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Poetry and Rehab: Friends Paint Picture of Hooker in Google Murder Case

Image: Alix Tichelman, left, 26, of Folsom, Calif., confers with public defender Diane August, right, during her arraignment in Santa Cruz Superior Court

Alix Tichelman, left, 26, of Folsom, Calif., confers with public defender Diane August, right, during her arraignment in Santa Cruz Superior Court Wednesday, July 9, 2014, in Santa Cruz, Calif. Tichelman is facing manslaughter charges for the November 2013 death of Forrest Hayes, a Google executive. A Silicon Valley success story turned sordid this week with the arrest of an upscale prostitute who allegedly left Hayes dying on his yacht after shooting him up with a deadly hit of heroin. Hayes, 51, was found dead by the captain of his 50-foot yacht Escape. Shmuel Thaler / Santa Cruz Sentinel via AP

After her arrest in California, on July 4th, Alix Tichelman broke out as America’s vilified, irresistible character du jour.

She was billed as "The call girl killer" and "the black widow of Silicon Valley": a soulless young woman mixed up in the death of a Google executive and father of five. Police charged her with manslaughter, saying she gave Forrest Hayes a lethal dose of heroin, and left him to die in the cabin of his yacht in Santa Cruz. The authorities also reopened an overdose case in Atlanta, fearing a "pattern" of serial killer-like behavior in the stringy, tattooed figure with the intense eyes. It didn't help that her online writing ran toward killing sprees and "The Satanic Bible."

But Tichelman's devilish image is starting to slip. In court on Wednesday, where she pleaded not guilty, her attorney slammed the public narrative and compared his client to "a wounded bird."

Now a half dozen of Tichelman’s friends have also come forward, portraying the troubled 26-year-old as a sensitive, big-hearted dreamer. Far from a born sociopath, they contend, she was a sweet girl who turned to sex, drugs, and professional provocation to cope with the pain of her upbringing.

"She’s a good person," says Hennessey Shaat, who has known Tichelman since high school. "And smart, I mean, really, really smart."

Like the rest of her friends, he thinks that Hayes, reportedly one of the engineers on Google's self-driving car project, deserves more of the moral, if not legal, outrage currently being heaped on Tichelman. The two were in an "ongoing prostitution relationship," according to Santa Cruz Police, and Hayes can be seen in the yacht's security footage waiting as Tichelman cooks up some heroin and sluices it into his arm. He even used the flashlight function on his smartphone to help her find a good vein for it, according to the defense.

"All this hype because the poor guy was a Google executive!" says Jenn, who requested her last name not be used because she met Alix in rehab. “Just because someone writes some dark poems doesn't make them this awful person."

A decade ago Alix was an impish blonde tomboy at Northview High, a public school in the affluent, smooth-edged suburbs of northern Atlanta. She loved to write and she seemed to have a lot going for her: good looks, money, a functional home life. Her father, Bart Tichelman, a part-time professional poker player and rising technology entrepreneur, wasn't home much. But her mother, Leslieann, kept the house happy, and the basement was always full of Alix's friends. It was there, says Shaat, that Alix first started using drugs.

For a while she showed no signs of trouble, but by junior year Alix’s home life had collapsed. She told friends a tawdry story of her father leading a second life, with a second family in Oregon. At the same time, friends who came up from the basement for air recall seeing Ms. Tichelman in intimate conversation with different men, none of them her absentee husband.

"Bart isn't man of the year," says Erin Lykins, who used to party at the Tichelman house. "He certainly isn't father of the year."

None of the Tichelmans have come forward to comment, so these may be the half-truths of adolescence. But Alix herself has said that her drug use escalated through these years. Shaat says she went from small white pills to long syringes full of heroin, from experimentation to hard-core abuse. Her parents intervened, reportedly sending her to one boarding school in Georgia, another in Maine.

Each costs tens of thousands of dollars, and the second one had a reputation for helping teens with substance abuse problems.

Neither worked. In 2003 Alix was sent to still more stringent program, an alternative teen rehab facility in Utah. There, once the consent forms had been signed, she was treated like a piece of property in need of cleaning. "They locked us up against our will," says one of Alix's roommates from the facility, who asked that her name not be associated with rehab. "Nothing was allowed. Period."

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Although the facility was co-ed, the girls were forbidden from even looking at the boys. They were also forbidden from touching each other, a prohibition Alix pushed through with gusto. She coordinated lesbian trysts in the stairwells and the bathrooms, her roommate says, until the whole dorm was being punished.

"They force you to be something you’re not," the roommate says, explaining the rebellion. "It made me feel a lot of shame, and I'm sure Alix felt the same way." But when the administrators came looking for a ring-leader, Alix did something that might surprise people: she turned herself in, a move that put her on the lowest level of house privileges. In the process, she also cleared her roommate, who was on brink of a return to normal school.

"It’s because of her I was able to go free," she remembers. "She spoke up."

While the incident highlights Tichelman’s more honorable side, it also hints at her future as an evidently willing sex worker. In fact, the roommate, who hasn’t seen Tichelman since their harrowing year in the desert, also turned to sex work as an adult. Both young women came from well-off families. Both had other options. But both ended up advertising their bodies online. The roommate, who now goes by the name "Bad Becka," says she recognizes herself in Alix's career trajectory.

"I love sex" she says. "It's just like people who love surfing or snowboarding and who need money to be able to do it. This is a way of sponsoring myself and allowing myself to do this for a living."

Tichelman's own sex work began around 2010, friends say, five years after she graduated from high school. She wasn’t really a hooker, she told friends, because she only took money from guys she was going to sleep with anyway. "She was a messed up individual," says Jack Labelle, a heavy metal musician who met Tichelman while she was working as a fetish model.

"She suffered from saying things for effect; she was an attention seeker; she liked to provoke people," he adds. "I don’t know any of her ticks other than to say that she was miserable and alone a lot of the time."

Dean Riopelle was a temporary savior of sorts. A 53-year-old club owner in Atlanta, he promised to help Tichelman break away from her tumultuous past, while indulging her darkening sexual side. In an interview with fIXE, a fetish magazine, Tichelman said it was Riopelle who introduced her to the world of bondage. "Dean likes to take me out to clubs with me on a collar and leash,” she said. “I love it. We both do.”

By mid-2012, Dean bought Tichelman a black-and-white promise ring, and she told friends they would almost surely get married. "Life is great," she gushed to her followers on Facebook. "I am seriously blessed as a motherf-----, a great boyfriend, nice house, monkeys, loving family...doesn't get any better than this i don't think."

Nine months later Riopelle was dead of a drug overdose, which police initially ruled an accident. They've since reopened the case, and some of Riopelle’s acquaintances have voiced concerns that Tichelman had a hand in his death. But her friends say she was simply devastated by the loss. She packed up her Mustang (black, of course) and drove to Folsom California a few weeks later. Her parents had moved there after Bart got a CEO-level job with another technology company. In their big, comfortable house, Tichelman had planned to get clean.

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Instead she struggled once again. Although her parents were rich, she wasn't comfortable taking their money. When her car broke down, Labelle says, she was scrounging around for $800 to fix it. She was always cadging gas money as well. At some point she decided to return to a kind of halfway-hookerdom, creating a profile for herself on Seeking Arrangements, a web for “sugar babies” looking for “sugar daddies.” Forrest Hayes was one of her regular daddies, according to police.

As he lay dying, Santa Cruz police told NBC News, Tichelman can be seen on the yacht's security camera as she casually tidies up the cabin, stepping over the body numerous times, including once to finish a glass of wine. Before she slipped away, she pulled the curtains on the boat. “She was so callous,” said Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark.

More likely, say Tichelman’s defenders, she thought he had merely passed out. Or she was too scared and or too high to do the right thing. Either way he was a willing participant and equally deserving of criticism, they contend.

"The double standard makes me feel sick," says Lady Lila Stern, a dominatrix in California who, while she did not know Tichelman, has become a fan and public defender. "We are all people."

Image: Alix Tichelman arraignment for Forrest Hayes death
Alix Catherine Tichelman, 26, appears with her Attorney Athena Reis in Santa Cruz Superior Court to be arraigned on charges connected to the heroin overdose death of Google executive Forrest Hayes in Santa Cruz, Calif., on July 16. MONICA DAVEY / EPA