Last month in Santa Cruz, 27-year-old sugar baby and fetish model Alix Tichelman pled guilty to manslaughter in the heroin overdose death of her Google executive client Forrest Hayes, and was sentenced to six years in prison.
Throughout the eight months Tichelman was in custody, the media luridly painted her as “The Callgirl Killer,” “The Harbor Hooker,” or simply, baldly, as a “prostitute,” even though she hadn’t worked as an escort since early in 2012 and actually met Hayes on Seeking Arrangement as a sugar daddy. Meanwhile, no article on the case failed to mention that Hayes was an employee of Google X and a father of five. Despite the fact that this was clearly “an accidental overdose between two consenting adults,” as Tichelman’s lawyer Larry Biggam put it, and that the two were known to have been involved in an ongoing commercial sexual relationship involving drug use, most coverage painted the young sex worker as a heartless killer. All of the media I read made sure to quote Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark’s comment to NBC News that “she [Tichelman] was so callous,” and describe the footage on the yacht’s surveillance video in which she stepped over his body to lower the curtains and sip from a glass of wine.
Few news outlets quoted Assistant District Attorney Rafael Velasquez’s words at the case’s conclusion, belying this presentation of Tichelman as a dope-fiend black widow: “This is a manslaughter case. There was no intent to kill and there was no conscious disregard for human life…She demonstrated an attempt to initially try to help him out, crying while holding him, trying to shake him, trying to wake him.”
These two accounts of the surveillance video are so starkly different that one must assume that a lot of the behavior being touted as proof of Tichelman’s inhumanity represents her reaction before she even knew Hayes was dead, when she thought he was merely in a nod—the typical effect of opiates.
What would have happened to Alex Tichelman had she called the police?
Unlike many states, California has a 911 Good Samaritan law, meaning that Tichelman would not have been liable for small amounts of drugs on the property or being intoxicated herself. It’s unlikely she knew that, though, and she would most likely still have been responsible for bringing Hayes the heroin in the first place, and still have been stuck with manslaughter charges for injecting him. In fact, in light of Tichelman’s conviction, police in Milton, Georgia have reopened the case of the 2013 death of Tichelman’s boyfriend Dean Riopelle from mixing opiates and alcohol, an instance in which Tichelman, described as “panicked,” did call 911 for help, stating that Riopelle had overdosed and she didn’t know what he was on.
Discussions of Hayes’ death elide any mention of what Tichelman could have done to keep him alive. One positive thing media spotlight on the case could have achieved is wider public awareness of how Narcan distribution to opiate users and basic overdose prevention skills like CPR could have saved Hayes. Yet the media preferred to focus instead on how cold-hearted Tichelman was to panic in the face of her client’s sudden death and the possibility of her arrest.
When white, upper-middle class men like Hayes use injection drugs, it is at worst a tragic vice, not a marker of sociopathy as Tichelman’s drug use has been depicted. The sex workers these men call upon to facilitate their double lives are the ones that typically get to wear the scarlet A for their addiction. Article after article describes every twist and turn of Tichelman’s drug history, assuming the fact that she used heroin made her more or less likely to have done the right thing, but no investigative reporting seems to have been done to uncover the story of Hayes’ habit. Sex workers are expected to cater to men on benders, fulfilling their desire to get high as well as their sexual needs, leaving us to babysit entitled and reckless users unlikely to recognize their own mortality. Tichelman injected Hayes, suggesting that she was the more experienced user, more familiar with the limits of tolerance. But besides being his supplier, Tichelman was also Hayes’ employee, someone he expected to empower him to enjoy his leisure. How much freedom did she have to tell him that the dose he asked for was too much? As any sex worker can tell you, men do not enjoy being told “no” when they’re taking a load off.
Stigma made Tichelman an easy target for last month’s news cycle, each outlet piling on to tell essentially the same story about the cruel temptress who got a brainy executive killed. Many meaningful details, such as Hayes’ enthusiastic participation in the couple’s drug use (he reportedly used the flashlight app on his iPhone to make sure that Tichelman was able to see well enough to get a good vein when she injected him) and Tichelman’s traumatic past as an inmate in one of Utah’s notorious unlicensed rehab facilities for troubled teens, as well as her numerous attempts to stop doing drugs, were overshadowed by that facile narrative.
But most tragically, the sensationalist coverage ignored discussions on overdose death we should be having, such as the extent sex workers should be responsible for their clients’ drug use, the necessity of passing 911 Good Samaritan laws nationwide, the need for those laws to excuse all drug-related crime at an overdose scene, and the most effective way to provide drug users with harm reduction information to prevent future overdoses. In the meantime, just a week ago, Texas governor Greg Abbot vetoed a 911 Good Samaritan and naloxone distribution bill, preparing the way for more deaths like Forrest Hayes’.