News photographers packed the courtroom and spectators snapped photos with their cellphones Wednesday as Alix Catherine Tichelman of Folsom faced charges that she injected a Google executive with a lethal heroin overdose on his luxury yacht and then left without summoning help.
The long lenses zoomed in to capture every move of the woman who described herself on Twitter as a model, stylist, exotic dancer and hustler, and who police say was a high-priced prostitute who bragged of having 200 clients.
Amid the spectacle, the young woman’s father, Folsom technology executive Bart Tichelman, and her mother and sister sat quietly as Tichelman entered a not guilty plea on multiple charges related to the death of Forrest Hayes, 51, whom authorities described as one of her most loyal clients.
Tichelman, 26, wore a red jail smock and kept her head down. Metal handcuffs clasped her wrists just above her floral tattoos and an inked message on her forearm: “Till Death do us part.”
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Tichelman is charged with eight felony and misdemeanor counts, including manslaughter, prostitution, destruction of evidence and transportation of narcotics as a result of the Nov. 23 heroin overdose of Hayes, a Google executive and married father of five who worked on the Google Glass project and previously worked at Apple and Sun Microsystems.
The case – with its elements of sex, wealth, drugs and an alleged femme fatale – has grabbed media headlines worldwide and has underscored the immense wealth of Silicon Valley and the ready availability of sex for sale in the Internet age.
Prosecutors have portrayed Tichelman, who was arrested July 4, as a call girl and heroin user who injected Hayes with a lethal dose as they partied on his yacht, the Escape, which was docked in Santa Cruz Harbor. They say Hayes collapsed and lost consciousness as Tichelman coldly gathered up evidence, stepped over his body and finished a glass of wine before leaving.
Outside the courtroom Wednesday, defense attorneys portrayed Tichelman as a vulnerable young woman caught up in a media firestorm. They argued that she had an ongoing relationship with Hayes and intended him no harm during their fatal liaison.
Court-appointed defense lawyer Larry Biggam said a tragedy that resulted in the death of Hayes has been inflated into a sinister crime that authorities are wrongly pinning on Tichelman.
“To demonize and sensationalize and totally blame Alix Tichelman for his death is totally unfair,” Biggam said. “These people were involved in mutual drug use and a consensual affair.”
He said Tichelman felt a close connection with the technology executive. “She appreciated his generosity and wanted to continue the relationship,” Biggam said. “All I am saying is there was no intention to injure or harm I see no intent to kill. I see no disregard for Mr. Hayes’ life.”
Heightening media interest in the case, Hayes’ death has prompted authorities in Georgia to begin reviewing the death last September of Tichelman’s former boyfriend, Dean Riopelle. The Atlanta nightclub owner and rock band singer, who lived with Tichelman, died as the result of a heroin overdose.
Tichelman called 911 to report that her boyfriend had collapsed. Now police in Milton, Ga., said they are revisiting his death and sharing information with authorities in California.
Hayes’ family described him in an obituary as “a loving husband and father” with a “brilliant mind, contagious smile and warm embrace” who “enjoyed spending time with his family and on his boat.”
The family lives in a sprawling, two-story house tucked behind varnished gates in a hilly neighborhood above downtown Santa Cruz. They could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Hayes appears to be little known at Santa Cruz Harbor. But nautical repairman Lance Edwards, 53, who lives on his sailboat there, vividly remembers his yacht – a two-story sporting vessel with tinted windows and expansive decks for entertaining.
“It was really nice, a big double-decker with a lot of chrome on it, a really sweet boat,” Edwards said.
He said the secluded harbor, with cabin cruisers docked behind security gates, is a frequent venue for clandestine sexual liaisons. “I know several guys who come down here with a different girl every weekend,” he mused.
And he said the harbor over the years has known its share of deaths – people falling into the water and drowning from intoxication or overdosing on-board. But those cases got little attention. This one has people talking at the marina and far beyond.
“Now you find out that she (Tichelman) has got some baggage back east,” Edwards said, referring to her boyfriend’s death in Georgia. “That’s what makes this interesting. Is this another case of a black widow murder? If she hadn’t gotten caught, would she possibly be doing this to someone else?”
Santa Cruz police say Tichelman met Hayes through a website called Seeking Arrangement.com and had “an ongoing prostitution relationship.” The site bills itself as the “leading Sugar Daddy dating site where over 3 million members fuel mutually beneficial relationships on their terms.”
Operators of the website have expressed sympathy over Hayes’ death and insisted they aren’t operating a prostitution marketplace.
The case has drawn attention to an apparently thriving sex industry aimed at wealthy Silicon Valley executives and tech workers and employing websites, social media and even mobile phone applications to help arrange hookups with prostitutes.
“There is money in Silicon Valley,” said Rachel West of US Prostitutes Collective, a San Francisco group that advocates for safety for sex workers and repeal of anti-prostitution laws. “So, obviously, there will be clients who can pay. It is so expensive to live in the Bay Area, and woman and other sex workers will go where there is more money.”
Maxine Doogan of The Erotic Service Provider Group, a Bay Area group that advocates for sex industry workers, including strippers and escorts, said prostitutes using social media and Web portals for advertising find Silicon Valley clients a natural hookup.
She said numerous online vehicles are connecting prostitutes with a male dominated industry of tech-savvy clients who have plenty of disposable income.
“There are loads of websites, ‘adult finders’ and paid sites,” Doogan said. “What I think is unique about Silicon Valley is they have the technology to put together the sites, to run the sites and to make rules on the site. And those of us who are erotic service providers have to play by their rules.”
Until recently, Doogan advertised “sensual massage” services on a site called myredbook.com. The site provided lurid content, including reviews of strip clubs, massage parlors, escorts and even menus of sexual services.
It was shut down after federal authorities filed charges, including using the Internet to facilitate prostitution, against Eric “Red” Omuro of Mountain View and a Rocklin woman, Annemarie “Maddie” Lanoce, 40.
Sex worker advocate West said she fears that Tichelman is being singled out for potentially harsh punishment for being a prostitute.
“I’m concerned for her and for her getting a fair trial,” West said. “With all the connections of prostitution and drugs, people can make judgments about people. I don’t know if she was a drug addict or what her situation was. I just want to make sure that she is getting a fair hearing and the publicity surrounding this doesn’t keep the truth from coming out.”
Santa Cruz Superior Court Judge Timothy Volkmann rejected a defense request to reduce Tichelman’s bail of $1.5 million, citing the severity of the crime, which could net her more than 15 years in prison.
“The court was not impressed with the defendant’s ties to the community,” the judge said. “And the court expresses distinct concerns with the defendant’s desire to return for a future court appearance.”
Public Defender Athena Reis said she was not surprised that the judge rejected the bail reduction as well as a defense request to release Tichelman on her own recognizance.
“With the media attention surrounding this case, I was not necessarily surprised,” said Reis, who said she wasn’t sure if Tichelman’s family would be able to post the $1.5 million bail.
The judge ordered Tichelman back to court for a pretrial hearing Oct. 20.