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A Girl, Her Pimp, and Her Parents
Lauren Smiley | Photo: Courtesy Gilton Family and Google | June 21, 2013
Did a San Francisco couple gun down the man who exploited their daughter?
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 daughter...you 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.