SANTA CRUZ, California (CNN) — The arrest of Alix Catherine Tichelman in the death of a Google executive has shed a new light on the so-called sugar daddy websites where women are paid, sometimes thousands of dollars a month, by older suitors for their company.
Tichelman, 26, is suspected in the death of Forrest Timothy Hayes, 51, a married father of five who was found dead in November on his 50-foot yacht.
On Wednesday, she pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and other charges in a Santa Cruz County, California, court. Her defense asked that she be released on her own recognizance, but a judge said no because he was “uncertain” that she would return to court. Her family was in the courtroom.
The judge also denied a request to reduce her bond, which remains at $1.5 million. She went back into custody, and her next court appearance is October 20.
Authorities say Tichelman gave Hayes an injection of heroin and then, as he began to die, she sipped her wine, gathered her belongings and walked away.
Prosecutors say the pair met through a site called Seeking Arrangement, which bills itself as “the leading Sugar Daddy dating site where over 3 million members fuel mutually beneficial relationships on their terms.”
And what are those terms?
“The women who are on the site, or as we call them ‘sugar babies,’ are looking for men who can provide financial assistance for them,” said Angela Jacob Bermudo with Seeking Arrangement.
“Aside from that, they’re also looking for men who can help them in terms of mentorship, whether it’s to find their own independence in the professional world or … with providing life guidance.”
CNN talked to one such woman.
For sugar baby “Bella,” that financial assistance comes in the form of an allowance — $3,000 to $5,000 a month.
“The way I see the allowance isn’t anything more than enriching and empowering my life with something they have a lot of, their wealth,” she said.
It’s been a profitable arrangement for college grad Bella, who has managed to cut her college debt in half over the last two years, knocking $30,000 off the total.
“I’m able to live the lifestyle I want without slaving for it,” she said. “I’m being taken care of by someone I truly care for and they’re caring for me.”
What about sex?
Bella, 28, said she’s only been intimate with two men.
“They only want to date you. It has nothing to do with intimacy per se,” she said. “They just want good conversation.”
Critics say the sugar daddy sites are nothing but fronts for prostitution, one of the crimes Tichelman has been charged with.
“Seeking Arrangement is in no way or form a prostitution or escorting service,” Bermudo said, instead calling it a dating website. “We provide a quality platform for successful individuals as well as those looking to date a generous partner who is willing to help better their lifestyle.”
Complicating matters, the exchange of funds isn’t clearly visible and the website profiles don’t necessarily solicit sex.
“I don’t think that makes it legal in California or any other state where prostitution is illegal,” said Mel Robbins, a CNN contributor. “I just think it just makes it sticky to prosecute.”
For the record, Seeking Arrangement doesn’t say sex isn’t involved.
“Just like traditional relationships you don’t sign up and sex isn’t part of the arrangement,” Bermudo said. “Certainly as with any healthy relationship, if both parties do become a little bit more connected and do decide they want to become more intimate, then that’s up to the two consenting adults.”
For Bella, there’s a clear distinction between what she’s doing and prostitution.
“An escort gets paid to leave,” she said. “I get a part of their wealth to see them again … to give them a smile with a text before they sleep. I get paid to make them happy.”
Death of Google executive
In the case of Tichelman, authorities say she had an “ongoing prostitution relationship” with Hayes.
Online, Tichelman has boasted of having more than 200 client relationships.
Security footage from Hayes’ yacht shows her administer the heroin injection and what happened afterward, as he was dying, police say.
“Rather than provide first aid or call 911, Ms. Tichelman proceeds to gather her belongings including the heroin and needles,” the police statement reads, adding that Tichelman stepped over Hayes’ body several times.
The video also shows Tichelman leaving the boat and then reaching back to lower a blind, concealing the victim’s body from outside view, police say.
Two months before Hayes died, Dean Riopelle, whom Tichelman identified online as her boyfriend, died at his home in Milton, Georgia. Tichelman was there at the time, and she called 911.
The medical examiner ruled Riopelle’s death an accidental overdose from heroin and alcohol. “At the time, we never thought anything different,” Capt. Shawn McCarty of Milton police said.
Now authorities are taking a new look at that death “to make sure there’s nothing (else) to it,” he said.