A. to get Sendy back. It was astounding,” Jacobo says. “But she held it together as best she could, and when things started getting better, it was a relief. I mean, thank goodness.”
Key to things getting better was Goyette Williams, a coworker at Best Buy who offered Nikki a place to stay. Best of all, Arianna was welcome, too. Nikki was overjoyed, and began preparing to bring her home. She bought a small child’s bed, and presents for her “butterfly” — the nickname she’d given Arianna.
“She would buy little things here or there, anytime she would see something,” Jacobo said. “Buying presents for other people was her way of celebrating.”
But as Nikki’s life leveled out, a nagging problem began to grow. The babysitters, Helena and Siolo, appeared to be reluctant to return the toddler. Nikki contacted them in mid-March, saying she was ready to come pick up Arianna, and they told her they’d taken her to Disneyland, a fact that frustrated Nikki, as she hadn’t been given a heads-up.
As was her style, Nikki kept much of this struggle to herself. Tess and Bonnar say they hadn’t seen Arianna since February. Ever-private, no one knows how long it had been since Nikki saw her daughter before she was killed.
April 1 was a fairly normal day. Nikki went to work at Best Buy and had planned to spend the evening with Bonnar, who was in San Francisco interviewing for a job. When Bonnar canceled their plans, Nikki went out with Jacobo instead. They went to the mall, shopping for clothes for Jacobo’s new gig. Toward the end of the evening, Nikki asked if they could pick up a pie from Pizza Hut to take home to Williams. Spotting a 7-Eleven nearby, she took the opportunity to withdraw several hundred dollars, although didn’t tell Jacobo what it was for.
When she got home, Nikki and Williams began watching a movie. Halfway through, she received a phone call. She told her roommate she was meeting someone at BJ’s restaurant, but she’d be back shortly to finish the movie.
Williams woke up the next morning to an empty house. An odd text message had come in from Nikki in the middle of the night, saying that she was heading to Fresno with a friend named Sam. Williams had never heard of a Sam, and found the message confusing; Nikki didn’t have a car.
It wasn’t the only message sent that night. A Facebook post from Nikki at 1:13 a.m. on April 2 said, “Spending time with my 3 year old need this brake.” It was a strange note; Nikki was fanatical about grammar and spelling, and Arianna was two-and-a-half, not three.
She didn’t show up for work the next day, or the day after that. Williams and Jacobo got worried, and when Tess and Bonnar found out, they panicked.
“How does it go from ‘I’m going to BJs’ to ‘I’m now in Fresno’?” Tess says. “The only thing I could think of is, according to Michael, before she went home she did withdraw some money. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were like, ‘Give us the money you owe us and we’ll bring you your kid.’ I’m assuming she thought that’s what she’s going to do.
“She’s so naive,” Tess adds, in frustration. “Why would you need to meet at this burger shop? She was naive and hopeful that if she just did what they asked, it would all be over.”
Tess and Bonnar immediately headed to San Francisco, and Kathryn flew up from San Diego. They filed a missing persons report with SFPD, but as Nikki was over 18, they couldn’t do much. The family didn’t give up.
Tess “was trying to solve the case by herself, she had her phone and her laptop,” Jacobo says. “Her diligence was astounding.”
The family followed every lead they could, going through Nikki’s Facebook page and contacting friends.
“It took me a few days to start suspecting the babysitters,” says Tess. “It didn’t dawn on me that they could have something to do with this. But then it clicked: What is the missing link in all of this? It’s them. So many people commented on the missing post about Nikki and Arianna, and not once did they. You’re the ones who spend the most time with Arianna, you should be the first ones to be concerned if she’s nowhere to be seen.”
Tess and Bonnar went to the police, but they had almost no information on Helena or Siolo aside from their names, which they’d only recognized after scrolling through Nikki’s list of Facebook friends. Bonnar requested to be friends with Siolo on Facebook, and she accepted. But when she sent a message asking if Siolo had seen Nikki or Arianna, she didn’t get a response. Luckily, a few months prior they’d driven Nikki and Arianna to Oakland for an early-morning drop-off at Helena’s house. No one answered the door, so they continued on to Siolo’s in Emeryville.
“It ended up being great that we did that that day, because we had no information on these people,” Tess says. “When we were trying to figure out what was going on we had nothing. The only thing I remembered was that Helena lived by the Greyhound station [in Oakland]. We took a drive over there and we recognized the house.”
Tess handed the address over to the police.
And then, a week after Nikki had disappeared, Tess and Kathryn got a call from one of the detectives on the case saying they had fresh information. Tess was overjoyed — finally they’d get some answers. But when the sisters arrived at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco, they were told that Nikki’s body had been found. Bonnar arrived minutes later.
“It was really blindsiding,” Bonnar says. “It was awful. Just unbelievable. I think that they mentioned that she had been found, and we all just knew. I mean, at that point…”
“Yesterday, on April 8, Nicole was found deceased as a victim of a homicide,” stated a press release from SFPD, sent to the media April 9, 2016. “Due to the sensitive nature of this investigation and information continuously developing, we cannot disclose further details on how she was located. Her daughter Arianna has not been seen since late February, and is considered at-risk due to her young age and suspicion of foul play.”
The hunt for the killer and kidnapper was on.
In the beginning, the case looked good. Police tracked down surveillance footage shot near the park and interviewed Nikki’s friends and coworkers. Search warrants were issued for Siolo’s home in Emeryville, Helena’s home in Oakland. There was no sign of Arianna, but it came to light that Helena had served six years in prison for killing the father of her two-year-old child when she was 18.
SFPD told the media that the Hearne sisters were “uncooperative” in the investigation and provided “inconsistent statements.” Helena hired criminal attorney Darryl Stallworth to represent her.
A few weeks into the homicide investigation, SFPD turned to the public for help. A photo of the board that was found covering Nikki’s body was circulated to the press and shared widely.
“The plywood has spray-painted markings on it which we hope someone will recognize,” Commander Greg McEachern said at a press conference a few weeks after Fitts’ body was found. “These markings may be construction-related or even graffiti, but it is our hope someone will recognize them.
“We are confident that Arianna was in the care of a couple of individuals,” McEachern added. “I think she’s still in the Bay Area and I think she’s still alive.”
For a month, police investigated leads and the media chased down Nikki’s friends, families, and the suspects. But by the time May rolled around, it appeared that nothing was panning out. On May 18, at a large press conference, Best Buy issued a $10,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of Arianna. By then Suhr was involved.
“The day that the reward from Best Buy was announced we met with the chief of police,” Tess says. “He stepped down the next day.”
The year that Nikki’s body was found, SFPD had a 71-percent homicide solve rate — higher than the national average. And yet today, this case remains unsolved, and Arianna is still missing.
According to the Black and Missing Foundation, 37 percent of people under 18 who were reported missing nationwide in 2016 were African American. The National Crime Information Center lists the number at 170,899.
The Fitts case got a fair amount of media play, all things considered, though it’s unlikely there would have been a response at all from the press if a homicide didn’t precede the missing-child case. But the case was competing for SFPD’s attention — one day before Nikki was found, officers shot and killed Luis Gongora Pat in the Mission District. Six weeks later, officers shot and killed Jessica Williams in the Bayview, who they suspected in an auto burglary. The department’s credibility was disintegrating, and as the number of people killed at SFPD’s hands rose, the LA Times, Newsweek, and NPR ran national stories about the force’s penchant for violence.
More than two years later, little progress appears to have been made in the case. In March 2017, SFPD notified the press that they’d searched a vehicle, which Tess and Bonnar believe was Helena’s.
“We’ve authored a bunch of search warrants in both California and in other states,” McEachern said at the time. “We’ve towed a vehicle that we believe may be tied to the crime, and we’re making some unbelievable strides in the case.”
But in the 15 months since then, SFPD has released no further information on the case.
“We have no updates,” Public Information Officer Michael Andraychak told SF Weekly after we spent weeks trying to track down new information.
SF Weekly reached out to both Hearne sisters, and Briggs, all three of whom still live in the Bay Area. None responded to our requests for an interview.
The Fitts family said goodbye to Nikki on the ocean near Marina del Rey. With the help of Victims of Violent Crimes, which paid for all the funeral proceedings, they had her ashes placed in a salt urn that dissolved as it sank. As they dropped the urn off the side of the boat, they scattered flower petals onto the water.
And then, something amazing happened. One of the crewmembers gave a shout, and the mourners looked up from the spot where Nikki’s remains had disappeared to see dolphins, everywhere.
“They were alongside the boat, in front of the boat, jumping near us,” Tess says.
“Most of the time when you think of dolphins you just imagine gray ones, but these were gorgeous,” Bonnar says. “They had patterns all over them.”
The crewmember, who spends his life out on the ocean, told them he’d never seen so many dolphins at once, so close to one of his boats.
But in the years since, each day drags as Tess, Bonnar and Jacobo try to figure out what happened to their sister and friend, and where her daughter may be.
“It never leaves you,” Jacobo says. “Is today going to be the day I get the phone call and hear they made an arrest, or get a call that they found Arianna? I wait every day. And I just get nothing.”
From SFPD: If you see Arianna, call 911 immediately. If you have information on Arianna’s whereabouts or anything related to the homicide of Nikki contact the SFPD Homicide Unit at 415-553-1145, the SFPD Anonymous Tip Line at 415-575-4444, or text a tip to TIP 411 with SFPD at the beginning of the message, or visit sanfranciscopolice.org/tip.