Jessica Alva, center, had been living in San Francisco for four years before she died in the hospital earlier this month. (Courtesy Anthony Alva)

Jessica Alva, center, had been living in San Francisco for four years before she died in the hospital earlier this month. (Courtesy Anthony Alva)

Family suspects foul play in death of woman investigated as apparent suicide

Jessica Nicole Alva was turning her life around.

Jessica Nicole Alva was turning her life around. After moving to San Francisco four years ago, the 35-year-old mother of six completed a recovery program and landed a nice apartment in the Bayview. She became a mentor to those struggling with addiction and an advocate for a wide-range of issues.

Then things took a turn. Alva’s family says her boyfriend, Clayton Rhoades, was released from state prison in January and moved in with her. She was not allowed to call or go out with anybody alone, according to her brother. Her family feared that she was trapped in an abusive relationship.

On April 2, police and paramedics responded to an “apparent hanging” at her home on Kirkwood Avenue near Third Street. Alva was taken to the hospital with life-threatening injuries and died four days later. The Medical Examiner’s Office has since preliminarily ruled her death a suicide, officials say.

But Alva’s family suspects foul play. At the hospital, her family saw knots on her head and large bruises on her arms and legs. They remembered that she had called her Godmother days earlier and asked for help. She was afraid of Rhoades, 35, and concerned about the safety of her children.

In the very last entry of her journal, her brother Anthony Alva said she wrote of plans to talk to her children “about the future.”

“She had worked so hard and in a matter of less than three months somebody came into her life and destroyed it,” he said. “She was going to try to make a change. She was trying to get out of it. Clayton wasn’t going to have that.”

Anthony Alva isn’t sure what happened to his sister. But after the family posted on social media alleging that her injuries were the result of domestic violence, the San Francisco Police Department launched a Special Victims Unit investigation into the circumstances of the case.

“I don’t know exactly what happened but something happened to Jessica, something bad happened to her and I want to find out to the best of my knowledge what happened because she’ll never rest, I’ll never rest without that,” Anthony Alva said.

In a phone call with the San Francisco Examiner on Wednesday, Rhoades said Alva died by suicide but declined to say what happened.

“I found her,” Rhoades said. “I know it was a suicide.”

Rhoades said police have interviewed him twice since the incident. He was booked into County Jail on a parole violation April 8 but has since been released. He has prior convictions, including for a 2013 second-degree robbery and battery on a peace officer in Shasta County.

“With all due respect to Jessica and her kids, I’m not going to tell you what happened,” Rhoades told the Examiner. “I have cooperated with law enforcement every time they interviewed me, I have told them what happened. I showed them everything, I have answered every question to the best of my abilities, I have nothing to hide.”

At the end of the call, Rhoades said, “This might not be Clayton Rhoades.”

When asked what he meant, Rhoades said he had watched too many movies and, “I always wanted to say that.”

In a subsequent call, Rhoades declined to answer further questions.

“I’m not worried about a response,” Rhoades said, referring to the many allegations made about him on social media. “I don’t feel the need to prove anything to them people.”

On Tuesday, members of Alva’s family went to the Board of Supervisors meeting at City Hall to call for a full investigation into her death.

Anthony Alva said he believes police botched the investigation by not handing the case to the Special Victims Unit until three days after the incident.

Responding to the incident as a suicide, Anthony Alva said officers at the scene accepted a fake name from Rhoades without checking his identification, and would have known of his criminal record if they had acquired his real name.

He also said police allowed Rhoades and several companions to remain in the apartment after the incident. When the family entered the apartment on another day, Anthony Alva said it smelled of bleach.

“It should have been investigated properly,” he said. “Those things are going to make it very difficult to ever actually say what actually did happen.”

Officer Robert Rueca, a police spokesperson, confirmed that the department launched a Special Victims Unit investigation into the case after the family posted on social media but declined to answer specific questions citing the open investigation in the case.

Rueca said the Medical Examiner’s Office is investigating the death and “has the responsibility for determining the cause and manner of death.”

The Medical Examiner’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Max Szabo, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office, said the Medical Examiner’s Office has preliminary ruled the death a suicide.

Szabo said police have not presented a case to the office. Prosecutors cannot make a charging decision until a case is handed over.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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