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A Girl, Her Pimp, and Her Parents

Did a San Francisco couple gun down the man who exploited their daughter?

"Alicia" (third from left) and friends at a relative's graduation in 2012.
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The street corner where Calvin Sneed was killed.
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Barry “Prell” Gilton, Lupe Mercado (right), Alicia (center) and the three Gilton boys, celebrating Prell’s and his aunt’s birthdays in 2012.
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The L.A. pot club where Alicia worked.
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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