SAN FRANCISCO – San Francisco police searched Wednesday for more suspects in the three-day-long torture of a homeless man who was beaten to death and dumped in a pond in Golden Gate Park, a brutal crime targeting a vulnerable population that has become a major flashpoint in this city and others with rising housing costs.
Homelessness is a major blight in a city famed for new condos, fine dining and jaw-dropping home prices, fueled in recent years by a rapid rise in technology-based jobs. With that, attacks on homeless people and by the homeless have cropped up in the area and other expensive cities facing problems with homelessness, such as Seattle and Los Angeles.
Two transients were charged this week in the slaying of Stephen Williams, 66, who was brutally beaten over three days before he was knocked unconscious and his body dumped into Alvord Lake. They had no connections to the victim, and a motive is under investigation, police said.
San Francisco cleared out several sidewalk tent encampments earlier this year, citing threats to public health and safety. Elected officials are debating the best way to house people who lack permanent places to live.
The efforts come after three young transients were arrested last year in the deaths of a popular yoga teacher and a Canadian backpacker, whose body also was found in Golden Gate Park.
Both Seattle and Los Angeles have declared crises over the number of people living on the streets, pledging millions of dollars for housing and social services. The fast-growing city in Washington state also has seen recent attacks: Three homeless boys were charged in February with killing two people at a longstanding encampment.
In the San Francisco killing, the assault started on May 22 when Nikki Lee Williams, 36, known as "Evil," forced the victim into a pond with help from other people and repeatedly struck Stephen Williams and held his head underwater, according to court documents. Nikki Williams and the victim are not related.
The following day, 19-year-old Stephen Billingsley, known as "Pizza Steve," repeatedly struck and stomped Stephen Williams along Haight Street, a popular hangout for young transients, until the man lost consciousness. The day after that, Williams, Billingsley and others again brutally assaulted Stephen Williams, leaving him unconscious near Alvord Lake.
Billingsley then dragged him to the pond, where a park gardener found his body hours later, court records show. The medical examiner says Stephen Williams died from "multiple traumatic injuries."
Billingsley is charged with murder, torture, conspiracy, elder abuse and assault. Nikki Williams is charged with conspiracy, assault, elder abuse and false imprisonment. They have pleaded not guilty and are in jail, with bail set at $1 million each.
The public defender assigned to Williams declined comment through an office spokeswoman. It's unclear if Billingsley has retained an attorney. The Bar Association of San Francisco said it has not received a request to represent him.
The suspects are "transients without long-standing ties" in San Francisco and have no prior arrest history in the city, San Francisco Officer Carlos Manfredi said.
Also this week, in central California, a 56-year-old homeless man died after a severe beating in a back alley in Fresno days earlier that also seriously injured another man. Police said it's not clear why the men were attacked.