SF police probe death of trans woman

by Seth Hemmelgarn

San Francisco police are investigating the death of a young transgender woman whose body was found last week in her North Beach residential hotel room.

Mariah Malina Qualls, 23, was found dead in the Golden Eagle Hotel, 402 Broadway Street, on Wednesday, December 9.

Stephen Gelman, administrator for the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s office, said that the manner and cause of death are pending.

Maureen D’Amico, an inspector with the San Francisco Police Department’s homicide unit, said police are investigating the death as a murder. As of Monday, December 14, she said that there had not been any arrests, but police do have leads. She couldn’t offer descriptions of any possible suspects.

“It’s a tragedy,” said D’Amico of Qualls’s death.

Family members said Qualls identified as transgender, and said she moved to the city from San Jose so she could be herself.

“She loved the gay community,” said Christine Qualls, Mariah Qualls’s mother. “She loved the gay Pride parades. It just fit. That’s where she thought she would fit. She just wanted to start a new life.”

Now, “it’s like my heart’s been torn out,” she said.

Qualls, who lives in Los Banos, said that her daughter was a night owl.

“She loved to be on the phone,” she said. “You should’ve just sewed the thing to her head. She was constantly on the phone, all day and all night. It didn’t matter if everybody was asleep.”

Qualls said she had talked to her daughter “on the phone a little bit here and there,” and the last time she had seen her daughter, in April, “she seemed happy.”

However, “I think she was kind of having a harder time than what she let on,” said Qualls. “She moved around a lot. She stayed in a lot of different hotels.”

No answer

Outside room 105, Qualls’s unit, Sunday night, December 13, a medical examiner’s seal marked the door, two wilted flowers lay on the floor, and there was a candy cane on the doorknob.

D’Amico, the police inspector, said Qualls’s body was found when the hotel’s manager opened the door for a pest control worker, after Qualls hadn’t answered the door.

The inspector wouldn’t say how long Qualls’s body had been in the unit, and she said she couldn’t say anything about how Qualls might have died or the condition of the room.

D’Amico also wouldn’t say if any DNA evidence had been collected or if there was video surveillance footage from the building.

She said that there weren’t any signs that Qualls had been killed because of being transgender.

According to San Francisco Superior Court documents, Qualls officially changed her name from Matthew Tod Qualls to Mariah Malina Qualls in May. A police spokeswoman said that police had her name spelled as Miriah.

Despite the name change, it appeared that Qualls had been uncomfortable with life.

Daniel Stiller, 51, who lives a couple doors down from Qualls’s unit, said she had seemed as if she were “under the influence of something heavy” and that she “barely got out of the room.”

He also suspected drug activity, saying that people would go to Qualls’s room, spend less than a minute inside, and come out at “any time, day or night.”

Stiller said he could smell crack “wafting down” from the unit – “that acrid, chemical smell. Nothing else smells like it.”

He said that he had last seen Qualls on Monday, December 7.

Josh Horton, a front desk clerk at the Golden Eagle, said that Qualls was “a very nice person” who stayed at the hotel “off and on every couple of months or so.”

Horton said there “were not really people coming over a lot” to Qualls’s room. He didn’t know whether Qualls was involved in drugs, and he said guests to the building were supposed to show identification.

Superior Court records also indicate that Qualls was troubled. In June, Bo-Derek Smith, another transgender woman, obtained a restraining order against her.

Derek-Smith, 36, said in a phone interview that Qualls “said some evil things to me. … She was constantly calling me and called me all kinds of bitches and stuff.”

However, Derek-Smith said that the two reconciled a couple months later, after Qualls apologized.

Alexis Miranda, who manages the Post Street bar Divas, said Qualls had been “86’d” from the bar and she hadn’t seen her in months.

Miranda wouldn’t say why Qualls had been banned, but she said that prostitution and drugs aren’t allowed in the bar.

“She really wasn’t mean or bad or anything,” said Miranda, who said she didn’t know Qualls intimately. “She was trying to survive. Addiction got the best of her.”

D’Amico, the police inspector, wouldn’t comment on whether there had been any signs of drug activity at Qualls’s hotel room.

Asked about toxicology reports, Gelman, of the medical examiner’s office, would only say that Qualls’s death is “an active case under investigation.”

Searches for additional San Francisco court records involving Qualls yielded no immediate results.

Not ‘a good place’

Judy Garcia, Qualls’s grandmother, said that she “hadn’t talked to her in a while,” and she didn’t know anything about Qualls being involved in drugs.

Family members never dreamed that maybe San Francisco “wasn’t a good place” for Qualls, said Garcia, who added, “I believe she got involved with the wrong crowd.”

Billie Garcia, Qualls’s aunt, said that Qualls had lived with her in San Jose just before she moved to San Francisco about a year and a half ago.

She said that she and her niece talked about “everything,” said she hadn’t known Qualls to be into drugs.

She said Qualls was “the nicest person in the world” but also “naive,” and she had worried about her safety.

She said the family accepted Qualls as transgender, and she apologized in advance for frequently referring to her as “he.”

“He went to San Francisco because he felt like he could live and be comfortable and walk around … without people staring at him like he was a freak,” said Garcia. She said that Qualls had “always been feminine” and had started dressing as a woman when she was 18 or 19.

Garcia said that Qualls was working on getting hormones.

“We’d even joke about who was going to have bigger breasts,” she said.

The last time Garcia spoke with her niece was probably in September or October, she said.

But before Qualls died, “he acted like he was happy” in San Francisco. “… It almost felt like that was where he was supposed to be, like he was finally happy,” she said.

Qualls’s funeral service will be held Saturday, December 19 at 11:30 a.m., at the Chapel of Flowers, 900 South 2nd Street, in San Jose.

[Updated, Dec. 18: The Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center will hold a memorial for Qualls on Saturday at 5 p.m. at the agency’s Trans Thrive office, 815 Hyde Street, Suite 201 in San Francisco. According to a news release issued Friday, Qualls was a volunteer with the Trans Thrive program, which is a drop-in center in the Tenderloin that serves transgenders.]

Anyone with information about the case can call the SFPD homicide unit at (415) 553-1145. After 5 p.m., call the police operations center at (415) 553-1071. The anonymous tip line is (415) 575-4444.

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