Defendant Jillian McIlvenna was getting woozy beneath the harsh lighting of Department 21 in San Francisco's Superior Court. Doe-eyed behind dark-framed glasses, she blinked, as if that would obscure the view. But it was all still there. The formless orange jumpsuit. The judge in his bright purple tie. All the devastated families, including that of the dead man. The most dreadful people in view, though, were the other two young women in orange. Kimberly Gutierrez and Felicia Mehrara.
The three of them had shared everything — their apartment, their clothes, their men. Even their beds. All had come from broken families, eventually becoming what investigators called "throwaways," the catch-all term for girls on their own at a young age. Struggling to support themselves and their drug-addled lifestyle, the teenagers had become close and built a family of their own. But in court on April 3, the three exchanged only arctic stares. Murder tends to have that kind of effect on friendship.
It had been five years since the girls lured Eugene Gorenman to the edge of San Francisco, from where he would never return. The 26-year-old Russian software engineer had encountered them on a drive home from a party, then followed them to Fort Funston, a wind-whipped beach locale and former military base. A jogger later found Gorenman's body with a fatal gunshot wound to the head, his jeans pockets turned out. His silver Mustang was abandoned in the Bayview. The only sign of life was found in Gorenman's credit card, which continued to make purchases at gas stations, a cellphone store, and a nail salon.
Those purchases soon became valuable clues in a sprawling San Francisco police investigation that stretched over the Bay Area, filling dozens of notebooks, requiring hundreds of interviews, and taking two nerve-wracking years to unravel. It also involved the U.S. National Park Service, the South San Francisco police, and the FBI, to whom the execution-style shooting suggested the Russian Mafia.
But the real culprits were even more glamorous than that: a trio of femmes fatales, one white, one Latina, and one multiracial. Young, beautiful, and, to varying degrees, responsible for the brutal killing of a man they hardly knew. Now it was time for them to be sentenced and shipped off to state prison, but before that, the victim's parents had something to say.
"The killers not only took away our son, but they destroyed our entire family," the Gorenmans had written for police Inspector Holly Pera to read aloud. Because Eugene had been their only son, the family name would end with him. The statement alternately eulogized the fallen son and excoriated the girls, to whom it referred as "vicious animals" and "human filth."
"They belong in hell," Pera read. "They don't deserve any pity regardless of their age or socioeconomic status." In closing, the statement instructed the girls to "remember that as long as you live, God will punish you wherever you are. Signed, Eugene Gorenman's parents."
Jillian listened with her head down, and turned over the words in her mind. He had been their only child. Since the murder, she says, she had never heard Kim or Felicia express regret. On the other hand, Jillian told police from the start that she felt horrible about what happened, and before her sentencing, she stood to address the Gorenman family. Her statement turned out to be less an apology than a final declaration of innocence.
"They can think ill of me all that they will," she said. "Anyone who knows me and knows my heart knows that I could never have knowingly beared witness to such a heinous crime."
In a small conference room tucked away in the bowels of the San Francisco county jailhouse, Jillian McIlvenna sits forward with her elbows perched on the table, ready to tell her story one more time. Although she's put on a few pounds since her incarceration, her long chestnut hair, mocha-colored eyes, and bow-shaped lips apparently have some of the guards doing double-takes.
In here, she's "as good as could be expected," she says, considering that protective custody — which keeps her safe from her also-jailed former friends — affords her just 30 minutes a day for exercise. That's especially tough for someone like Jillian.
During her childhood in Potrero Hill, she was charming but relentlessly disruptive — the picture of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. "I couldn't keep myself out of trouble," she says. "And I can't get my head in the books." That's not to say she isn't smart. In fact, Jillian believes she has a photographic memory.
Her parents divorced soon after she was born, and although she spent her first four years living with her mother, Deborah Latham, her father, Rand McIlvenna, eventually got custody.
Latham had three more children, who were all eventually taken out of her custody. "Anything she can become addicted to, she does," Jillian says. "She lies. She cheats. She steals."
Latham denies all of this. She says that although she tried drugs a few times, her problems stemmed from her unwise selection of drug-addicted, abusive men and a failure of "the system" to protect her. Jillian remembers spending the summers with her mom, only to return to her father emaciated and sunburned.
McIlvenna and his family were unquestionably a more stable and positive influence, if slightly alternative. Their business, the San Francisco–based Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, provides graduate-level courses.
As a teenager, Jillian's troublemaking got her booted out of various public schools, until she eventually landed at the Urban Pioneer Experiential Academy, a now-defunct charter school. The students were taken on camping and rock-climbing trips, during which she developed a love for the outdoors. After she graduated, she enrolled in Emeryville's National Holistic Institute to study massage therapy.
By that time, though, Jillian had developed a reliance on marijuana and its ability to "take the edge off." She had also declared herself a lesbian. She lived with her maternal grandparents in Berkeley; her family encouraged her to avoid San Francisco and concentrate on finishing school.