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A Girl, Her Pimp, and Her Parents

Lauren Smiley | June 21, 2013 | Story News and Features

The 17-year-old girl was hysterical, screaming into her phone at her mother: What just happened? A few feet away, her boyfriend, Calvin Sneed, lay slumped in the driver’s seat of his rented Corolla, a .40-caliber bullet hole through his forehead, the socket of his left eye crushed. The sight was more than the girl could stomach—she retched, vomit dribbling down the front of her hoodie. “They didn’t have to do him like that!” she sobbed.

The teenager—we’ll call her Alicia—was a former cheerleader, petite and pretty, with dark eyes and caramel-colored skin. She had spent much of the evening of June 3, 2012, at a hospital in the far East Bay, visiting her grandmother, who was recuperating from a stroke. Then she and her family had driven back together to Bayview Heights, a working-class neighborhood over the hill from Candlestick Park, where her parents had recently moved with her three younger brothers. But the girl and her mom and dad weren’t getting along. Even though it was after midnight, Alicia had barely walked in the door before she was texting Sneed to come pick her up and take her back to Los Angeles, her home for the past seven months. This had triggered another fight with her mother and an icy dismissal from her father, who adored her but had finally reached his breaking point: “You grown. Before you leave, turn the lights off.”

Ninety minutes later, just before 2 a.m., Sneed texted Alicia: “Come out.” The girl walked around the corner, to the intersection of Jennings Court and Meade Avenue, to meet him. From that vantage point, under the streetlights, she saw a silver SUV parked down the block with its headlights on, waiting—then it drove away. She called Sneed to warn him that something seemed strange, and as she spotted his car coming toward her, the SUV reappeared, tailing him. His street savvy was useless on the unfamiliar turf, and he was easily outmaneuvered by the other driver. As Alicia watched, the SUV pulled parallel to Sneed’s window. Whoever was inside had at least two guns. As the shooting began, Sneed lost control of the Corolla, crashing into a van parked at the top of the street.

Two hours later, around 4 a.m., SFPD inspector James Garrity was walking toward the entrance of the Bayview police station when he saw them: a couple parked at the curb. The man in the passenger’s seat was African American; the driver, Latina. They seemed to be waiting for something, or someone. He approached the car. “Are you Alicia Gilton’s parents?” he asked.

The man nodded. He was Barry Gilton, 38, a Muni driver out on disability with a back injury. The woman was Lupe Mercado, 37, his high school sweetheart and the mother of their four children. They seemed calm.

Garrity added up the facts so far. The girl was a runaway, reported missing a few days before. The boyfriend, now lying near death in San Francisco General Hospital, was older and, by the look of things, a thug and a pimp. This wasn’t his first time getting shot: One of his old bullet wounds had bits of paper money embedded in the scar tissue—he was literally made of cash. He had a tattoo on the back of his right hand that read, “If it doesn’t make dollars,” and one on his left hand that concluded, “then it doesn’t make cent.” Farther up his right arm was an image of stacks of money alongside the words “Fuck you pay me.”

“Was this prostitution related?” Garrity asked the parents.

Mercado did the talking. Alicia had been living in L.A., appearing in sex ads on the Internet. “She’s been exploited,” Mercado said over and over, Gilton nodding beside her. At 6 feet, 2 inches, and 205 pounds, he was a powerful presence. But Mercado seemed more comfortable handling herself with police. “How’d you feel if your daughter was exploited?” she asked the inspector, her voice steady but her words pleading.

“The guy who was shot—was he the one exploiting her?” Garrity continued. “Yes,” Mercado said. Later he asked where the couple had been that night. Mercado said she had been out looking for Alicia. Gilton said he had been home with their three sons.

To someone like Garrity, a 24-year veteran of the SFPD, Alicia’s story was all too common. There were countless teenagers selling sex for money around the Bay Area, many of them lost to the streets for good. What was unusual was the scene that confronted him now: two stable and seemingly loving parents camped out at a police station in one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods in the middle of the night, determined not to give up. “Most of the mothers I’ve dealt with in child exploitation cases are not good mothers,” Garrity’s fellow investigator, homicide inspector Kevin Jones, would tell Mercado a few days later. “They’re wrapped up in their own lives. Immature. Addicted. You’re not any of that.”

“I’m not perfect,” Mercado would reply.

For now, the couple just wanted to see their daughter. Garrity showed them to the room where the girl was waiting to talk to police. She had her mother’s small frame and flowing black hair. Her cheek was bruised where Sneed, she said, had smacked her on the drive up to San Francisco that morning.

But Garrity had miscalculated the situation. As soon as Alicia spotted her parents, she lost her mind, screaming at the top of her teenage lungs: “Fuck you! I don’t want to see you again! Leave!” Gilton and Mercado tried to speak, but Alicia’s tirade drowned out their words. “Get out of my life! I don’t want to see you people again! Get out!”

Clearly, something far more complicated than a young girl’s grief was at play. Mercado seemed at a loss. She turned again to Garrity, posing a question that was all but unanswerable. “What would you do,” she asked, “if it were your daughter?”

Page two: A "peaches and cream" childhood

The Friendship Village housing complex in the Fillmore—“Fillmoe” to the African Americans who can still afford to live there, “Hayes Valley” or “the Western Addition” to the gentrifiers who have all but pushed them out—is not the sort of village that you can depend on to raise your child. Bullets and break-ins are common enough that people don’t want first-floor units even if the windows are secured by iron bars. Young men shoot craps on the sidewalk, and surveillance cameras hang from the lampposts. The area is covered by three separate gang injunctions issued by the city. Barry LaPrell Gilton—known to everyone as Prell—understood the dangers intimately. His father and uncles had been in and out of prison. “The majority of his friends are dead or in the penitentiary,” one of those uncles, Wesley Gilton, says. “Prell didn’t want to go the same way we went.” But he didn’t want to abandon his community, either. He was determined to stay rooted in the place where he’d grown up without letting his kids fall prey to it.

Prell was raised mostly by his grandmothers—his mother’s mother, who lived on Steiner Street, and his dad’s mother, Flossie, on Central Avenue. In Flossie’s house, there were two rules: You had to graduate from high school, and you had to attend First Union Missionary Baptist Church on Webster Street every Sunday. “Everybody else got in trouble,” Gilton’s uncle says. “But Prell was one of the best kids that I’ve seen come up.” When he wasn’t at school, Prell was playing basketball at the Boys & Girls Club on Page Street, often with his good friend Alfonso Williams, known as Fonz, who lived a few blocks away. As Prell grew into a lanky teen and started winning trophies—he helped Mission High School take the citywide championship in 1992—he dreamed of making it to the NBA. But it didn’t work out. In the end, he stayed close to home and his pretty girlfriend, Lupe, playing briefly for City College, according to Wesley Gilton. “[Lupe’s] a sweetheart,” Wesley says. “That’s the right girl for him. It’s always been a lovey-dovey relationship. They’re two of a kind.”

Basketball kept Prell focused, but not completely out of trouble. At 20, he was caught with drugs at the corner of Grove and Divisadero; he pleaded guilty and got three years’ probation. Mercado, whose family lives in Vallejo, had her problems, too, racking up arrests for shoplifting in five counties over the years. Alicia was born in 1994, followed by three brothers in nine years. “That makes you want to change,” says Terrill Johnson, who ran in the same crowd as Prell as a teenager. “If you have kids and family, you gotta do what you gotta do. You can’t be hanging out on the corner for your whole life.”

“A lot of people regret being a father,” Wesley Gilton says, “but [Prell] didn’t. That was the great reward to him—looking out for something.” When Prell wasn’t at work—over the years, his employers included the Boys & Girls Club, the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, and the city’s Rec and Park Department—he could often be found with his kids at the jungle gym in Friendship Village or coaching their sports teams. The kids went to Catholic school (relatives helped with tuition). They always seemed well-groomed, wearing nice clothes and shoes, “looking happy,” Terrill Johnson says. “You don’t see that all the time out here.”

Prell was proud of Alicia—how smart she was, how much people liked her. Not only a cheerleader, she was also, like her father, an athlete, setting a citywide middle school record for the 200-meter dash that still stands, seven years later. London Breed, who grew up knowing Prell and now represents District 5 on the Board of Supervisors, recalls him bringing his little girl to programs at the African American Art & Culture Complex, the mural-covered community center where she was the longtime director. “People respected him,” Breed says. “He was that cool kind of dude with an easygoing, relaxed personality.” Alicia was closer to her mom, though Mercado became stricter as her daughter got older: “I [did] a lot myself as a kid, so I know how it is, and I know what’s out there,” she admitted to police. “I was kind of maybe a little too hard on her.”

Still, throughout her childhood, Alicia seemed to be thriving—“very peaches and cream,” as Mercado put it. When she was 12 or 13, she wanted to be a TV journalist, Wesley Gilton says: “They get to see the world and get a little money.” Her great-uncle thought she was a good kid, but a little spoiled: “Sometimes she’d be sweet, sometimes she’d be evil. Being the first get everything you want. She always wanted to be grown before she was grown.” Then the teenage years hit, Mercado told police, “and the body and the emotion just came.”

It’s not clear exactly when Alicia began her downward spiral, but by high school, she was clearly troubled. She seemed to be quarreling constantly—with her parents, with her classmates at Lincoln High School in the Sunset, with people in public. “Everywhere we went as a family together, people would want to fight her,” Mercado told police. She thought that a big part of the problem was her daughter’s attractiveness: “You’re the only mixed-looking girl.... The black girls, they’re going to pick out the light one, the pretty one. They’re going to fight.” One brawl left Alicia with a stab wound under her right arm. “They didn’t like the fact that not only she wasn’t scared, she just fought back,” Mercado said. At some point, the teenager developed an eating disorder—notoriously difficult to treat even if you can afford clinics and therapists—and sank into depression. Her grades fell so much that she was nearly kicked off the cheerleading squad, her father told cops. “All the teachers say that if she would have did her work, she would be a straight A student,” Prell said. “She aces all the tests. But she doesn’t do the classwork or her homework, so...”

The couple’s attempts to keep Alicia in line probably weren’t helped by their own lapses. Mercado took to “boosting” a little here and there—petty theft. In 2006, she was arrested for embezzling from the downtown Macy’s where she worked. Store security caught her making fraudulent returns to friends’ credit cards—including once, allegedly, to Prell’s. (She ended up with a misdemeanor conviction.) That December, Mercado walked out of Costco without paying for six DVDs, including two copies each of Miami Vice and Pirates of the Caribbean. “I’ve made a lot of bad choices in life,” she told cops, later pleading no contest to felony shoplifting charges. (She got 90 days in jail and three years’ probation, prosecutors say, though she seems to have served her time in a diversion program instead.) Five years later, a Stanford Shopping Center security guard caught her a few days before Christmas with a $375 dress and a $284 pair of jeans from Neiman Marcus. She pleaded to another felony, earning the same sentence as before, as well as a stay-away order from the store.

But she and Prell managed to keep her shoplifting record from their extended family, and in August 2008 their financial luck turned. Prell started working as a Muni bus driver, earning $29.52 an hour—“a good-ass fucking job,” Terrill Johnson calls it. Sometimes Prell would drive the 5-Fulton line, steering his bus past Friendship Village and honking cheerfully at his neighbors.

Yet Alicia continued to be more than her parents could handle. In the spring of her junior year, the couple tried transferring her to an alternative high school to get her grades up. They tried giving her some freedom: Prell bought her a car when she passed her driver’s test, and Mercado went with her to cannabis clubs in the city to buy medicinal pot for her depression and eating disorder. On this, some might question the mother’s judgment, but Mercado told police, “I’ve just seen how [pot] helps my daughter out. [When] she got really depressed, she would smoke and she’d be OK.... Not peaches and cream, but OK.” But nothing seemed to make much of a difference. Finally, in 2011, Alicia passed the state high school exit exam to graduate early. She talked about going to college in Southern California, maybe even UCLA. Her parents agreed that a drastic change of scenery might be just what she needed. So they sent her to live with Prell’s 25-year-old cousin, Antonio, and his family in Los Angeles.

Page three: A North Hollywood pot club

Antonio Gilton had grown up in San Francisco, idolizing Prell. But unlike his older cousin, “Lil’ Tone” had had serious run-ins with the law. Short in stature and hard of hearing from a childhood illness, he compensated by playing tough, his uncle Wesley says. “He’s a good kid, but guys would try to bully him, and he wouldn’t take no stuff. He got caught up in a whole lot of shit.” Lil’ Tone was convicted in 2007 of carrying a concealed weapon and, in 2008, of possession of crack cocaine for sale. (He was found hiding a bag containing 32 individually wrapped crack rocks during a traffic stop.) SFPD gang task force officers believed he was associated with the Central Divisadero Players (CDP), though his mother denies it. Then, in L.A., he seemed to turn his life around. He was trying to break into acting, taking classes and going to auditions. He had settled down with a girlfriend he had met in high school—she worked at an L.A.- area hospital—and had become a doting dad to their three young kids. There were few people Prell trusted more. “They were like brothers,” Wesley Gilton says.

At first, the distance seemed to be working. Alicia would visit her parents once or twice a month. Mercado and Prell were so hopeful—or naïve, or resigned—that they even let her work at the front desk of the Happy Days medical marijuana dispensary, located on an uninviting stretch in North Hollywood. The club was owned by an ex-con from San Francisco who ran another (unlicensed) dispensary, also named Happy Days, on Divisadero. A homicide cop would later scold Mercado, “You let her work at a cannabis club! Who’s gonna think that is remotely normal?”

In retrospect, this may have been the turning point. By early 2012, Alicia’s visits were becoming more sporadic. She got piercings in her nose, tongue, and navel. When she came up for Mother’s Day, she left her cell phone in Los Angeles, which made her parents wonder what she might be hiding. Another time, she called them, crying and telling Mercado that she wanted to return home. “We saw something was wrong with her,” Prell told police, “but we couldn’t figure it out.” Lil’ Tone wasn’t much help—he had come back to San Francisco for a while to help look after his girlfriend’s mother. Though Alicia was supposed to be staying with other acquaintances of her parents in L.A., she was clearly adrift and vulnerable.

Mercado was determined to find out what was going on. She started doing some detective work—“days of me, my mother, my sister not sleeping,” she explained to police. Twitter proved to be a font of information: “If you keep looking at your kid’s tweets, you’ll notice things they say...little words.” What jumped out at Mercado were Alicia’s references to herself as Princess and Miss Petite. Rifling through her daughter’s belongings, Mercado found a parking ticket with a Compton address, miles away from the pot dispensary. She checked Alicia’s bank statement and discovered transactions with Backpage, a classifieds website notorious for hosting adult ads. Cell phone records turned up a number that called Alicia repeatedly from 11 at night to 7 in the morning. When Mercado plugged that number into the Backpage site, up came her daughter’s escort page, under the name Petite.

There was no doubt in Mercado’s mind: Alicia was working as a prostitute. Weeks later, Mercado tried to describe her devastation to police, only to run out of words: “How do you think a mother feels, you know, telephone records—just—and I...” But her old neighbors in the Fillmore didn’t need to be told how she and Prell felt. Prostitution—“busting dates”—is common in a place where money is tight and self-esteem is low, where girls are bombarded with messages that being sexy is the most important thing they can offer, and where plenty of men are willing to exploit a girl’s loyalty, infatuation, and poverty for a quick hustle, says Marlene Sanchez, director of the Center for Young Women’s Development, a SoMa-based nonprofit. In San Francisco, pimps recruit from homeless shelters, group homes, and alternative high schools, often targeting girls with a history of sexual abuse, Sanchez says. “You don’t want your daughter catching AIDS, getting murdered,” Terrill Johnson says. “It makes you feel you failed as a father—‘Where did I go wrong?’”

In L.A., pimping is a gang game, with tightly controlled tracks. Alicia’s pimp, 22-year-old Calvin Sneed, was known to police as a low-level member of the Compton-based Nutty Blocc Crips. He and Alicia apparently met at the pot dispensary. She thought she was in love. She started spending nights at his place, she told police. Then, like clockwork, a month and a half into their relationship, she began appearing in online ads, offering dates in L.A. and Las Vegas. The ads, complete with explicit photos, were spotted by her Bay Area friends even before Mercado started digging around.

In a Chronicle article in which he lamented his son’s murder, Sneed’s own father made him sound like a charismatic creep. “He was a handsome guy with tattoos, knew how to dress, how to smile, and some women just fall for it,” Charles Sneed told the paper last June. He said he had been so concerned about his son’s behavior that he’d wanted to stage an intervention. When he couldn’t get help from other relatives, he wrote to Calvin instead, telling him, “You’re pimping somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister. You know, they may not like that. These people have families out there. I told him that... What else could a father do? Besides kidnapping him and putting him in a cage until his mind gets right.”

Mercado insisted to police that she had never seen Sneed or even known his name. She also told them what she thought about pimps. “There are evil people with evil ways, sick thoughts...who prey on women, prey on children.” Mercado wasn’t about to lose her daughter to that kind of man and that kind of life.

Page four: Trying to save their daughter

On May 24, 2012, Mercado and her mother drove to Los Angeles and checked in to the Embassy Suites hotel near LAX, intending to stay long enough to persuade Alicia to come back home or to help police find her pimp and lock him up. Predictably, the meeting with Alicia was a disaster. “When Alicia saw her [mother], she went crazy on her,” Prell Gilton would tell the cops. She yelled at Mercado, “You’re making it harder on me!” and stormed out. Three nights later, on May 27, Sneed came to pick up Alicia after work.

As he was sitting outside the pot club, someone pulled alongside him and shot into his car, shattering a window, glass shards grazing his skin. Alicia later told police that whoever had shot him must have known where she worked and what time she got off. Mercado denied having anything to do with the attack, and Prell said he hadn’t been in L.A., but according to prosecution experts, cell phone towers handling calls from the couple that night placed both of them in the area.

Even now, after witnessing firsthand the danger that she might be in, Alicia wasn’t ready to leave Sneed’s side. At the advice of relatives in law enforcement, Mercado contacted the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and listed Alicia as a runaway, hoping that police might succeed where she and Prell had thus far failed. Mercado and her mother also drove to authorities in Culver City and Compton and reported Alicia missing, bringing along a stack of evidence that they had uncovered. Jeanette Rubio, a sheriff ’s deputy in Compton who took the June 1 report, testified that Mercado seemed upset but hopeful: “Her eyes were getting watery. You could see the frustration.” Mercado, though, told San Francisco police that she had felt jerked around—“I gave this to them and nobody did nothing.”

SFPD sergeant Gary Watts later suggested to Mercado that, while he couldn’t vouch for his colleagues in L.A., police and prosecutors in San Francisco would have vigorously pursued her leads and brought her daughter’s pimp to justice: “You put together an amazing case file!” he told her. But to her old neighbors in the Fillmore, that assertion was disingenuous at best. Pimps are rarely convicted in San Francisco, in part because prostitutes are reluctant to testify. District Attorney George Gascón’s office acknowledges having prosecuted only 10 to 20 pimps in the past five years.

The feeling of futility was compounded by Prell’s sense that the police were never going to truly be on his side. He had spent his whole life rejecting the example set by his father and uncles and trying to be a law-abiding citizen and a decent man, says his aunt Doris Gilton. But he believed that the cops saw all the Giltons as troublemakers. It infuriated him that any group of black men from the neighborhood who hung out together—even middle-aged buddies playing hoops and pinochle—were suspected of being in a gang. Over the years, he had had a series of minor run-ins with cops, sometimes while out with his friends, that had left him feeling persecuted, as if the police were always trying to catch him doing something wrong or goad him into lashing out so that they could confirm their preconceptions of him, Doris says. Around police, the good-natured guy who was a local hero for the way he took care of his family and mentored less fortunate kids could become defensive, even belligerent. “[Prell] wouldn’t tell [cops] anything—‘Are you through? Is there something you’re going to take me to jail for? Are you charging me with something?’” Doris recalls.

That suspicion and resentment were mirrored throughout the Giltons’ community, festering like an infected wound. “When we tell the officials what we need down here, they tell us bullshit,” says an old neighbor, Cliffton Hyson. “That’s what [Alicia’s parents] got: bullshit. There’s no one from the outside world that gives a damn about us most of the time—so we take matters into our own hands. Most of us don’t trust the law to do the right thing because the law doesn’t give you anything to trust.”

On June 3, a couple of days after Mercado and her mother returned to San Francisco, Alicia came home on her own. Sneed had driven her and another of his girls up from L.A., and Alicia had been calling her parents along the way. Sneed dropped her off at the family’s new place, near Candlestick, around 4 p.m. She had an ugly mark on her face. She was “underdressed.... She looked unhealthy, like there were some issues,” Mercado told police. “When it’s your child, you know before they know.”

The same night, Lil’ Tone Gilton was in San Francisco, at an alcohol-blazed birthday party in a Fairmont hotel suite with his and Prell’s close friend Alfonso “Fonz” Williams. Six feet tall and model handsome, Williams had also been a top-ranked basketball player in the early 1990s, leading Balboa High’s hardscrabble team to the city championship and earning the city’s player-of-the-year award two seasons in a row. He won an athletic scholarship to Kentucky Wesleyan, but after an apparent injury, he returned to San Francisco, eventually playing on the Fillmore’s pro-am Dream Team, coached by his uncle Dean Maye, a former Balboa coach and a local hoops legend in his own right. Williams could often be found at the Grove Street home of his grandmother, Gloria Maye, a neighborhood matriarch; her rainbow-striped house has hosted many a soul food barbecue over the years. More recently, the house has served as an Election Day polling place and an informal rec center, with a bar and a table where Williams, Prell, and Lil’ Tone sometimes played cards. According to the SFPD’s gang task force, it has also been a gathering place for the Central Divisadero Players, alleged—among other things—to be pimping outside Broadway strip clubs and in seedy Lombard Street hotels. And Williams, who wore snazzy clothes and had a flashy girlfriend, was high on the SFPD’s list of suspected CDP members. In recent years, for reasons that authorities will not disclose, the FBI installed surveillance cameras to monitor the comings and goings around the Grove Street house. At approximately 1 a.m. on June 4, those cameras captured Williams, Prell, and Lil’ Tone arriving at the house in separate cars. In a video shown in court this spring, Williams opens his girlfriend’s TrailBlazer’s door and removes what police say is a gun. He gets into the passenger seat of Lil’ Tone’s rented silver Hyundai Tucson SUV. Prell takes the driver’s seat, Lil’ Tone climbs into the back, and they disappear.

Page five: A SWAT team descends

A little while later, Mercado would call Prell’s phone, which by then— according to police affidavits—was pinging off cell towers in the Bayview. At almost precisely that moment, their daughter was leaving the house to meet her pimp. A few minutes after that, Sneed was dying, Alicia was screaming, and, police say, Prell was on his way to the Western Addition to retrieve his car before heading home, where, he would later insist to authorities, he had been all night.

Around 8 A.M. on Saturday, June 9, members of the SFPD’s SWAT team burst into the Jennings Court house and arrested Alicia’s parents. The cops searched the house top to bottom, finding no guns or ammo but confiscating three computers, three iPads, a binder of evidence that Mercado had collected, and, from a nightstand in the master bedroom, a Bible dog-eared at the story of Joseph. They were especially interested in a passage that seemed to be about avenging the harm done to innocent children: “[T]herefore, behold, also his blood is required....”

Williams was arrested a few weeks later, at a Fairfield gas station on his way home from a July 4 barbecue. Lil’ Tone was taken into custody the same day, on Grove Street. Police discovered two shell casings at Williams’s grandmother’s house. In the rec room, they also found what appeared to be Prell’s, Fonz’s, and Lil’ Tone’s names scribbled on a wall alongside those of alleged CDP members, buttressing their belief that the three men were CDP associates. “We have, frankly, people...who have been involved in gangs, who have a prior history of violence,” D.A. Gascón told reporters. “This is not like some person who’s never been involved in a criminal act and gets overcome by passion.... This is a case where you had...a lot of premeditation with people...who are accustomed to doing things in a very violent way.”

Although there are no formal gang charges in the case, the CDP allegations surfaced during the defendants’ preliminary hearing on first-degree murder and conspiracy charges this spring. More than almost anything else during the four weeks of testimony, onlookers found the gang idea outrageous. They showed up every day, a rotating group of 15 or so people connected by blood or neighborhood to the Giltons, Mercado, and Williams. Lil’ Tone’s father, Big Tone, full of street charm even in middle age, greeted women he recognized with “Hey, baby!” Lil’ Tone’s mom wore her SFMTA meter maid uniform, showing off cell phone pictures of her son, his girlfriend, and their three kids in front of a Christmas tree. Williams’s uncle Dean proudly recounted his nephew’s exploits on the court. “How would we have jobs to go to if we were all gangbangers?” Williams’s aunt scoffed. “If you’re two or more black people standing together, they’re gonna think you’re a gang,” Terrill Johnson echoed later. “You can’t hang out with your family and friends you grew up with.”

As to whether the defendants are guilty or innocent, the spectators were more cautious. “I don’t believe in my heart that they did it,” Big Tone said. But from the whispers in the courtroom and the hallways, it was clear that guilt or innocence was almost beside the point. Mercado’s statement—“What would you do if it were your daughter”—reverberates in their community in a way that parents in other parts of the city can never fully understand.

Equally resonant was inspector Kevin Jones’s statement to Mercado during her interrogation: “One thing I really hate about this job is when I see good people turn into the bad people.” Over and over, that’s what their friends and relatives say: Prell and Lupe and Fonz and Lil’ Tone are decent, caring people. They don’t deserve to spend the rest of their lives in jail. On the day of her arrest, Mercado told cops, “You have no control. You sit and wait, and everything snowballs. So what me and Barry have to do is sit and wait until everything falls down and settles.”

They will have to wait until at least September just to find out when their trial will take place—perhaps later this fall, perhaps next year. Meanwhile, Mercado and Gilton are in separate jails; their three boys are living with her extended family in San Francisco and Vallejo. Doris and Wesley say they aren’t sure where Alicia is living, but they’ve heard she has a job. It’s unclear whether she’ll be called to testify against her parents—she is, after all, the only witness to the shooting—and, if so, whether she’ll cooperate. “She’s just a kid,” her lawyer says. “This is a really difficult situation for her. I hope [prosecutors and the court] don’t make it any worse than it has to be. It’s her parents they’re after, and she loves her parents, and her parents love her.”

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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