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Burning death stuns Bay Area

Social workers finally coaxed Leslie May off the streets of San Francisco, but she was abducted and killed over a $150 drug debt.

February 16, 2007|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Hers was a hard-won success: a chronically homeless drug addict on city streets for decades finally steered -- in baby steps -- into housing and the promise of a future.

But the death of Leslie "Jill" May has now become one of the most dismaying tragedies of San Francisco's pervasive homeless culture.

Known as "Jilly," the 49-year-old was beaten and stripped as warning to repay a $150 drug debt -- possibly her boyfriend's, authorities say. Then, after reporting the assault to police, the birdlike woman who had once stunned the Tenderloin sex trade with her leggy beauty was forced into a car in broad daylight, driven to the city's desolate football stadium, doused with gasoline and burned alive.

"A gust of wind would blow her away. She was not a threat to anybody," said city social worker Ben Amyes, who spent years coaxing May onto methadone and off the streets as part of Mayor Gavin Newsom's Homeless Outreach Team.

"Street life is difficult," Amyes said. "For a $150 drug debt, I wasn't surprised to hear that they beat her up and stripped her naked. But the manner in which she was murdered is shocking."

Two women are now in custody in connection with the Jan. 12 slaying. Mia Sagote, 29, was charged with murder and kidnapping after her Jan. 23 arrest. She also faces a robbery charge in connection with the Jan. 11 incident in which May's clothes were taken.

Authorities waited until the arrest of Leslie Siliga, 30, on Tuesday to go public with the case. Siliga faces charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, and prosecutors expect to add a conspiracy charge to Sagote's case.

The women, who are not homeless, also face three special circumstance allegations: that they committed the murder while engaged in a kidnapping and to avoid arrest and prosecution for the robbery, and that the crime was "especially heinous, atrocious and cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity."

"In 17 years as a prosecutor, I've seen people do terrible things to each other, but this is sickening," San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris said in a statement Thursday. "We're going to aggressively prosecute and convict the individuals responsible for this shocking crime."

The charges make Sagote and Siliga subject to the death penalty or life in prison without possibility of parole, if convicted, said district attorney spokeswoman Debbie Mesloh. A panel of senior prosecutors will review "all the facts surrounding the case, the law and the evidence" to determine which is appropriate, she said.

Attorneys for Sagote and Siliga could not be reached for comment.

The murder has gained attention less than a week after a homeless couple in Corona was doused with gasoline and set ablaze by unknown assailants. Their injuries were not life-threatening.

In San Francisco, May's slaying stunned even the street-savvy outreach workers who worked so hard to help her -- and others like her.

The deaths of chronically homeless people rarely make news. Severe medical ailments, untreated psychoses, drug addiction and crime are among the plagues that shorten life expectancy on the streets. Still, May's demise came as she at last seemed to be accepting the hand up that had been offered for years.

About 3,000 of San Francisco's more than 6,000 homeless are considered "chronic," said Trent Rhorer, executive director of the city's Department of Human Services, which runs the Homeless Outreach Team and helps fund the more specialized Homeless Outreach and Medical Emergency team, which targets frequent users of city emergency health services.

San Francisco pioneered the use of such a specialized team, and it is being emulated around the country. The Homeless Outreach Team, meanwhile, was modeled after one in Philadelphia. The mobile bands of social workers have become key to San Francisco's goal of moving the chronically homeless into permanent housing that includes services for addiction and mental health.

May, Rhorer said, was "a prime case study" in what it takes to get a chronically homeless person off the street.

While the method of her brutal death "is the exception rather than the rule, it also points out why this work is so important," he said. "If they stay on the streets, they are going to die."

"Jilly," who was toothless when she died, came to San Francisco in the 1970s as a young prostitute and was so stunning that other prostitutes cut deals with her to keep her off their corners, Amyes said.

In the decades since, she and her boyfriend and onetime pimp became fixtures on the gritty Tenderloin corner of Jones and O'Farrell.

"They set up camp on the sidewalk," said San Francisco Fire Capt. Niels Tangherlini, a paramedic who heads the HOME team and teamed with Amyes to coax May to get help. "You had to step around them."

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