SAN FRANCISCO — Angie Aquino-Sales was at work at a medical device company in the East Bay on the morning of March 2, 2020, when she got the news that her 20-year-old son, Jaxon Sales, was dead. She collapsed on the floor and started screaming, then composed herself enough to call her husband, Jim. They raced home. More than 30 relatives gathered over the course of the day, filled with grief and questions.
In the two years since, the Sales family has been searching for answers about what happened to Jaxon. In his official report, Michael Suchovicki, an investigator with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, ruled Jaxon’s death a “probable drug-related overdose.” The toxicology report stated that gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), a substance commonly known as a date rape drug but sometimes used recreationally, was in Jaxon’s system. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Police Department said that it “conducted an investigation and did not find evidence of foul play.” Police ruled Jaxon’s death as accidental and closed the case.
So Angie, Jim, and other relatives have dug into the matter on their own, seeking clarity that they say authorities have been unable to provide. Jaxon was found dead in a San Francisco luxury high-rise apartment of a 41-year-old white man who had hosted a gathering the night before. In an officer’s bodycam footage at the scene, the man tells police that Jaxon had spent the night, but when the man began getting ready for work around 7:30 a.m., Jaxon wasn’t breathing, so he called 911. The man, who didn’t respond to an interview request for this story, says he didn’t see Jaxon consume any intoxicants other than a vape pen, according to the footage. Jaxon’s friends told BuzzFeed News that they had never known him to take GHB.
Angie said that when she contacted the San Francisco Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (SF OCME) to ask how Jaxon’s death could be ruled accidental, an assistant medical examiner told her, “The gay community uses GHB.” Jaxon’s uncle Phil Aquino and cousin Izzy Aquino said that when they went to the medical examiner’s office to retrieve his belongings, another member of the medical examiner’s office told them, “The community parties, and it often results in overdoses.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, David Serrano Sewell, chief operating officer of the medical examiner's office, described the investigation as "thorough" and "consistent with national standards and industry best practices," and said that the agency "does not tolerate discrimination in our office or our work."
"We cannot comment on the statements attributed to staff from over two years ago, but it would be inappropriate for OCME staff to make such remarks as alleged in your questions," Sewell said. "While the OCME met with the Sales family on several occasions to answer their questions and to bring some closure to their tragic loss, we can unequivocally say that at no time did the OCME state or imply that our medicolegal investigation presupposed an outcome or that our conclusions and findings in the case were in any way related to race or sexual orientation as alleged."
Jaxon’s family has accused authorities of basing their conclusion on the assumption that their son took GHB recreationally because he was gay. Finding no success in persuading officials on their own, they have embarked on a public campaign. Their Change.org petition demanding that the SFPD and SF OCME “reopen and thoroughly investigate the circumstances of Jaxon’s death” has over 90,000 signatures. California state Sen. Scott Wiener wrote a letter to the SFPD and SF OCME calling on them to conduct a “full investigation, regardless of Jaxon’s sexual orientation and regardless of which communities do or don’t use GHB.”
“Because no one who was present at the home the evening before Jaxon’s death was interviewed, other than the owner of the property, it is unclear to me how SFPD could have reached any conclusion about this death, in terms of whether or not a criminal act occurred,” Wiener wrote. His letter notes the family’s allegation that “another overdose took place at the same residence” before Jaxon’s death, a claim Phil and Izzy Aquino say they heard from a medical examiner’s office staffer. “I find it alarming,” Wiener wrote, “that SFPD decided not to take basic investigative steps to determine if the two incidents were at all related.”
Asked about the claim regarding the alleged previous overdose at the location, the police department said: “We are unable to speak to statements made by another department.”
Under an overcast sky on Feb. 26, more than 80 people attended a rally in front of San Francisco’s city hall, chanting, “Justice for Jaxon Sales.”
“I’m fighting for Jaxon,” Angie said. “People loved him. Don’t think our family’s going to just roll over.”
Jaxon was 9 months old when Angie and Jim, who are Filipino American, adopted him from Seoul in 1999. With their salaries from Kaiser Permanente, where Angie worked in human resources and Jim in supply chain operations, they sent Jaxon and his older brother, Alex, to Bentley School, a private school in Oakland with a five-figure annual tuition. They became members at the Claremont Club and Spa in Berkeley, where their children, nieces, and nephew swam in an Olympic-size pool, attended galas, and made gingerbread houses during the holidays. The parents hoped to grant Jaxon and Alex privileges they hadn’t been able to experience themselves as children of working-class immigrants from the Philippines.
Alex remembered how his little brother would tutor him, even though Jaxon was a grade below him. “He was super smart, so I would go to him for homework help,” Alex said. By the time he was a teenager, Jaxon gained a reputation as the family jokester. “He was just the person that literally at any time would make everyone laugh,” his cousin Izzy said. Among his friends, Jaxon was known for compiling Spotify playlists for them, curating each to their individual tastes — R&B, hip-hop, EDM, indie, punk rock.
Lina Goggins-Rendón, one of his friends from Bentley School, said Jaxon went out of his way to stand up for people. When he was in eighth grade, he witnessed classmates bullying her younger brother Dominic on the playground and intervened. “He would have done it for any other person that day, or any day,” Dominic said. “He stood up for his friends, and he stood up against unfairness.” Kari Gomez, who worked with Jaxon at a coffee shop, recalled the time Jaxon quit his job at Equator Coffees because their white supervisors were mistreating his manager, who was a Black woman. “He had felt like there was casual racism going on, and he really didn’t like it,” Kari said. “So then he quit, and he wrote a long letter to the CEO explaining exactly why he quit. We read it, and he was really going in.”
Jaxon was 15 years old when he came out to his family in 2015. He first told Alex, who came out not too long before him, and then Izzy. Soon after, while driving across the Bay Bridge, he came out to his parents. “The family was very accepting,” Izzy recalled. As a sign of their support, Angie and Jim took their sons to the San Francisco Pride parade the following June; Jaxon donned a purple American Apparel T-shirt that read “Legalize Gay.” There, he ran into Lina. “It was the first time he and I were part of something bigger than ourselves in a global way,” said Lina, who identifies as bisexual. “San Francisco was historic, an essential part of queer history, a place where a lot of progress was made. It was very special, very empowering, very much a memory that I’ll never forget. And I know that he held on to that too.”
In the last Instagram story he posted, on the evening of March 1, 2020, Jaxon snapped a photo of the Bay Bridge from inside a high-rise building in San Francisco.
The family received a copy of the police bodycam footage in January 2022. Angie and Jim could only bear to watch portions of it. Jaxon’s cousins Izzy and Joecie Aquino viewed all 95 minutes.
It begins with Officer Louis Wong questioning the man who lives in the apartment and made the 911 call. The man provides his recollection of the events: A friend of a friend brought Jaxon to the apartment around 5 p.m. on Sunday; other guests were present; sometime between midnight and 2 a.m., everyone but Jaxon leaves the apartment, including the person who brought him there; the two fall asleep on his bed; he wakes up around 6:30 a.m. and lets Jaxon sleep in; in the meantime, he showers and tidies up the apartment; at 7:30, he goes to wake Jaxon and discovers he isn’t breathing; he calls 911, and per their instructions, he moves Jaxon’s naked body to the floor.
Wong asks him to write down the names of everyone at his home the previous night, then steps outside the apartment to call Sgt. Eugene Paras on his cellphone, informing him about the death. “It’s kind of hinky so I’m gonna probably notify homicide,” Wong tells Paras. Something Paras says, however, prompts Wong to change course. “You want me to wait?” Wong asks Paras. “I’ll wait for the M.E. then.”
Among the details that Joecie found “really upsetting” was the way Wong spoke to the apartment resident.
Back in the apartment, Wong explains to the resident the purpose of his questions: “We’re just trying to tie everything together. Because anytime there’s loss of life, you know, something’s going to happen. We don’t know what his family’s gonna [do] either and they’re gonna be upset. We’re just trying to protect you. I’m just asking, just to protect you. That’s all there is to it.”
“I’m not offended,” the man responds. “It’s fucked. I don’t know what the fuck happened.”
“Sorry you have to go through this,” Wong says, later adding, “I know you probably have other things to do … We’re just trying to make sure that, you know, they don’t try to come after you because it happened in your place. That’s all we’re trying to do.” By “come after you,” Wong clarifies to the man that he’s referring to a lawsuit brought on by the family. Wong assures the man his identity will remain anonymous.
Two experts who watched the video, University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton and Arizona State University criminologist Michael White, noted that Wong’s tone was not unusual for a police officer who wants the person they are questioning to remain comfortable talking. But Stoughton, a former police officer, expressed reservations about Wong's decision to tell the resident he would be anonymous. “It’s not the police’s role to protect someone from civil liability for something,” Stoughton said. “It strikes me as a weird thing to have said.”
An hour and nine minutes after police responded to the call, the two medical examiners arrive.
“No trauma. I’m calling this drug-related,” Suchovicki says 13 minutes after arriving.
“OK, yes, of course,” Wong replies. Wong hands Suchovicki the card of the building manager, whom he had previously spoken to.
“This is the person who’s in charge here and you can pull the video footage of who came up here, but probably not needed because we all know what happened, so very good,” Wong tells Suchovicki.
After finding crystal meth, a straw, and pills in a closet, Suchovicki informs the resident that he is confiscating the crystal meth. The resident says that the drugs didn’t belong to Jaxon: “I know for a fact that he does not do that.”
Watching that part of the footage, Angie said, “It’s all these unanswered questions. “Why didn’t they question him more? Why didn’t they arrest this guy for even possession of the drugs they found?”
When asked about why the man was not arrested, Stoughton and White noted that officers may opt against arresting someone for drug possession in such a situation because they don’t want to deter people from calling for help if overdoses occur. Stoughton did wonder, though, why neither the police nor medical examiner probed the man further about his relationship with Jaxon, whether they’d interacted before, online or via text. “An officer may be faster to believe the person with social capital,” Stoughton said, adding that police are more likely to take a “soft-touch approach” when questioning people they perceive as having status or power.
The SFPD declined to respond to specific questions for this story.
To Jaxon’s family, viewing the video affirmed their concerns.
“You can tell that it’s being brushed off,” Izzy said.
“How dare they say they did an investigation,” Angie said.
Chong-suk Han, a sociologist who has studied gay Asian Americans for two decades and is familiar with Jaxon’s case, said the Sales family’s push for answers reflects a broader historical effort to draw attention to how authorities treat marginalized communities.
“It’s not surprising that the death of a gay Asian man is not taken seriously,” he said. “In law enforcement, there really is a sense of who is a deserving victim and who is deserving of resources, and who is just somebody who doesn’t deserve the time and effort.”
Angie and Jim planned their youngest son’s funeral just as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the country. Only 10 people were allowed in the room at his memorial service. “We had a whole celebration planned, and all of that got canceled," Angie said. “It was really disheartening.”
When they received the police and medical examiner reports four months later, they learned the documents totaled three pages. With Jaxon’s case closed, Angie started her own investigation. She went through Jaxon’s phone records and saw he’d exchanged 38 texts with someone in his final hours. Through a quick internet search, she found the identity of the man Jaxon was communicating with. She exchanged a few texts with him, but soon after he stopped responding.
On Thursday, a few weeks after the city hall vigil and two years after the case was closed, Angie and Jim met with SFPD Chief William Scott.
“The police have agreed to review our questions and the evidence we provide,” Angie said after the meeting. “That is a small victory!” ●