Dying man’s pleas ignored 

click to enlarge Police say the cause of death of 47-year-old Richard Sprague, who suffered for hours on Julian Avenue near 15th Street, is pending an autopsy. - MIKE KOOZMIN/SPECIAL TO THE SF EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/Special to The SF Examiner
  • Police say the cause of death of 47-year-old Richard Sprague, who suffered for hours on Julian Avenue near 15th Street, is pending an autopsy.

One neighbor said he was reading when he heard Richard Sprague cry out, “Help! 911! Help!” Another said he was asleep and believed Sprague’s pleas were part of a dream. And a third resident figured Sprague was just some homeless druggie.

What they all heard were the agonizing cries of a man dying on a Mission district street early Sunday, yet it took about five hours before a resident of Julian Avenue near 15th Street called police.

By then, it was too late to save Sprague’s life.

The 47-year-old San Francisco resident was first heard calling for help about 2 a.m. Police were called to the scene at 7:42 a.m., Officer Albie Esparza said. The death is being investigated as a homicide, and a cause is pending an autopsy, Esparza said.

Neighbors on Tuesday said they have become so accustomed to the many druggies and drunks traversing their block late at night they didn’t bother to call the cops.

“It’s extremely important to remind people who see or hear anything suspicious to call 911,” Esparza said.

Grief-stricken residents who spoke with The San Francisco Examiner on Tuesday regretted their decision to not take action.

“He stopped talking and I figured somebody helped,” said Louis, a neighbor who refused to provide his last name. “If we called, we probably could have helped. It’s really sad.”

Both Louis and neighbor Moises Encinas, 21, said they heard other voices outside and figured the situation was under control. They had no idea Sprague was gasping for his last breaths.

“I heard ‘help’ in my dream, then I woke up,” Encinas said.

The neighbor who claimed to have first called police said she went outside about 6:30 a.m. and saw Sprague motionless on the sidewalk. She said she figured he was “sleeping it off,” and went back inside. An hour later, she said she came back outside, took a closer look at the body and noticed bruising and swelling.

There were rumblings among neighbors that someone had seen Sprague being dropped off by a van that fled the scene. Police have not confirmed that report.

Longtime resident Nicola Nielson, 66, said investigators at the scene suggested suffocation as the cause of death.

Neighbors said the block is a hotbed for drinking and drug use, and it’s used by folks passing through after leaving Mission night spots. On Tuesday morning, a hypodermic needle was seen on the street just feet from where Sprague’s body was found.

“Every night people are walking, talking, people who are under the influence of drugs and alcohol,” Louis said.


Homicides in 2012

There have been eight killings reported in The City this year.

Jan. 12
Joseph Minozzi found stabbed in South of Market

Jan. 19 Rory Jones shot while sitting in car in Bayview

Jan. 26 Nelson Henriquez found stabbed in Outer Mission

Feb. 6 Ricky Leon Scott found stabbed in South of Market

Feb. 9 Rebekah Wilson’s death from week before in South of Market ruled a homicide

Feb. 14 Derek Hall shot near home in Bayview

Feb. 15 Luther Robinson stabbed in Bayview

Tuesday Richard Sprague's death Sunday in Mission ruled homicide

The bystander effect

This psychological phenomenon was famously studied in the late 1960s by Bibb Latane and John Darley, who were inspired by the murder of a young New York City woman.

Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was attacked and stabbed outside her apartment building March 13, 1964, but none of the dozens of neighbors who reportedly heard her pleas for help responded by calling police.

The effect of such an incident on an individual is they are less likely to help someone in distress if they know there is a large number of people around, believing someone has already come to the person’s aid. Also, people assume because everyone is standing by idly, the situation does not warrant any action being taken.

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