The Black Widow of Silicon Valley
The detectives from the Santa Cruz police department could see an unmistakable injection mark in the arm of the deceased Google executive.
But the detectives could see no drugs and no syringe on the yacht where 51-year-old Forrest Timothy Hayes had been found dead from a heroin overdose. What the detectives did see was a pair of wine glasses on a table. They also noted that somebody appeared to have straightened up the cabin.
“There was another person in the room, obviously,” Deputy Chief Steve Clark of the Santa Cruz Police later said. “That’s Detective 101.”
The body had been discovered on the floor of the main cabin by the captain, who had been retained by Hayes after he purchased the 50-foot powerboat. Hayes had started out as an automotive executive in his native Michigan, which was in keeping with his decision to eschew eco-friendly sails such as were favored by other Silicon Valley types and buy a craft powered by big fuel guzzlers.
But he had come West to take increasingly senior positions with Sun Microsystems and then Apple and finally with Google X, the research and development division whose projects included the perfect one for a one-time car guy: the self-driving auto. Hayes had become enough of a techie that he had installed a wireless surveillance camera system on his yacht.
The captain tried to say all the cameras were functional except for the one in the cabin where the body was found.
“It happens to be the only one not working,” Clark says. “Detective 101 repeats itself.”
As befitted a true techie, Hayes’ camera system fed not onto some hard drive but directly into a cloud server. The detectives obtained a search warrant and discovered that the cabin camera had in fact recorded the entire scene with remarkable clarity.
“It’s really good quality video,” Clark notes.
They were chilled by what they saw.
The video was clear enough that the detectives could make out the distinctive tattoos on a young dark-haired woman, who performed the age-old junkie ritual of converting the heroin into liquid and filling a syringe. She first injected herself, though the camera angle made it difficult to see exactly where.
Hayes may have been reassured to see that the woman seemed to suffer no ill effects. He was viewed by his colleagues as a “practical guy” who remained, at least outwardly, calm when problems arose. He had always come up with solutions that were at once simple and elegant, while he himself would be both candid and reasonable.
Even so, considerable stress must have come with being one of the grown-ups among the young whizzes of Silicon Valley. There were also the demands of raising five kids, including a twin boy and girl who were then just 3.
Hayes commuted the 40 miles from his Santa Cruz home to Google headquarters in a little Chevy Volt, which was electric and therefore qualified him to use the express lane. But he was said also to love roaring up Interstate 280 in a souped-up Porsche every now and then. And there may have been more need than people suspected behind the name painted in big black letters on the stern of the yacht he kept in a slip in Santa Cruz Harbor: “ESCAPE.”
Yet, as far as those big engines could take him out to sea, he would still be only doing what might be expected of a transplanted Midwesterner whom everybody viewed as a great boss and quintessential family man. The video showed him going against all of that as he allowed himself to be injected by the young woman with a tattoo on her right arm reading, ”Til Death Do Us Part”; another on the left arm reading, “Kiss of Kill”; another below the collarbone reading, “Hell is Love.”
A big part of the high that Hayes sought must have come even before she pressed the syringe’s plunger. He almost certainly felt wild and irresponsible, though not likely all that reckless. He had every reason to expect that he would only be joining the woman in getting a little high but remaining functional.
The minute she injected the stuff, he discovered that the same batch of heroin can affect different people differently. He raised his hand to his chest before losing consciousness and sprawling onto the floor.
Over the next seven long minutes, the woman made not the slightest effort to assist him. Her only manifest interest was in removing the syringe and the drugs, along with gathering her things and straightening up the room.
“He was dying at her feet and she did nothing,” Clark says.
At one point, she stepped over Hayes and recovered her wine glass.
“She walked around the cabin with her glass of wine, finishing the wine, then wiping off the glass,” Clark says. “He’s dying there on the floor and she’s stepping over him.”
Her indifference astonished Clark, who has been a cop for 29 years.
“I have never seen anything like that where somebody has been that cold,” he says. “She was just glacially cold.”
The woman was just leaving the cabin when she looked back and seemed to realize that somebody might be able to peer inside and see Hayes.
“She reaches back and pulls the shade down,”’ Clark says. “And then she’s gone.”
A check of Hayes’s texts and emails led the detectives to SeekingArrangement.com, the self-described “#1 Sugar Daddy dating site where over 3 million members fuel mutually beneficial relationships on their terms.”
With the help of facial recognition software and those distinctive tattoos, the detectives determined that the woman was one of the site’s “Sugar Babies.” They also discovered that this was not the first time she and Hayes had arranged to meet. There was something he liked enough to want to hire her again rather than choose from the hundreds of other possibilities.
“An ongoing prostitution relationship,” Clark says.
The detectives discovered that the woman was an enthusiastic poster on social media who went by the online name AK Kennedy. The Twitter handle @AKKennedyxx produced her real identity: Alix Tichelman, aged 26. Her profile described her as a “makeup artist/model/stylist/hustler/writer/baddest bitch/exotic dancer.”
The tattoos in the posted photos confirmed that the 26-year-old Atlanta native was indeed the woman in the video, as did a fingerprint she had failed to wipe off the wine glass. The detectives noted that her Facebook page had a number of photos of her with an older bearded man. “Dean and I (I love mah baby),” read the caption to one she posted on October 2012.
In January 2013, she had declared herself “seriously blessed as a motherfucker.”
“life is great,” she wrote. “a great boyfriend, nice house, monkeys, loving family...doesn’t get any better than this i don’t think.”
She further rhapsodized on Facebook in May, “I am so grateful to have a boyfriend that loves me and also puts up with my crazy shopping addiction! you Dean Riopelle.”
A check of Tichelman’s criminal record showed that she had been arrested on September 6 in the town of Milton, Georgia, outside Atlanta, for filing a false report when she called 911 to accuse Riopelle of domestic violence. Riopelle was the owner of an Atlanta club called Masquerade, as well as the lead singer of the shock-rock band Impotent Sea Snakes. He was often called the Monkey Man because of the primates and other wild animals he kept on his 21-acre property.
When police responded to her call, Riopelle told them that Tichelman had become drunk and belligerently rowdy in his club, baring her breasts and repeatedly diving off the stage. He said that when he told her to desist, she threatened to hit herself and then tell the cops that he had done it. A witness confirmed this and noted that the only assault occurred when Tichelman bit Riopelle’s finger.
The mug shot taken at the time of her arrest showed Tichelman wearing a monkey-face medallion. She had become the Monkey Man’s live-in girlfriend. They were still together 11 days later when she again called 911.
“I don’t know, I think my boyfriend overdosed or something,” she told the operator. “Like he won’t respond and he’s just laying on the ground.”
Tichelman sounded truly distraught, close to sobbing.
“OK, are you with the patient now?” the operator asked.
Tichelman hung up. The operator immediately called back.
“Hello,” Tichelman said.
“’Ma’am, I have some questions for you,” the operator said. “Are you with the patient now?”
“Yeah, I’m with him right now,” she said.
“How old is he?”
“OK, is he awake?”
“Umm, his eyes are open, but not, he’s not awake.”
“Is he breathing?”
“Yeah, he’s breathing on and off.”
Tichelman now sounded very matter-of-fact. A charitable person would say she was in shock as well as high.
“Why do you think it’s an overdose?” the operator asked.
“Umm, because there’s nothing else it could be,” Tichelman replied.
“Is it accidental or intentional?”
“I think definitely accidental. Accidental.”
“Is he breathing normally?”
“Not normally. I wouldn’t say normally, no.”
“What did he take?”
“I’m not too sure. Painkiller. He’s been drinking a lot, too, so…”
“His prescribed painkillers?”
“Oh, I don’t know. You’re asking the wrong person.”
When the Milton police arrived, Tichelman told them that she had been in the shower when she heard a loud noise and stepped out to see her boyfriend had collapsed. The police accepted her account, and the death was ruled an accidental overdose.
But the Milton police decided to take another look at the death when Clark and the police in Santa Cruz called and told them about Hayes. The cops in both jurisdictions had to wonder how similar the two overdoses were.
“We’re like, ‘Holy smoke, this isn’t her first rodeo,’” says Clark.
Further online searching showed that someone using Tichelman’s Twitter handle, with a third “x” at the end, had sought to score heroin online three days before Riopelle’s fatal overdose. The poster had apparently been amazed to find a forum on topix.com for people looking to buy the drug in Atlanta.
“I am in disbelief right now! I have been doing H for nine years on and off and have never run across this forum until now. Seems a little bit sketchy? Wondering what everyone’s experience has been on this forum? Just seems like somewhere where someone would go to get ripped off or meet the police unknowingly... (I am in Atlanta btw)” she posted on September 14.
She then wrote, “im in north ATL..hit me up email@example.com.”
The same email account also had appeared on a similar topix.com forum for Sacramento, California, six weeks after Riopelle overdosed and three weeks before Hayes overdosed. Tichelman had moved in with her parents in their new home in Folsom, California. She apparently had met a connection with the online name KillaCali. She touted him online.
“Heroin in Sacramento,” she wrote. “He is totally legit!!! and awesome, a really nice guy. I just met up with him like an hour ago and there was no waiting, no bullshit, he had it ready to go!! And no... I am not making a fake review..you can even call me and ask...for people who don’t want to wait, meet a cop, or get robbed..go to this guy!!”
Still further online scouring by police produced another remarkable twist. Tichelman had once dated Warren Ullom, the lead singer of the Atlanta band The Judies. He had been sentenced to 20 years in prison after a young woman whom he’d injected with heroin died from an overdose. Ullom had failed to summon help and had instead sought to remedy the situation by injecting her twice with cocaine. At one point, he said a former girlfriend had introduced him to heroin.
“The first time I had heroin in my veins, an 18-year-old girl put it there,” Ullom wrote. “We had been hanging out, and she asked if I was interested in trying it. I was pretty dumbstruck. If she was into it, I was into it. As much as I faked cool in those days, if a girl as alluring as her was into running across the highway, well, I was into that too.”
By her own account, Tichelman had first tried heroin when she was 16. But in a posting on a forum about “Reactions to the Judies singer Ullom’s 20-year prison sentence,” she insisted that Ullom must have been talking about another girl.
“I used to date Warren when I was 18. Apparently he even went as far as to blame me for his heroin use, which makes zero sense since we never did drugs together,” Tichelman posted on the website Casual Loafing in February 2013.
“Bottom line this story didn’t surprise me. Warren always had a ‘God complex,’” she added. “He thought he was smarter than everyone else. And in this instance that attitude costed somebody their life. Very sad.”
On July 3, Santa Cruz detectives executed a search warrant at Tichelman’s parents’ home. Her father, Bart, had resigned as CEO of a solar energy company in Atlanta after an unspecified disagreement with the board. He was now CEO of the SynapSense Corp., a Folsom firm that offers “energy efficient infrastructure” for data centers. He seemed to find his own escape in poker and had had just been in a big poker tournament on June 28. He had finished first in a similar event back in 2008 and won $428,000. A news photo had shown him and his wife, Leslieann, smiling with a mound of cash.
“When I win I bring my daughters home a gift. I usually give them each 10 percent, so when I win $300 I give them $30 apiece,” he told an interviewer from www.pokerlistings.com. “I’m going to buy them a gift, but I can tell you this time they are not getting 10 percent. Sorry girls.”
“Well, Bart, I’m sure they’ll be happy with whatever they get,” the interviewer said. “Plus, they’ve got to be proud knowing their dad took on the best poker players in the world...and came out on top.”
Bart Tichelman had apparently yet to match that triumph and in his latest effort had come in 736th. His Twitter account indicates that he was off at another tournament even as the detectives were searching his house and carting away his daughter’s laptop.
A computer forensics whiz with the Santa Cruz police determined that Alix Tichelman had been using Google to conduct numerous searches to see if there had been any developments reported in the death of the Google executive. She also had been checking online to see what the penalties in California might be for administering an overdose and failing to help the person. She could not have forgotten the 20 years that Ullom received in Georgia.
“Searching Google for how to defend herself,” Clark says.
Tichelman had continued to frequent SeekingArrangement.com, and on July 4 she arranged to meet a man at a hotel in Santa Cruz for $1,000. This john proved to be a cop, and she was arrested. She reportedly told police that she had 200 well-to-do customers.
The next day, her father was apparently back at the poker tournament. His various tweets were only about poker, including one saying, “Okay team, last chance for glory.”
At her arraignment on manslaughter and drug charges, Tichelman looked hardened beyond her years as she was ordered to be held on $1.5 million bail. One mystery that may never be solved is how anybody could be so callous as to step over a man sprawled on the floor and just sip wine while he died at her feet. Surely some of it came from the anger a hooker might rightly feel toward a john. She was certainly not the victim of poverty.
“Her parents are wealthy,” read a handwritten notation in the probation department's report, adding, “Tichelman has continued to engage in dangerous drug use with other individuals since this homicide occurred.”
Her Facebook page reports that she attended the Brandon Hall School in Georgia, where the tuition is $29,750 for a day student and $57,500 for a boarder. She apparently had difficulties there and in 2001 was enrolled in the $52,000-a-year Hyde School in Maine, which bills itself as involving the entire family in stabilizing troubled teens.
Her best friend at Hyde remembers that Tichelman suffered from a serious eating disorder and would self-mutilate, cutting her legs. Tichelman spoke about feeling not fully accepted by her family because she was adopted, the friend said. She also told her friend about having experienced several abusive sexual encounters.
“She had had a rough time with boys taking advantage of her in ways she wasn’t OK with,” the friend said. “Sex was a numb thing. It’s not like the emotion was there.”
Yet for all her troubles, Tichelman struck her friend as anything but cold. This friend recalls, “She was one of the kindest, sweetest, most understanding women…she was the most loyal friend and the least judgmental person I met when I was there.”
Tichelman had such difficulties with Hyde staff that she was “outposted” to rough it on a school-owned island for a time. She left at the end of the 2003 academic year and eventually graduated from public Northview High School two years later. She studied journalism at the University of Georgia, but apparently dropped out after two semesters, though she still thought she might become a writer. She began a novel about a girl who started shooting dope in high school. She could quote great poets from memory and wrote several poems of her own, including one titled simply “Heroin”:
“this private downward spiral-this suffocating blackhole
makes you feel so warm inside,
yet makes your heart so cold.
each day takes its toll,
your thoughts become emotionless,
your soul feels too old.”
She reported on her Facebook page that she danced at Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club and then at a club called Condor during 2010. She sought to make it as a model with a bent toward S&M and tweeted with obvious excitement when she was interviewed by a New York magazine called flXE fETISH. In the article, she spoke about her boyfriend taking her to clubs on a leash and collar.
“I have always been attracted to the darker side,” she told fIXE. “My parents said by the time I was three, I was an intense child, and already liked horror movies.”
More than anything, her overriding passion seemed to be posting endless photos of herself. One camera she will likely end up hating is the candid surveillance one that showed her glacial indifference as Timothy Hayes died.
Her friend from the Hyde School suggests that Tichelman was high and scared and may have found johns to be too much like the boys who had left her traumatized years before. The friend says of Hayes, “He treated her like an object. So what was she supposed to do but look at him as an object?”
As seen from that point of view, the Sugar Daddy might have been a little icy himself about his Sugar Baby. He might have considered that what was an escape for him might be the very opposite for her. And that is without mentioning his wife and kids, who knew him as simply a Daddy.
But as he lay dying on that deck five days from Thanksgiving, he was still a human being desperately in need of help. The uncommonly dedicated who have actually seen the tape can only wonder how anybody could have gotten as glacial as the woman who just stood sipping that wine.