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Criminal Justice

2 Killings Went Cold for 20 Years Until a Confession Broke the Case. But Was It a Lie?

Written by Jonah Owen LambPublished Sep. 26, 2022 • 5:00am
A Google Street View of Hotel des Arts at 447 Bush Street in San Francisco, formerly the Alisa Hotel. Police believe Roy Donovan Lacy stabbed Kameron Sengthavy at Alisa Hotel in 1999. Roy Donovan Lacy has recently confessed to the killing.

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In the span of a page, the letter promised new details about a pair of unsolved killings that had stumped San Francisco police for two decades. 

The prisoner who penned it in 2018, Roy Donovan Lacy, was in a Florida prison for robbing banks in the Sunshine State. What he wrote prompted two semi-retired SFPD inspectors to spring into action, leading to a rare occurrence in cold cases: a confession. 

Once face to face with cold case inspectors Dan Cunningham and Daniel Dedet, Lacy told them why he decided to come clean about his role in the separate killings of Kameron Sengthavy in 1999 and Thomas Lee in 2000. 

“I’ve accepted Christ in my life,” he told them, according to a video of the interview played in court. “I’m not worried about going to hell.”

Lacy then proceeded to recount a tale of abuse, child prostitution, drug addiction, thievery and ultimately two killings. That confession—an unusual culmination for a cold case, most of which are solved with new DNA evidence, if at all—gave the inspectors what they needed to extradite him to San Francisco

Armed with Lacy’s confession, prosecutor Andrew Clark is now trying to convince 12 jurors to convict Lacy of murder. Lacy’s attorney Elizabeth Camacho, meanwhile, argues otherwise. She calls his 2018 interview a fabrication to get out of the “hell hole” of Florida prison. 

“This confession,” she said, “is obviously false.” 

Prosecutor Andrew Clark, center, and retired SFPD Inspector Daniel Dedet, right, enter the courtroom at Superior Court on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, in San Francisco. Both men worked on the 20 year-old cold case involving Roy Donovan Lacy (not pictured) who confessed to a pair of killings. | Jonah Lamb for The Standard

A Rough Life

In his account to police, Lacy began his story two decades prior in Bakersfield, when he said he was a “good-looking,” fresh-faced 15-year-old. “People would follow me around,” he told them, “and come up to me and proposition me on the street all the time.”

It was 1997, the year he fled an abusive, meth-addicted mother and landed on the streets of San Francisco with nowhere to go. At first he begged and panhandled to survive. But within two weeks, the teen soon took to sex work, lying to johns that he was of age, as he walked Frank Norris Street in the Tenderloin. He also started injecting meth. 

Lacy soon found a kind of replacement for his absent parents when he met a much older trans woman named Claudia, whom Lacy saw as a protector, his attorney said. But the relationship was far from platonic. They dated, she introduced him to her circle of friends and he transitioned from turning tricks to shilling drugs, mostly methamphetamine. 

In December 1999 the couple was down and out with no place to stay, unable to secure a room in the short-term hotels they usually booked. So, they called a friend and asked if they could crash at his house near Union Square. Their friend agreed, little knowing he’d just welcomed home his own killer. 

The First Killing: ‘He Kept Saying My Name’ 

The Alisa Hotel, which has since changed its name to the Hotel De Arts, sits just east of Union Square. In 1999, Kameron Sengthavy—a former college swim star who moved from Canada to San Francisco to live as an out-and-proud gay man—had taken up residence in what was then a single-room occupancy hotel. 

The third-floor room was a relaxed crash pad for friends of Sengthavy, who worked at a local bar called the Motherload while making side cash selling meth. 

When Lacy and Claudia called asking for a place to stay that December day, Sengthavy obliged.

While the rest of what happened that night remains in dispute, Lacy told police he gave Sengthavy a stolen check to cash. But when his host retired to the room where Lacy was waiting, he had neither cash nor check. 

Claudia, meanwhile, had left, leaving only Lacy and Sengthavy in the room. Lacy said he asked what happened to the check and was told Sengthavy threw it away.

Hearing that spun Lacy into a rage, he said.

“So I pulled out the knife and started stabbing him right here in the bathroom,” he said. 

“I don’t remember how many times I stabbed him,” he added, saying he could have thrust the knife as many as 11 times. 

“He was moaning,” Lacy continued, “he kept saying my name.”

Before fleeing, Lacy rummaged through the apartment and then fled with a few of Sengthavy’s belongings.  

Later that day, Sengthavy’s roommate reached out to Lacy, who told him by phone that their mutual friend was dead. 

Lacy said he was too intoxicated to feel remorse at the time. 

“I know right from wrong,” he told police, “but when you’re high, you don’t think about that.” 

In the weeks after the killing, police interviewed Lacy twice. Even some friends of his and Claudia’s thought Lacy was the stabber. 

But he was never arrested for the crime. 

No one was. 

A Second Killing: ‘I Pulled the Trigger and Shot Him’

By 2000, Lacy had moved on from Claudia and found a new partner, another older woman. Meanwhile, he said he was still mainlining meth, making money by selling ill-gotten gains from car break-ins and had bought his first gun in the Bayview for $400 from a Filipino guy called “Cool.”

On the night of June 1, 2000, Lacy was cruising alone along Van Ness Avenue in a stolen Honda. “I used to drive around at nighttime, breaking into stuff,” Lacy said. “I was just high.”

He had taken to stealing from cars parked in long term lots, since he knew their doors were often left unlocked. But that night, all the car doors at a lot on Van Ness and Washington Street were locked, so he made for the night watchman’s booth in the hopes of robbing the man of the ring of keys he figured he’d have.

Roy Donovan Lacy confessed to a pair of unrelated killings that took place more than two decades ago. Lacy was a serial bank robber who wound up incarcerated in Florida. | Florida Department of Corrections

Lacy struck when the night attendant, 60-year-old Thomas Lee, left his post.

“My idea at the time was to tie the guy up,” Lacy told police. “I see him leave the booth and go to the bathroom. I put the gun to him and he turned off the light. He slaps my gun and I pulled the trigger and shot him.” 

Lacy, who said he’d never fired a gun before, jumped back into the stolen car and drove away. 

Police never made an arrest in Lee’s slaying. 

‘He Did Not Do It’ 

Lacy’s attorney is skeptical. 

The story her client told police in 2018 about those two killings was an invention, Camacho said, nothing more than a desperate attempt to escape a Florida prison where he’d been repeatedly targeted and beaten for being from San Francisco—an outsider with no protection..

Instead, she argued that Lacy left Sengthavy’s room on the night of his killing and that Claudia returned with another person. According to Camacho, Claudia was the one who struck the fatal blows out of jealousy over Sengthavy’s repeated advances toward Lacy. 

Camacho contends that two Canadian tourists saw Claudia leave the hotel with another person. One of the tourists described seeing a small Asian man running with duffle bags, “rushing,” Camacho said, followed by an African American woman with curly hair darting out behind him.

“Roy Lacy,” Camacho went on to say in court, “is not ever at the scene when the homicide happened.”

Meanwhile, the wounds inflicted don’t match up to Lacy’s description of the attack.

The same could be said about the night watchman’s killing a year later, Camacho added. 

Lee was found with a single bullet wound in his neck and a shell casing at his feet. A soda can, a paper bag and his wallet were the only other items found around him, Camacho said.

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No fingerprints, DNA or other evidence ever linked the crime to Lacy but for the gun, which was found in a wrecked car weeks later.

“No one sees anybody, no one says or knows how this happened,” Camacho said. “If the theory is that he loaded the gun, he shot the gun, why wouldn’t there be any physical forensic evidence? He did not do it.” 

‘Many Solved, Many Unsolved’

As of this summer, SFPD’s two-person cold case unit counted 31 unsolved murders under its purview. The department classifies a case as cold if five years of inactivity pass. 

“San Francisco, over the course of history, has had a lot of homicides—many solved, many unsolved,” Sgt. Alan Levy said at a June San Francisco Police Commission meeting. “So there are a lot of unsolved homicide cases.”

Were the city to take a historical accounting, he added, the number of unsolved murders in San Francisco would probably come closer to 500.

SFPD has fielded criticism for the way it handles unsolved murders, with many family members of victims saying the process is unfair and that some cases get more attention than others. 

“We get a lot of complaints from the public that they haven’t heard from their investigators, they don’t know who their investigator is,” Police Commissioner Cindy Elias said at a June meeting.

But a number of recent cases reflect that the unit is active enough to solve at least some of the tragic mysteries it’s tasked to investigate.

In late 2021, SFPD arrested Colorado resident Mark Stanley Personette in the 1978 killing of Marissa Rolf Harvey. While it’s unclear exactly how they cracked the case, the department noted that in October 2020, it reopened the case to leverage “advanced investigative methods” with help from the SFPD’s Forensic Sciences Division.

Still, many prominent murders remain as cold as ever, with the only news being when police increase cash rewards for tips leading to an arrest. The rewards were upped in the case of the “Doodler,” who’s believed to have murdered six people from 1974 to 1975, as well as in the 2016 killing of Nicole Fitts and the disappearance of her daughter, Arianna. 

The Confession: ‘I Wasn’t Trying to Kill Him’

Lacy sat in the corner of a bright little room when he proffered his confession in a three-hour taped interview with the two gray suit-clad inspectors.  

His head was shaved clean and he wore a short sleeve button up blue shirt, which showed the many tattoos obtained behind bars, including “SF” inked in big bold letters in the middle of his neck and bracketed by “1906.” On his knuckles: “fuck SFPD.” On the back of his right hand, a cross. 

Over the course of his interview, Lacy inquired whether his cooperation would land him back in California, even if his Marin County conviction meant he’d probably never see the outside of a prison again.

To make his case, Lacy repeated the details of those two killings, describing how he drew the blade on Sengthavy and even motioning how he said he attacked his host that night. “So I pulled out the knife and started stabbing him right here in the bathroom,” he told police. “I don’t remember how many times I stabbed him. He was still alive when I left. I wasn’t trying to kill him.”

When it came to Lee, Lacy again motioned how he said he pulled out his gun and pointed it at the watchman. “I said, like, ‘Give me your keys,’ or something,” Lacy said. “I felt bad for him. I didn’t intend for that to happen.” 

His interlocutors seemed skeptical, asking at times if Lacy was being honest—after all, he had lied to police before. And, by his own admission, he was thwacked out on enough drugs to render his memory unreliable. 

“A lot of the details aren’t that clear,” he conceded. “I was shooting a lot of speed at the time.”

But Lacy insisted he was finally coming clean. 

“Today,” he said, “I’m telling the truth.”

Editor’s note: This story has been update to note that Lacy was targeted in prison for being an outsider from San Francisco.

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Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at [email protected]


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