SFPD seeks killers in cold cases (of LGBT victims)
by Seth Hemmelgarn
In the early afternoon of February 17, 1974, Stig Lennart Berlin was found stabbed to death in Apartment 9 at 725 Hyde Street.
The 37-year-old gay man had been cut multiple times in his chest and other areas, according to the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s office. A bloody towel was in the bathroom, and more blood was in the sink. Papers and items from a chest were scattered on his closet floor. It appears he had been dead for more than two days.
Almost 40 years later, there are no suspects, and police have re-opened investigations into Berlin’s killing, along with those of Joe Vasquez, a.k.a. Joe Barbarella, who was in his 20s, and Joseph Y. Rodriguez Jr., a.k.a. Lisa Yancey, 30. Both, who were killed in their Tenderloin homes in 1975, were also stabbed to death. The investigations are happening as the murder trial in another cold case approaches.
San Francisco Police Inspector Pat Correa said the main obstacle in finding those responsible for Berlin, Vazquez, and Rodriguez’s deaths is finding people who knew the victims.
"I can’t get to them, because they’re no longer here," she said. "That’s the biggest challenge right now."
Correa said that with improvements in technology for testing DNA and other evidence, she’s hopeful “something may pop up,” but she indicated finding people who knew the victims is critical.
"He had a life outside of his murder, and I want to know what that life is," Correa said, referring to all the victims. She said she’s looking for people "to put together their lives, to give me a picture of their lives," and help guide her.
Accounts of the killings offer a small glimpse of the city’s LGBT community as it was in the mid-1970s, just years before the AIDS epidemic hit and decimated much of the city’s gay population. Correa declined to share many details on the homicide cases, but reports at the medical examiner’s office offer some clues.
The file on Vasquez’s death indicates police initially thought he had been shot when he was found at 344 Ellis Street, Apartment 10, on March 16, 1975.
Gilbert Ayala, who was Vasquez’s roommate, came to the apartment at about 10:30 p.m. with Pat Mathews and Sandy Baylon. (An April 10, 1975 San Francisco Sentinel story indicates Ayala was also known as “Gilda.”)
Vasquez was seated on the sofa, unresponsive and with “blood over the body and on the divan,” the medical examiner’s report says. According to the file, he died after being stabbed in the heart. No weapon was found.
Ayala, who had been away over the weekend, reported that he’d last seen Vasquez at the nearby Roadrunner bar at about 2 a.m. the day before with Steve Burger, the report says.
The Sentinel piece indicates Vasquez, who was “well known in the Tenderloin,” was still alive when Burger left “in the small hours” of the morning. The medical examiner’s office listed about $105 and jewelry as among Vasquez’s property.
It appears Vasquez may have been what would now be considered transgender. The medical examiner’s report mentions “enlarged female-appearing breasts” and says that Vasquez’s body revealed signs of a “sex transformation procedure.” He was wearing women’s underwear and eye makeup when he was found.
On April 1, 1975, just over two weeks after Vasquez was killed, Rodriguez’s body was found in his home at 370 Ellis Street, Apartment 5, just down the street from Vasquez’s apartment.
At about 8:15 p.m., Rodriguez’s friend Martin Wright came to check on him. It had been a few days since he’d seen Rodriguez.
Wright opened the door with his key, and found the door chain locked from the inside. He used a second key to the chain lock, entered the apartment, and found Rodriguez dead on the hallway floor. He was “unclothed” and lying face down, at least partially covered by a yellow and orange sheet, the medical examiner’s file says.
There were pillows about his head and shoulders, and broken glass was in his hair and on the floor around his head.
Rodriguez had three stab wounds in his back, and one in his abdomen. He had “clutched in each hand small amounts of long dark hair,” according to the medical examiner’s office. The cause of death is listed as a “stab wound of the abdominal aorta.”
The apartment “was in a complete state of disorder,” according to the file. Furniture had been overturned, papers and records were strewn on the floor, and clothes and boxes had been pulled from shelves and thrown around. No weapon was immediately found.
The Sentinel story says two sets of fingerprints were found in the apartment that hadn’t been accounted for. A turntable, a gold watch, a camera, a checkbook, $150 in cash, and other belongings were missing from the home, according to the article.
Film was found “discarded and exposed on the floor,” the Sentinel says. “Police surmise that Yancey had taken pictures of his murderer during the day.”
The paper offers some description of what Rodriguez was like and what he did in his last hours.
Wright described him as “easygoing with a generous heart and open wallet,” the Sentinel says. “Friends tell of times he would leave on the spur of the moment taking a friend to Tijuana for breakfast.”
On March 30, Rodriguez went to Easter services at Glide Memorial Church, just down the street from his apartment. Later, he and a friend went to *P.S., where Rodriguez “kept a standing reservation” for brunch, the paper says. (According to an April 1975 Bay Area Reporter story, both Vasquez and Rodriguez frequented the Score II on Mason Street, as well as the Nickelodeon, next door.)
When Rodriguez and his friend parted, “that was the last time Yancey was seen alive,” according to the Sentinel .
The medical examiner’s report says that that night, neighbor Margoth Schultz heard a loud argument in Rodriguez’s apartment. At about 6:20 p.m., Schultz’s son Henry was returning home and saw “an unidentified white male” leaving Rodriguez’s apartment, the report says.
An April 17, 1975 B.A.R. story says the paper’s founder Bob Ross pushed the Tavern Guild, an association for gay bar owners, to come up with a $500 reward for information leading to the arrests and convictions of the killers.
The article says SFPD Inspector Hobart Nelson attended a community meeting to discuss Vasquez and Rodriguez’s killings and said despite having little to work with, the cases would “never be closed until we find the killers.” He also said, “Despite what you have heard, I myself consider gay people, transsexuals, all people, first-class citizens, and I work just as hard on a killing of one of your people as I do on the murder of a wealthy person.”
There were charges that the SFPD wasn’t “giving its all” in conducting an investigation, the story says. The Sentinel article from the previous week also indicates a mistrust of police.
In response to frustration over the pace of the investigation, an Inspector Manley told the paper, “Just because people don’t see a lot of red lights flashing doesn’t mean we aren’t working. Sometimes everything falls together quickly. At other times we may work on a case for three, four, five years.”
In an interview late last month, almost 40 years after the killings, Correa said she’s re-evaluating all the evidence she can, but “sometimes it’s just nicer to talk to people” who knew the victims. She’s also spoken with officers who were in the department at the time of the killings.
"It’s like working a big jigsaw puzzle for me," Correa said, one that will hopefully result in getting "some closure for people."
Correa, who identifies as lesbian, joined the SFPD in January 1980 and retired more than 30 years later. She came out of retirement and joined the cold case unit in April 2011. Work is funded by a federal grant provided to the SFPD to investigate cold cases. The grant pays for Correa, who works part-time, and another inspector.
Federal funding also helped in another recent case. Earlier this year, police arrested William Payne, 48, after his DNA was matched to semen that had been found on the body of Nikolaus Crumbley, 41, in 1983.
Payne, who had already been suspected in the killing, has been charged with committing first-degree murder during the course of sodomy in Crumbley’s death. Opening statements in the trial are expected within days.
It’s not clear how helpful DNA evidence will be in the investigations of Berlin, Vasquez, and Rodriguez’s deaths. Correa said she’s ordered oral and rectal smears from the medical examiner’s office for all three cases, but she couldn’t share if she has the evidence in any of them.
Correa said she hasn’t found anything indicating that Vasquez and Rodriguez’s killings are linked. She said Berlin, who was found fully clothed, had a boyfriend, but she couldn’t share his name. She couldn’t determine whether he’s still alive, she said.
(The Sentinel and B.A.R. articles refer to the 1975 victims as Barbarella and Yancey. According to Correa, it appeared the two hadn’t changed their names legally, and she refers to them using their last names Vasquez and Rodriguez. She doesn’t know which pronouns they used. The medical examiner’s office identified both victims as male. The agency’s report on Rodriguez doesn’t include the name Lisa Yancey.)
People who remember Berlin, Vasquez, and Rodriguez’s deaths have been difficult for the B.A.R. to find.
In a recent interview, Jose Sarria, 89, one of the people who presided over the 1975 community meeting described in the B.A.R., couldn’t recall the gathering or any of the cases.
Sarria, who now lives in New Mexico, said he was “not a Tenderloin person.”
"I didn’t associate with those people, not that I’m a bigot or anything but that wasn’t my … that’s not who sat at my table," said Sarria, who added that he associated with people that were "educated" and "affluent." For years, the Tenderloin has been one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Tom Ammiano, 70, who moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s and is now a state assemblyman, said he “just vaguely” recalled the three victims’ names. However, other memories were clearer.
"It was just kind of a fact of life that things like this were going to happen, and what the community wanted, of course, was police response," Ammiano said. At the time, he said, relations between police and the gay community were tentative, but "of course, all that’s changed."
Wayne Friday, a former B.A.R. political columnist, said of the victims, “I don’t know any of them. I probably did at the time.”
"I’m getting old," Friday, 70, said. "I don’t remember these damn cases anymore."
Anyone with information on these cases may call the SFPD homicide unit at (415) 553-1145 and ask for Inspector Pat Correa.