Former UC Berkeley janitor to stand trial in gay murder case

Sweven Waterman and Curtis Marsh "exchanged" six phone calls shortly before the fatal stabbing, OPD said. No motive in the case has been released.

Former UC Berkeley janitor to stand trial in gay murder case
Curtis Marsh, 53, was fatally stabbed last year in his Adams Point apartment in Oakland. Curtis Marsh/FB

The case of a Berkeley man charged with killing Curtis Marsh, an Oakland stylist and drag performer, will now proceed to trial, an Alameda County judge has ruled.

The case grabbed headlines last year when UC Berkeley custodian Sweven Waterman, a felon with a long list of convictions, was arrested at Cal and charged with fatally stabbing Marsh at his home near Lake Merritt.

Marsh, 53, was quickly identified as a beloved member of the Oakland Gay Men's Chorus, a natural born performer who "brought style and verve to every event."

In the weeks after his death, friends held a memorial for Marsh at the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center, according to the Bay Area Reporter, which has closely followed the case.

"Curtis was a member of Olivet Oakland Church," his family wrote last year in his obituary. "He loved to sing and sang in the church choir. He loved to perform in drag shows and had a larger than life personality."

"He loved to travel," his obituary continued. "He adored his family, especially his mother. He referred to her as 'the' mother because she was everything to him."

The Oakland Police Department initially released few details about the case despite significant community interest.

More than a year later, many questions remain, including any possible motive.

But the evidence indicates that Marsh and Waterman were not complete strangers.

UC Berkeley custodian charged with fatal stabbing in Oakland
Sweven Waterman has worked for UC Berkeley since August 2022, authorities said. He is a custodian with Housing & Dining Services.

According to police, the men "exchanged" six phone calls shortly before the killing on March 4, 2023. It was a Saturday morning.

The calls, which lasted from 2 seconds to 30 seconds, took place over a brief window, from 5:11 a.m. to 5:23 a.m., OPD said.

"It should be noted that no other phone calls were made or received by the victim during this time frame," OPD wrote.

No further details about the calls have been released and police have not said whether the men had ever communicated before.

Neighborhood surveillance footage captured Marsh getting home at 5:25 a.m., just before Waterman stepped "out of the shadows" and entered Marsh's apartment complex at 269 Vernon St., according to court testimony.

OPD has not said whether Marsh had asked Waterman to come over or invited him inside.

In fact, no information has been shared about the nature of their relationship.

In a prior interview, Waterman's attorney "demurred when asked about his client's sexual orientation," the Bay Area Reporter wrote last year. But he did tell the B.A.R. that the men did not know each other.

What happened to Curtis Marsh?

Curtis Marsh's apartment building on Vernon Street in Oakland in 2022. Google Street View

Less than three hours after the flurry of phone calls, at about 7:45 a.m., police say Waterman left Marsh's apartment just after neighbors heard fighting and several loud booms, according to court testimony.

Some neighbors saw Curtis Marsh come out onto his rear patio covered in blood and screaming for help. At least one person saw him collapse.

When police found Marsh on the patio, he was on his back in the nude.

He had multiple stab wounds, including to his neck, back and head. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Defense attorney David Briggs said OPD had not determined how many people were inside Marsh's apartment when the crime took place and pointed out that police had found DNA on the murder weapon from two unidentified people — in addition to DNA linked to Waterman and Marsh.

Police also found blood at the scene from a different unidentified person, Briggs said.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions," he said at the conclusion of the two-day hearing.

Attorney David Briggs in court last year (file photo). Emilie Raguso/The Berkeley Scanner

Prosecutor Jake O'Malley painted a different picture of the case, noting that Lime scooter records, cellphone data, DNA and surveillance footage all pointed to Waterman as the killer.

"We may never know what exactly transpired in that apartment, but we do have, at least for … the level of proof required for a holding order, that [the] defendant was in that apartment when [the] victim was killed," O'Malley said. "His DNA is found on that murder weapon."

The preliminary hearing was originally set for August 2023 and was then rescheduled at least five times, according to court records.

The prelim, or px, is like a mini-trial where only some of the evidence is presented and a judge then decides two things: whether a crime was committed and whether the defendant could have been responsible.

The standard of proof is much lower than at trial.

During the recent hearing, which took place June 17-18 before Judge Rhonda Burgess, two Oakland police officers and a DNA expert took the stand.

(The Scanner did not attend the proceedings, but immediately reviewed the hearing transcript when it became available last week.)

OPD: Killer spotted on surveillance camera

Curtis Marsh, 53, was fatally stabbed last year in his Adams Point apartment in Oakland. Curtis Marsh/FB

Oakland police were initially dispatched to Vernon Street last year in response to a report of a person screaming for help. At least one 911 caller could also hear a fire alarm sounding.

A neighbor told OPD she had seen Marsh in distress when she looked down from her balcony, right above his unit, after hearing him scream.

She grabbed her phone to call 911, then ran to her front door to see if she could spot his killer.

But she was moments too late, OPD homicide detective Kyle Cardana testified.

No one was there — but the apartment building's exit door, which led out into the street, was just closing.

Read more Oakland coverage on The Scanner.

Once authorities got into Marsh's apartment, they found two small arson fires that had been extinguished along with 1-2 inches of water from the overhead sprinklers.

Police also found a bent steak knife discarded in the hallway between the bedroom and bathroom. It had what appeared to be blood on it.

The coroner's office later found a dozen or so stab wounds on Marsh's body, Cardana said.

Police also found apparent blood on the wall and ground outside Marsh's unit, and blood smeared on a glass door leading to the patio.

Marsh's computer was still in his apartment when officers arrived, but OPD never found his iPhone, which went straight to voicemail when detectives called it.

Police initially detained Marsh's boyfriend at the scene but soon ruled him out as a suspect, Cardana said: He had stayed in Emeryville the night before the killing and his account was corroborated by cellphone records and surveillance footage.

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Police arrested Sweven Waterman at UC Berkeley

Lime scooters in downtown Oakland on July 9, 2024. Emilie Raguso/The Berkeley Scanner

Detective Cardana also described how a neighbor across Vernon Street had seen someone loitering on the block early that morning.

Her security camera captured Waterman ride up on a Lime scooter at about 5:15 a.m., Cardana said. About 10 minutes later, Marsh pulled into his parking garage.

Waterman would not emerge from the building until about 7:45 a.m., Cardana said. He was carrying a bag he hadn't had earlier, according to police.

Lime scooter records corroborated the surveillance footage, the detective said: Waterman had rented the scooter under his own name, and Lime location data placed him on Vernon Street.

Oakland police arrested Waterman less than a week after the killing after surveilling him briefly at work, at UC Berkeley's Clark Kerr Campus at 2601 Warring St.

Waterman "provided a denial statement" and said he had only gone to work and returned home — identified as his mother's senior living complex on Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley — on the weekend of March 4, 2023, OPD said.

According to UC Berkeley, Waterman had worked for the university for less than a year when he was arrested.

He was hired in August 2022 and was no longer employed by Cal as of May 2023, the university said.

Defense suggests alternate theory

Defense attorney David Briggs asked Detective Cardana if police had been able to determine how many people were inside Marsh's apartment during the fatal attack.

"I would say that the whole investigation was to determine who was inside the apartment at the time, whether it be the video surveillance or the evidence collected from the apartment itself," the detective testified.

"At least two people" were present, he added.

Is it possible there were three people? Briggs asked him.

"That is unknown at this time," said Cardana.

"Since it's unknown, it's possible that there were three people inside, correct?" Briggs asked again.

"It could very well be, yes," Cardana said.

Briggs also asked whether police had found any injuries on Waterman's body when he was arrested March 9, 2023.

Cardana said he had not seen obvious signs of trauma.

In response, prosecutor O'Malley asked the detective to describe Marsh in terms of body size.

He was "a smaller gentleman," Cardana said, standing 5 feet 7 at most and weighing "easily under 150 pounds."

By contrast, Waterman is 5 feet 11 and weighs 250 pounds, according to booking records.

Curtis Marsh murder case: The DNA evidence

The final witness to testify was Angela Freitas, a DNA criminalist in Contra Costa County's crime lab.

Freitas said she had found "very strong support," which is the highest designation, for DNA on the murder weapon having come from Waterman and Marsh along with two unidentified people.

In response to questions from O'Malley, she explained that the unidentified DNA may well have been unrelated to the case.

Different profiles on a single item could have been left "hours later, days later. It all depends," she said. "One of the things about DNA analysis is that we can usually never tell you when the profile was left behind."

Meanwhile, the other blood sample police found at the scene had come from someone else entirely, whom Freitas identified only as an "unknown male."

She said that DNA had gone into a national database where it would live indefinitely pending a match.

Prosecutor O'Malley urged the court not to dwell on the unidentified samples due to the strength of the evidence in the case, DNA and otherwise.

"It's inconclusive as to who that individual was or when that was even placed," he told the judge. "That could be any time. We do have evidence that shows [the] defendant was in the apartment at the time of the murder."

Judge Burgess ultimately held Waterman to answer and bound him over for trial. She said Cardana's testimony, the surveillance footage from Vernon Street, the Lime scooter records and the DNA testimony had provided sufficient cause for her decision.

Sweven Waterman. ACSO

Burgess also ordered Waterman to remain without bail at Santa Rita Jail, where he has been in custody since his arrest last year.

Last week, Waterman entered not-guilty pleas in connection with the case as it now proceeds to trial.

He is facing one count of murder along with a special allegation that he stabbed Marsh with a knife.

Charging papers list felony convictions for Waterman dating back to 2002 for robbery, evading police, forgery and vehicle theft, among other crimes.

According to court records, he has repeatedly been sent to prison and also has convictions for carjacking and illegal gun possession.

At the time of his arrest last year, Waterman was on federal probation, police said.

Sweven Waterman: "A danger to the community"

According to court records reviewed by The Scanner, Waterman is a Bay Area native who has lived with his mother for much of his life.

"He has not held steady outside employment for any significant period," a federal judge wrote in a 2012 opinion, describing Waterman as "a danger to the community that cannot reasonably be mitigated."

"Mr. Waterman's criminal record began in 1997, with a juvenile arrest for armed robbery. He was referred to juvenile hall for burglary, possession of tear gas, and taking vehicles without consent. He also sustained a juvenile arrest in 1998 for second degree robbery," according to the 2012 ruling.

"In 2002 he was convicted of two felonies, for receipt of stolen property, and for attempt of same. In 2002 or 2003, he was committed to a two year prison term for second degree robbery. In 2005, he sustained another felony conviction for use of a fictitious check with a prior offense, as well as a misdemeanor DUI," the judge wrote.

"In 2005, he was sent to prison for a parole violation. In 2007, he sustained yet another felony conviction, this time for possession of a controlled substance. He was committed to another two year prison sentence in 2007 for a parole violation," the judge continued. "In 2010, he entered custody for a 16-month prison term for a violation of parole and for a felony conviction for evading a peace officer."

In closing, the judge denied the 2012 request to release Waterman from custody, observing that his "criminal record includes numerous felony convictions, including crimes of violence."

"He has already served three prison sentences, at least two of which were connected to parole violations," she wrote in 2012. "He committed many of his crimes while on community supervision, and indeed, is currently on active parole, all indicating that he may not be amendable to such supervision."

Waterman, who is now 39, was last released from federal custody in 2016, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website.

He is scheduled to return to court Aug. 23 for a procedural hearing.

A fundraiser for the family is still active on GoFundMe. OPD asks anyone with information about the case to call its Homicide Section at 510-238-3821 or its tip line at 510-238-7950.

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