If just about everyone appears to look the same at Club Universe, it's probably because everyone does. Much of the clientele seems plucked directly from a planet where the boys are big, pharmaceutical options are plentiful, and originality -- if it bothered to show up at all -- left quickly in search of someone who might appreciate it. Still, fans of the male form regularly find a plethora of eye candy here, making this club one of the places to party for many of San Francisco's gay men.
Vitaly Poliakov, 29, is here, too, but he's hardly the club's poster boy. The 5-foot-8, 130-pound Russian immigrant (who goes by the name Steve) isn't unattractive; he just doesn't have a body that fits the Club Universe mold. But not everyone at the club spends 15 religious hours each week in the gym, and this is one of Poliakov's favorite places to party, hang out with his few friends, and partake in heavy drinking and a recreational drug habit of crystal and cocaine.
On this morning, the mostly quiet and unassuming Poliakov, a man fueled by an obsessive taste for expensive cars and younger men, has his mind on a remarkably attractive 17-year-old named Josh Puckett. Puckett, blessed with the kind of buffed body that one friend says "should be illegal at his age" -- the kind of body that landed him on the cover of an international magazine for young gay men -- is not at Club Universe. Instead, he's chosen to hang out with friends in Orinda, an upscale town 20 miles east of San Francisco. Poliakov, already drunk, pages Puckett several times from the club.
In Orinda, Puckett, 23-year-old Marty Kisner, and a third partier, a juvenile male, are having quite a busy evening, but the trio aren't ready to call it a night just yet. Earlier, the boys had cruised around Walnut Creek, where they had spotted two attractive teenage girls, struck up a conversation, then invited the pair to a drive-in showing of the film Sphere. There, Puckett returned a page to Poliakov's cell phone.
After the movie, Puckett and Kisner drop off their younger friend and the two girls and return to a home in Orinda. Amin Ghaciani, the son of the home's owner, had jokingly told Kisner that he and some friends could stay there during the week (even showing Kisner a way to prop open a side window), but later said that he never expected Kisner to take him up on the offer. Poliakov pages Puckett again, asking to come out to Orinda, promising to bring drugs. Never one to turn down a party, Kisner urges Puckett to invite Poliakov.
Poliakov leaves Club Universe at about 3:30 a.m., speeding to Orinda in his new silver Mercedes-Benz E320, the dealer license plates still on display. He meets the boys at the Orinda BART station, and because Poliakov is obviously drunk, Puckett takes the wheel for the five-minute drive to a white-and-brown ranch-style home located near the top of a windy road with a view of Mount Diablo.
There, according to Puckett and Kisner, the three drink, smoke marijuana, and partake of several other drugs, including speed and crystal. At some point, Kisner makes his way to the bathroom, where he passes out. "I was basically praising the porcelain God," he later told the Contra Costa Times. (Contra Costa County Sheriff's Detective Jeff Wells says that this is one of the few times he would have no reason to doubt Kisner, because "that was sort of Marty's MO, to pass out in his own puke somewhere.")
A neighbor hears a scream at about 6:30 a.m. that lasts some 30 seconds and sounds like someone is crying out in "trouble or desperation." Later, Kisner awakes to find Poliakov lying in the living room in a pool of his own blood, so badly beaten that he can hardly be recognized. Kisner says that when he asked Puckett why he took a heavy cider bottle to Poliakov's head, the 17-year-old with the body of gold offered this explanation: "Because he's a fag, and he likes me."
Sporting baggy jeans, a white tank top, and a cocky attitude that some found charming and others considered utterly appalling, Josh Puckett was the kind of boy who turned heads during the summer he spent in the Castro, where he worked three jobs on and off until the week before Poliakov's death. Blessed with a muscular, 6-foot, 185-pound frame, a boyish face, and an endearing charm, Puckett wanted to be a model, and there are few people who would have argued against his chances.
"Puckett is really stunning," says 34-year-old Derrick Tynan-Connolly, a community liaison with the San Francisco Unified School District. Tynan-Connolly met Puckett early in the summer of '97, when Puckett played volleyball at the Eureka Valley Playground with a few friends from Pozole, a Market Street restaurant where Puckett worked. "[Puckett] created quite a stir among all the gay men on that court, that's for sure."
Months later, some jurors in Puckett's murder trial would view his amazing looks in another light, one saying that Puckett "seemed like the kind of boy that I would be happy to have my daughter date." Even Deputy District Attorney Barry Grove, who prosecuted Puckett, said, "He looked more like a frat boy than a murderer."
Puckett's trial was cut short when Grove played an inadmissible portion of Puckett's videotaped confession to the jury. Many speculated that the teenager's appearance and charm in court played a part in Grove's decision to offer Puckett a plea bargain, rather than retry him for murder. In the deal, criticized as overlenient by the lead detective on the case, Puckett pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and an unrelated burglary, and received a prison sentence of just 14 years.