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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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On May 24, 2012, Mercado and her mother drove to Los Angeles and checked in to the Embassy Suites hotel near LAX, intending to stay long enough to persuade Alicia to come back home or to help police find her pimp and lock him up. Predictably, the meeting with Alicia was a disaster. “When Alicia saw her [mother], she went crazy on her,” Prell Gilton would tell the cops. She yelled at Mercado, “You’re making it harder on me!” and stormed out. Three nights later, on May 27, Sneed came to pick up Alicia after work.

As he was sitting outside the pot club, someone pulled alongside him and shot into his car, shattering a window, glass shards grazing his skin. Alicia later told police that whoever had shot him must have known where she worked and what time she got off. Mercado denied having anything to do with the attack, and Prell said he hadn’t been in L.A., but according to prosecution experts, cell phone towers handling calls from the couple that night placed both of them in the area.

Even now, after witnessing firsthand the danger that she might be in, Alicia wasn’t ready to leave Sneed’s side. At the advice of relatives in law enforcement, Mercado contacted the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and listed Alicia as a runaway, hoping that police might succeed where she and Prell had thus far failed. Mercado and her mother also drove to authorities in Culver City and Compton and reported Alicia missing, bringing along a stack of evidence that they had uncovered. Jeanette Rubio, a sheriff ’s deputy in Compton who took the June 1 report, testified that Mercado seemed upset but hopeful: “Her eyes were getting watery. You could see the frustration.” Mercado, though, told San Francisco police that she had felt jerked around—“I gave this to them and nobody did nothing.”

SFPD sergeant Gary Watts later suggested to Mercado that, while he couldn’t vouch for his colleagues in L.A., police and prosecutors in San Francisco would have vigorously pursued her leads and brought her daughter’s pimp to justice: “You put together an amazing case file!” he told her. But to her old neighbors in the Fillmore, that assertion was disingenuous at best. Pimps are rarely convicted in San Francisco, in part because prostitutes are reluctant to testify. District Attorney George Gascón’s office acknowledges having prosecuted only 10 to 20 pimps in the past five years.

The feeling of futility was compounded by Prell’s sense that the police were never going to truly be on his side. He had spent his whole life rejecting the example set by his father and uncles and trying to be a law-abiding citizen and a decent man, says his aunt Doris Gilton. But he believed that the cops saw all the Giltons as troublemakers. It infuriated him that any group of black men from the neighborhood who hung out together—even middle-aged buddies playing hoops and pinochle—were suspected of being in a gang. Over the years, he had had a series of minor run-ins with cops, sometimes while out with his friends, that had left him feeling persecuted, as if the police were always trying to catch him doing something wrong or goad him into lashing out so that they could confirm their preconceptions of him, Doris says. Around police, the good-natured guy who was a local hero for the way he took care of his family and mentored less fortunate kids could become defensive, even belligerent. “[Prell] wouldn’t tell [cops] anything—‘Are you through? Is there something you’re going to take me to jail for? Are you charging me with something?’” Doris recalls.

That suspicion and resentment were mirrored throughout the Giltons’ community, festering like an infected wound. “When we tell the officials what we need down here, they tell us bullshit,” says an old neighbor, Cliffton Hyson. “That’s what [Alicia’s parents] got: bullshit. There’s no one from the outside world that gives a damn about us most of the time—so we take matters into our own hands. Most of us don’t trust the law to do the right thing because the law doesn’t give you anything to trust.”

On June 3, a couple of days after Mercado and her mother returned to San Francisco, Alicia came home on her own. Sneed had driven her and another of his girls up from L.A., and Alicia had been calling her parents along the way. Sneed dropped her off at the family’s new place, near Candlestick, around 4 p.m. She had an ugly mark on her face. She was “underdressed.... She looked unhealthy, like there were some issues,” Mercado told police. “When it’s your child, you know before they know.”

The same night, Lil’ Tone Gilton was in San Francisco, at an alcohol-blazed birthday party in a Fairmont hotel suite with his and Prell’s close friend Alfonso “Fonz” Williams. Six feet tall and model handsome, Williams had also been a top-ranked basketball player in the early 1990s, leading Balboa High’s hardscrabble team to the city championship and earning the city’s player-of-the-year award two seasons in a row. He won an athletic scholarship to Kentucky Wesleyan, but after an apparent injury, he returned to San Francisco, eventually playing on the Fillmore’s pro-am Dream Team, coached by his uncle Dean Maye, a former Balboa coach and a local hoops legend in his own right. Williams could often be found at the Grove Street home of his grandmother, Gloria Maye, a neighborhood matriarch; her rainbow-striped house has hosted many a soul food barbecue over the years. More recently, the house has served as an Election Day polling place and an informal rec center, with a bar and a table where Williams, Prell, and Lil’ Tone sometimes played cards. According to the SFPD’s gang task force, it has also been a gathering place for the Central Divisadero Players, alleged—among other things—to be pimping outside Broadway strip clubs and in seedy Lombard Street hotels. And Williams, who wore snazzy clothes and had a flashy girlfriend, was high on the SFPD’s list of suspected CDP members. In recent years, for reasons that authorities will not disclose, the FBI installed surveillance cameras to monitor the comings and goings around the Grove Street house. At approximately 1 a.m. on June 4, those cameras captured Williams, Prell, and Lil’ Tone arriving at the house in separate cars. In a video shown in court this spring, Williams opens his girlfriend’s TrailBlazer’s door and removes what police say is a gun. He gets into the passenger seat of Lil’ Tone’s rented silver Hyundai Tucson SUV. Prell takes the driver’s seat, Lil’ Tone climbs into the back, and they disappear.

Page five: A SWAT team descends