SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - A high-priced escort accused of leaving a top Google executive to die alone on his yacht after injecting him with heroin pleaded not guilty today to a manslaughter charge.
Alix Tichelman, 26, her hands shackled, wearing a red jail jumpsuit, sat quietly in the back row of the jury box as her attorney asked a judge to release her until her trial for the death of Forrest Hayes, 51, a married father of five. The judge denied the request.
Tichelman, who answered "yes" twice when asked by the judge if she understood the charges, has been in jail with bail set at $1.5 million since her arrest on July 4 for Hayes' Nov. 23 death.
Police say surveillance video from cameras installed on the boat by its techie owner, and later described by Santa Cruz police investigators, shows the tattooed escort stepping over the dying executive, sipping from a glass of wine, tidying the boat and drawing the blinds before departing.
Larry Biggam, one of the lawyers defending Tichelman, said Hayes' death was an accident, at best a case of involuntary manslaughter, not murder.
"To demonize Alix Tichelman here is just wrong," he said. "This was a consensual sexual encounter initiated by Mr. Hayes. ... She had no reason to harm him. He was a lucrative source of income to her."
Athena Reis, the public defender assigned to Tichelman's case, said she was not surprised that the judge denied her request for a reduction in bail. She said Tichelman is "very concerned" about the prospect of going to prison. Tichelman's next court appearance is scheduled for Oct. 20.
On Wednesday, more than a dozen news media from outlets around the country filled the courtroom here to glimpse the woman who billed herself as a model and aspiring writer and allegedly offered her companionship for hundreds of dollars on prostitution websites.
Tichelman's father, also a tech executive, her mother and sister also attended the hearing. Tichelman moved from Atlanta to Folsom, Calif., in September, after her boyfriend, Dean Riopelle, owner of a popular Atlanta music venue, died of a heroin overdose. Police in Milton, Ga., said last week they would re-examine Riopelle's death.
A short distance from the courthouse where Tichelman was arraigned is the city's ride-filled boardwalk. A few miles away is the liberal educational enclave of the University of California at Santa Cruz, a contrast to its surfer vibe. Legendary surf shop O'Neill was started here. Whales regularly trace a lazy migratory path just off the town's rocky coast.
Such beauty surely had a hand in luring Michigan native Hayes, who had started his professional career in Detroit's automotive industry.
After making his way west, Hayes worked in a series of successful high-tech roles at Sun Microsystems, Apple and finally Google, where he worked on projects such as Glass wearable computers and the company's self-driving car. If he had a complaint, it was the hour-long commute from his home in the hills of Santa Cruz to Google's Mountain View headquarters. His solution was to buy a Chevy Volt so he could take advantage of that gas-electric car's carpool lane privileges.
By all accounts Hayes was a thoughtful boss and a devoted family man to his wife and five children. If he had a racy side, that had appeared limited to owning a modified Porsche sports car and 50-foot powerboat he named "Escape."
It was on this boat, docked in the marina here, that Hayes died Nov. 23 after having been injected with heroin by Tichelman.
Initially described by authorities simply as a suspicious death, the incident immediately drew impassioned reminiscences on a memorial website dedicated to Hayes. On that page, since taken down, previously published descriptions of the comments uniformly speak of a man with an extraordinary ability not only to operate at the highest levels of the competitive tech world but also to do so with compassion and enthusiasm.
One tribute, published recently in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, was signed simply Astro and recounts Hayes' time with Google's prestigious and secretive X division. Astro Teller leads that group.
"The first time I met you I felt that you had a particular bright light inside you," the post said. "You had the perfect mixture of serious and happy and I hope that over time, I can become even just a tiny bit more like you in that way. … You were only at X for a short while but you made a huge difference to us there. You set a new standard for effectiveness and professionalism … I miss you painfully and I will fondly remember you always. With love, Astro."
Hayes' death has trained a media spotlight on the issue of sex in Silicon Valley, an area usually bathed in a squeaky-clean light of innovation and industriousness. Police say Hayes had an ongoing association with Tichelman.
"I continue to see an increase in the amount of technology clients I see here in the Bay Area," a 28-year-old sex worker who calls herself Siouxsie Q told USA TODAY last week. "Anytime you have a lot of young men coming West to seek their fortunes, the sex worker industry responds."