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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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The 17-year-old girl was hysterical, screaming into her phone at her mother: What just happened? A few feet away, her boyfriend, Calvin Sneed, lay slumped in the driver’s seat of his rented Corolla, a .40-caliber bullet hole through his forehead, the socket of his left eye crushed. The sight was more than the girl could stomach—she retched, vomit dribbling down the front of her hoodie. “They didn’t have to do him like that!” she sobbed.

The teenager—we’ll call her Alicia—was a former cheerleader, petite and pretty, with dark eyes and caramel-colored skin. She had spent much of the evening of June 3, 2012, at a hospital in the far East Bay, visiting her grandmother, who was recuperating from a stroke. Then she and her family had driven back together to Bayview Heights, a working-class neighborhood over the hill from Candlestick Park, where her parents had recently moved with her three younger brothers. But the girl and her mom and dad weren’t getting along. Even though it was after midnight, Alicia had barely walked in the door before she was texting Sneed to come pick her up and take her back to Los Angeles, her home for the past seven months. This had triggered another fight with her mother and an icy dismissal from her father, who adored her but had finally reached his breaking point: “You grown. Before you leave, turn the lights off.”

Ninety minutes later, just before 2 a.m., Sneed texted Alicia: “Come out.” The girl walked around the corner, to the intersection of Jennings Court and Meade Avenue, to meet him. From that vantage point, under the streetlights, she saw a silver SUV parked down the block with its headlights on, waiting—then it drove away. She called Sneed to warn him that something seemed strange, and as she spotted his car coming toward her, the SUV reappeared, tailing him. His street savvy was useless on the unfamiliar turf, and he was easily outmaneuvered by the other driver. As Alicia watched, the SUV pulled parallel to Sneed’s window. Whoever was inside had at least two guns. As the shooting began, Sneed lost control of the Corolla, crashing into a van parked at the top of the street.

Two hours later, around 4 a.m., SFPD inspector James Garrity was walking toward the entrance of the Bayview police station when he saw them: a couple parked at the curb. The man in the passenger’s seat was African American; the driver, Latina. They seemed to be waiting for something, or someone. He approached the car. “Are you Alicia Gilton’s parents?” he asked.

The man nodded. He was Barry Gilton, 38, a Muni driver out on disability with a back injury. The woman was Lupe Mercado, 37, his high school sweetheart and the mother of their four children. They seemed calm.

Garrity added up the facts so far. The girl was a runaway, reported missing a few days before. The boyfriend, now lying near death in San Francisco General Hospital, was older and, by the look of things, a thug and a pimp. This wasn’t his first time getting shot: One of his old bullet wounds had bits of paper money embedded in the scar tissue—he was literally made of cash. He had a tattoo on the back of his right hand that read, “If it doesn’t make dollars,” and one on his left hand that concluded, “then it doesn’t make cent.” Farther up his right arm was an image of stacks of money alongside the words “Fuck you pay me.”

“Was this prostitution related?” Garrity asked the parents.

Mercado did the talking. Alicia had been living in L.A., appearing in sex ads on the Internet. “She’s been exploited,” Mercado said over and over, Gilton nodding beside her. At 6 feet, 2 inches, and 205 pounds, he was a powerful presence. But Mercado seemed more comfortable handling herself with police. “How’d you feel if your daughter was exploited?” she asked the inspector, her voice steady but her words pleading.

“The guy who was shot—was he the one exploiting her?” Garrity continued. “Yes,” Mercado said. Later he asked where the couple had been that night. Mercado said she had been out looking for Alicia. Gilton said he had been home with their three sons.

To someone like Garrity, a 24-year veteran of the SFPD, Alicia’s story was all too common. There were countless teenagers selling sex for money around the Bay Area, many of them lost to the streets for good. What was unusual was the scene that confronted him now: two stable and seemingly loving parents camped out at a police station in one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods in the middle of the night, determined not to give up. “Most of the mothers I’ve dealt with in child exploitation cases are not good mothers,” Garrity’s fellow investigator, homicide inspector Kevin Jones, would tell Mercado a few days later. “They’re wrapped up in their own lives. Immature. Addicted. You’re not any of that.”

“I’m not perfect,” Mercado would reply.

For now, the couple just wanted to see their daughter. Garrity showed them to the room where the girl was waiting to talk to police. She had her mother’s small frame and flowing black hair. Her cheek was bruised where Sneed, she said, had smacked her on the drive up to San Francisco that morning.

But Garrity had miscalculated the situation. As soon as Alicia spotted her parents, she lost her mind, screaming at the top of her teenage lungs: “Fuck you! I don’t want to see you again! Leave!” Gilton and Mercado tried to speak, but Alicia’s tirade drowned out their words. “Get out of my life! I don’t want to see you people again! Get out!”

Clearly, something far more complicated than a young girl’s grief was at play. Mercado seemed at a loss. She turned again to Garrity, posing a question that was all but unanswerable. “What would you do,” she asked, “if it were your daughter?”

Page two: A "peaches and cream" childhood